Living in LA, it seems like everybody is in entertainment. However, I really did not know all that much about it. So, I decided to become a background actor so I could experience what so many people who come to LA get to experience.
Part 1: Registering with Central Casting in Burbank
In order to become a background actor, you can’t just show up to a set, you have to register with a casting agency who will secure the role for you. The top casting agency is called Central Casting and its in Burbank, which is actually where the entertainment industry is located (Hollywood is too dense). Central Casting only processes new actors- technically employees- on Monday and Wednesdays at either 9:30 or 2:30. I gathered that I would have to be one of the first 50 people there, so I figured I would show up at 7:45-8.
When I finally made it, the line was around the block- there must have been at least 300 people there. Knowing that I wasn’t going to make it, I still decided to stand in the line. The crowd was incredibly diverse with people of all colors, ages, body types, and styles. What surprised me most was the number of older people who wanted to become actors. As I waited in the line, a number of solicitors approached me. A few people who represented calling services who will call in for you each day to see if there’s work. A lady from the Church of Scientology also walked by inviting people to an open house at the church’s Celebrity Center. I graciously declined the invite, but a lot of people seemed genuinely interested.
Anyways, at 9:30 the line moved and I didn’t make the cut. It wasn’t even close. Luckily, they opened again at 2:30, so I went back to get some breakfast and then lunch before heading back to the line at noon. This time, I was very close to the front. I got a nice spot sitting on the curb on the street and used my sweatshirt as a cushion. A few days before I went to a taping of the Dr. Phil show and they gave free books away to everyone, so I read Dr. Phil’s book and learned a lot about relationship-building.
At 2:30, the doors opened again and I made it in- I was #37! The registration process took about 3 hours and mostly involved us filling out paperwork. Based on the questions asked, I gathered that the average background actor is incredibly stupid and cannot read what is written on paper. It was very frustrating. Still, I got registered. The funniest thing about acting is the personal descriptions. In Hollywood, they don’t care what you are, but rather what you can be. For example, if they are looking for an Asian actor, they don’t really care if you are actually Asian. If you look “Asian enough”, that’s good enough. One category is “18 or younger”. To fit this category, you have to be shorter than 5’7″ and have no gray or facial hair. They don’t care how old you are- one guy who was 40 checked this category.
Registering with Central Casting does not guarantee work- rather it gives you the ability to work as a background actor. In order to get work, you have to call in and listen to a voice message that describes all the roles they are hiring for. If you match the description, you have to call in and hope that you don’t get a busy signal. With over 4,800 people registering every year, I would think that these jobs are hard to get. If you get the job, you have to call another number that has your work instructions. There are different numbers for male/female and Screen Actor’s Guild members/non-union. Its a very outdated and inefficient.. but it works.
Becoming a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) is the first major hurdle into becoming a successful actor. To become a member of the guild, you have to speak a line in any movie, TV show, or commercial. The catch is that most (all) reputable films will only hire union members for speaking roles. The only other way is to get a 3 union vouchers, which are given to non-union members if a film doesn’t have enough union members as background actors. Not all films give out union vouchers and even if they do, you might not be the person to get the voucher- its based on the 2nd assistant director liking you. This too is a very outdated and unfair system, but it also works, as there are more than enough people trying to get into acting. I was registered as a non-union male.
Around 5:30, after Central Casting took my headshot, I was free to go. It was certainly a long day, but if that’s all that it takes to get into the business, I’d say that’s not so bad.
Part 2: The Call
For about a month, I tried calling into Central Casting looking for work. Unfortunately, nothing worked with my schedule or personal description.One day out of the blue, I got a call from a Burbank number. It was Central Casting. They said they had a lot of large scenes shooting this week and were reaching out to see if I would be willing to be a waiter in Agent X. I said yes. They told me to show up at Fox Studios in Century City tomorrow at 8AM and gave me a number to call for all the details.
Part 3: Agent X
I arrived at Fox Studios at 7:55 (being even 1 minute late is grounds for not getting work). After walking through the security gate, I found a giant tent with a line of people in front waiting to check in. At the check-in they asked me if I was going to the Funeral or the Party, as they were filming two scenes that day. I thought this was one of the funniest questions I’ve ever been asked. I said the party, of course.
I was then sent to costuming where they gave me a tuxedo and bowtie. I looked good. I then went to makeup where the makeup man did a few touch-ups, but said I have good skin. So far, I liked acting.
After costuming, we waited around. We then waited some more. We then waited even longer because they were filming the funeral scene first and it was all the way in Westwood. So the entire party crew had to wait until the Funeral was done, which ended around 1. This was my first taste of the inefficiency and irony of the film industry. They get mad at people for being just 1 minute late, but then they make you wait for 4 hours. This is an incredible waste of money- as a background actor, I got paid by the hour with overtime kicking in at 8 hours and double pay kicking in at 10 hours. Due to lack of basic scheduling skills, Agent X wasted about $4,000 (4 extra hours of paying 50-ish extras $9/hour on double-pay plus food). Most of the actors were very happy doing nothing, as they actually do this for a living, as sitting in a chair is much easier to do than actually having to act. The blind leading the blind.
Additionally, there was very little conversation between the various people who were running this day-camp for adults. The 2nd assistant director would occasionally call all the extras over to discuss something only to be overruled by someone over the walkie-talkie. At noon, some figure of authority led all the extras down to the set to warm up. We mimed and got familiar with the set. The guy had us practice carrying the heavy trays and gave us spots to stand for the scene. This was actually pretty fun. They also realized that they needed an extra blackjack dealer. They asked if anybody knew how to deal blackjack and one guy said he used to work in Las Vegas (I highly doubt this, but hey its Hollywood, fake it till you make it). I could have easily volunteered for the part, but I figured a waiter would get more chances to be featured on screen as they were more mobile.
When we were done, we walked back over to the staging ground. There was a lot of chatter on the walkie-talkies because Sharon Stone’s tv remote in her trailer wasn’t working. Given that I was sitting on the ground for most of the day in the hot sun, I felt little sympathy. At 1, we broke for lunch. They had a really nice catered lunch with a salad bar for the union actors and the crew. For us non-union extras, we had Subway. This seemed really obnoxious. The film could have easily given the non-union actors the same meal as everyone else for a slightly higher cost that easily could have been offset by scheduling better. This hierarchy seems to be a thing of the entertainment business, although actors are a strange bunch and I can imagine some of these actors harassing the crew asking for a bigger part or advice.
After grabbing my sandwich, I sat down next to my fellow actors. They were a strange bunch to say the least and really liked how it was my first time. They all tried to give me advice on how to act and how to get noticed by the director. Clearly, their strategies haven’t been working well since they are still non-union actors. One lady did tell me how she had a recurring role on Mad Men. One guy told me he lives 2 hours away in the high desert town of Hesperia and is dating a lady with 14 kids. Eek. Another guy told me he acts for a living and plays video games at home. With one notable exception, everyone who was here was doing this as their career. While you actually make decent money acting due to overtime, the uncertainty of the work must be taxing on the mind.
At 2pm, we were assembled to walk down to the set to start shooting. However, 10 minutes later, we were told it was a false alarm.
30 minutes later, we set out for real. We walked through the studio’s New York street that is supposed to look like Manhattan. Eventually, we made it to the sound stage. The stage was humongous and included not only a mock-up of an entire house, but also included storage and Agent X’s secret lair.
At this point, the set was packed! The crew was working hard to set up the lighting and camera angles. The assistant directors were placing the various extras into their spots for the first scene. There were well over 100 people walking around. I was toward the back of the line of waiters, so by the time they got to me, I was told that they didn’t need me. I was then told to go to the far back corner of the sound stage and sit down. After sitting down for about 10 minutes, they were almost ready to start shooting. This was extremely disappointing, since I came here to be on TV…so I decided to seize the moment.
Realizing the utter chaos on the set, I confidently walked onto the set and told one of the many assistant directors that a different director wanted me in the scene. The lady said okay and placed me in the scene. Just like that, I was in!!
Once all the background actors were placed, the body doubles for the principal actors were then placed. Then the cameras got positioned. Then the principal actors were called over and placed in the scene. Finally, Sharon Stone got placed in the scene. We were now ready to film.
The scene was a casino-themed party at Vice President Sharon Stone’s house. I was a waiter. Other background actors were party-goers, bartenders, and casino dealers.
Scenes take a very long time to film. Each take takes about 3-4 minutes to set up. They will run through the take and repeat it about 5-7 times. Then they will move the cameras to shoot another angle. This takes about 5-10 minutes to set up. Then we will do it all over again. Each scene required 2-3 different camera angles.
In between scenes, we will normally break for 15-20 minutes while they rearrange everything. The life of an actor mainly involves waiting around all day. I really had no idea what I was doing the whole time, but tried my best to be the best waiter in the world. Because we were non-union, we didn’t talk. I mimed walking up to people with my tray of fake food and asking them if they wanted some. I always kept getting rejected, which definitely hurts the confidence although it was certainly fun interacting with all the actors on camera.
In a very funny moment, I was shocked to find that a girl a few year younger from my high school who was one of the actors on the show. It turns out that her dad, Armyan Bernstein, was the executive producer of the show (go figure).I knew him fairly well since his other daughter went to Wash U with me.
At 5:30 pm, we have filmed 2 different scenes. For the third scene, they decided to cut me saying that another waiter is “better…for this role”. For the next 4 1/2 hours, I did nothing and sat on the sidelines.
At 9:30 pm, they decided to stop filming for the day. The lined everyone up and told everyone who didn’t make it into the filming that day to go home and not come back tomorrow. Since I had been on camera in those first 2 scenes, they asked me to come back!
It was a long day, but I definitely learned a lot from my first day of being an actor. I was told to return at 9:30 am the next day.
Part 4: Day 2
I returned at 9:30 the next day. It was much less crowded since half of the extras were gone. Once again, I went through costuming and by 10:30, we were heading down to the set.
Since they now had all the optimal number of actors for the scenes, they were much more efficient. We all knew our parts and how to act in the scene. They just needed to keep shooting.
Finally, at 4:10 pm, we got lunch. This was actually past the legal limit of hours worked before getting lunch and the other actors told me we were going to get paid extra because of it. Unlike the last time, where we walked back up to the tent, this time they brought lunch to us: stale Panda Express. It was awful.
As the day turned into night and progressed, I started to feel sick- most definitely from the Panda Express. Still, I kept acting and they put me in every scene, which is ultimately what I wanted.
The final scene we shot involved a man walking in an collapsing onto one of the poker tables, causing it to collapse. He was poisoned. I was so impressed because he did his own stunt and was able to convincingly fall onto the ground. However, at this point I was starting to feel like him, but managed to keep myself together.
Finally, at 10:30 pm, after a grand total of 28 hours of work, we were done. I was so ready to leave. After returning all the clothing, I collected my check- a grand total of about $336 for the 2 days. As I walked back to my car through the streets of Century City, I puked in some of the bushes on Avenue of the Stars. At that moment, I decided that my acting career was done.
Part 5: The Show Airs
9 months later, I got word the show was premiering on TNT. I watched every episode looking for myself to no avail. Finally, on episode 3, they showed the scenes I spent so long working on. About 4 times in the episode, I was briefly seen. I was only recognizable if you paused the show, but it still counts. I made it on TV!
While it got old by the end, I am very glad to have experienced life on a set. I now have newfound appreciation for acting. At the same time, I now realize how incredibly difficult it is to be a successful actor and given the odds, the chance of making it in Hollywood without some sort of connection is next to impossible.