How Much Money Do Background Actors Really Get Paid?

Working as a background actor, aka an extra, is part-time work that anyone can pursue. While it's technically in the acting field, you don't need special training or have earned a degree in theater or the dramatic arts to become a background actor. And, if you live in an area of the country that does a lot of filming (like Los Angeles, New York City, or Atlanta), then you can even turn it into a regular gig. You won't earn much as an extra, but it's a unique experience and you get paid, essentially, for waiting around on set until your cue. Pay for extras varies, from minimum wage ($16 in California, $16.90 in LA, and $19.08 in West Hollywood) to over $50 an hour. Probably, the biggest factor in how much money a background actor makes is whether or not they're in the union, SAG-AFTRA.

What does a background actor do? It's a nonspeaking role (note that a single line bumps you up to "co-star") that provides a film or television production with atmosphere and authenticity. That scene on a busy metropolitan street, during morning rush hour, where the two main characters somehow still find one another? Extras are necessary to fill in the background of that scene and help make it come to life. They're essential players, though they may only be on camera for a split second. If you get work as a background actor, remember to always be on time (best to be early) and to be ready when called.

Pay for non-union background actors

As a background actor, you'll do a lot of waiting around on set, so make sure you bring something like a book or your computer to pass the time. For example, you could spend your time working on your online side gig or looking for your next assignment as an extra. However you occupy your time (it should be a quiet activity), you'll still get paid. Per the Los Angeles Times, productions typically pay for a full day's work, even if your hours don't add up to it. This said, days do oftentimes last a full day — and even longer, like 10 to 15 hours. If you're in the union, this can make a big difference in how much you make, as the production will need to pay you overtime after eight consecutive hours.

In general, background actors can expect to earn between $100 to $200 a day, reports Backstage, with the potential to earn more if asked to do something out of the ordinary, like riding a motorcycle, or to demonstrate a special skill, like playing the violin. In these cases, the difference between non-union and union is that SAG-AFTRA members are guaranteed extra pay. For example, the actors' union outlines how much a background actor should be paid if they're expected to bring in a prop; specifically, pets ($23), a golf club set with bag ($12), a tennis racket ($5.50), luggage ($5.50 per piece), a camera ($5.50), or skis and poles ($12).

Pay for SAG-AFTRA background actors

Similar to being a backup dancer on a tour, being part of a film or TV production can be exciting, even with all the waiting around. And for SAG-AFTRA members, being part of that creative process also guarantees you earn union wages for your time, including time and a half if a production day runs long, which isn't uncommon when filming.

For union members, too, there are also specific pay rates for extraordinary requests, as mentioned above. For example, for a scene where an extra is asked to get wet, like for a scene in the rain, the SAG-AFTRA Background Actors Contract Digest stipulates they get paid an additional $14. If they need to undergo significant hair and/or makeup (e.g., a wig or beard applied with spirit gum), then they're entitled to $19 more a day. Further, union members are entitled to meals and craft services, plus money for mileage for miles traveled (at 30 cents/mile).

Of course, it costs money to become part of the union (the initiation fee rate is $3,000) and you'll need enough acting credits to join as well. Given how infrequent background-acting gigs can be, it might not make sense to join; it all depends on how extra work works into your life. As Marci Dean, who's appeared as an extra in major movies starring Academy Award winners, told the LA Times, "There is money to be made, and it costs nothing to sign up. Anyone and everyone can do this."