Background actors, when doing their jobs, hardly go noticed to the public's eye. They can help turn a scene into an instant classic. For example, take the epic hospital scene in "Gone With The Wind," where hundreds of extras played injured or dead soldiers.
Central Casting, an actual company that places background actors in film and television, is celebrating its 90th anniversary.
The Frame's John Horn talks with Jennifer Bender, executive vice president at Central Casting, to talk about the company's long history, what makes a good background actor, and the strangest casting call the company has ever received.
Central Casting has been around for a long time. How has the industry and the business of casting extras evolved over that time period?
You know, interestingly enough, not much. The director envisions a scene — a certain number of people, certain types of people — and that director will relay to us what they want. We reach out to the background actors and hire them on those particular television shows or movies. So the foundation of it, essentially, has been the same throughout the years.
Often the casting notices are very specific. So it might say, "Transvestite, but can't act too gay." You get things that are very particular that way, right?
Very particular. You would be surprised at how particular a director can be.
Give me an example.
They'll get as detailed as color of hair, eyes, height or age range. When you got some of these films that are highly stylized, they get super particular. If you're shooting a New York scene as opposed to a Los Angeles scene, though this isn't reality, aesthetically to your eye you want more blondes in California and more brunettes in New York because it sells it a little bit more. So they'll get that specific.
If I want to be a background actor, can I make a living at it?
There are people that make this as their career. Most of them are in the SAG-AFTRA union, so they do get a higher wage and people will use it as a full-time career.
So if I have this job as a radio host and I want to supplement my income as an extra, how much can I make?
Well, it can start at minimum wage. So whatever minimum wage is in your city, that's where it starts. Now the union will give a base salary and that is $162 for eight hours, and then you can get paid overtime. Most productions will put you into overtime.
Back in the 1940s, there was an award dedicated to honoring the work of extras. It's called The Elmers. Unfortunately, it's no longer around, but what would it take to get an honor or some sort of ceremony to recognize background players and are you pushing for that?
How can they qualify? I mean, I don't know if you've heard of Jesse Heiman. He's the most famous background actor.
How do you become the most famous background actor?
Somebody in England who watches too much television kept noticing this guy and put together this YouTube video. He showcases Jesse and labeled him "The World's Most Famous Background Actor." The guy made it on Jay Leno to talk about it. So he definitely would get that award and he's a great kid.
What's the strangest casting call that you have received in terms of numbers or looks or things that you've had to pull off?
There was a film — big blockbuster movie — and they had two units shooting. So you got the main unit and you got the second unit that's probably doing special effects or something. The way the schedule turned out, they needed to shoot that exact scene on the same day at the same time, but in two different locations. So they said, "We need to photo double all of the background on this set and on this set."
You mean get actors that look exactly like them?
Yes. Well they said, "We want everyone to be a twin so we can send one twin to this set and one twin to that set."
Identical, not fraternal.
Exactly. So, we thought, Are you kidding? It was 50 people. So we pulled it off, of course.
What was the movie?
Spider-Man. The first one.