There are two questions I often overhear passersby ask security when a movie or TV series is filming in Chicago: “What are they filming?” and “How can I be an extra?” Security will usually answer the first question (or at least give the film’s code name, if the director is the secretive type), but the second question is a bit trickier to answer. You can’t just show up to the set hoping someone will hire you for a job as if it were a Home Depot parking lot. There’s a process to casting extras that involves casting agencies, registration and scheduling.
The good news is, there are opportunities out there — especially in television. NBC’s “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago PD,” Netflix’s “Sense8” and Fox’s “Empire” are currently looking for extras in the Chicago area. The bad news? There’s plenty of competition. “We had 180 spots to fill for five days of ‘Shameless’ filming, and over 3,000 people submitted their availability for those spots,” said Atmosphere Casting founder Jon Kinnas, who is working with “Sense8.”
Because it’s become such a competitive field, I asked Kinnas, ExtraOrdinary Casting founder Darlene Hunt — who is working with USA Network’s “Sirens” — and 4 Star Casting co-founder Jess Gisin — who worked with NBC’s “Crisis” — for their advice for aspiring extras.
Stay up to date with casting notices on social media: “You want to be plugged in on social media. That’s how the different agencies advertise jobs. If you follow us, you’ll get notifications right away. For some of these jobs, we’ll get a hundred applicants in the first 10 minutes. We don’t always pick the first people. You have to match the look. But we will give preference to the people who jump on it right away because we know they want to work and will show up.” — Gisin
Registration is required: “Make sure you’re registered (with each casting agency). It doesn’t take long. If I say ‘Who is available next Wednesday?’ and you say you are, I go look to see if you’re registered so I can see your resume, photos and contact info. If you’re not registered, you’re not going to get booked.” — Kinnas
Follow casting notice directions: “When we put out a casting notice that says ‘Put this in the subject line’ and (applicants) don’t do that, we delete them. We have to go through 400 emails in an hour. We have to find a way to weed people out. And if they can’t follow directions, it makes us nervous that they can’t follow directions on set. We need people who will show up and do a good job and make us look good.” — Gisin
Professional headshots are unnecessary: “You don’t need to spend money on headshots. For extra work, the director would rather see a candid snapshot of how you normally look — not how you look made-up. Send in two photos: One of your face and one body shot. Photos should be in color and we should be able to see your face. No sunglasses. And there shouldn’t be anybody else in the picture. Also, we need to see how you look today, so no photos from 10 years ago. And if you’re a doctor, nurse or fireman (in real life), it’s good to have a picture in uniform.” — Hunt
Choose wisely: “Do you want to work or get in the scene? We did ‘Crisis’ last season and would reuse people. But if someone is in a shot next to the lead character playing his lawyer, we can’t use him the next episode as a restaurant patron. It’s great to be seen on camera, but not good for them if they want to get consistent work on the show. We do have people who do this full-time. You’re not going to make millions, but you can live off of it.” — Gisin
Wardrobe is important: “Make sure you have the correct wardrobe. When we send out booking notices, we specify what the wardrobe department wants people to bring. Usually there are three options. Sometimes there is a scene with a hundred extras, and if 50 people wore the wrong clothes, that holds up production.” — Gisin
Prepare to do plenty of waiting around: “You have to have patience. I recommend bringing a magazine or book or iPad while you wait. It’s also a nice time to make friends. A lot of times you will make friends talking to other people while waiting.” — Hunt
Take the opportunity seriously: “Treat it as a job. The bottom line is you’re getting paid to be there. You’d be surprised how many people think it’s acceptable to call or email an hour before they need to be at some place to say they can’t make it. Try that at any job and you wouldn’t have a job.” — Kinnas
Don’t talk to the actors unless they talk to you first: “They’re there to work, not to have a conversation with you. Focus on the scene. That happened on the set of “Shameless” — people would go up to the actors for pictures. When that happens, we can’t have that person back. But if they approach you at craft service, of course, respond.” — Gisin
Keep your expectations low: “You need to lower your expectations, as far as being seen. (You’re) background. It could turn into something more. I’ve been in this 20 years and have seen it happen. But chances are slim. It’s generally luck. They need somebody to hold the door and say a word and maybe the actor wasn’t quite right: ‘Let’s see who we have in extras holding.’ “ — Hunt
For a list of casting notices in Chicago, click here.
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