Background actors appear in crowd scenes, such as in a stadium audience.
Movies or TV shows can include scenes in bars, offices or street corners, and there are all kinds of places that normally require people in the background to make the scene believable. These additional people are called background actors, extras or atmosphere. Their salaries depend on their union status, what they do and what props they bring.
Background actors who are not members of an entertainment union earn minimum wage for the state in which they perform. As of 2012 in California, the rate was $8 an hour, or $64 a day. Production companies normally pay extras the daily rate, even if they work for less than eight hours. For work over eight hours, which is typical in entertainment, background actors receive overtime rates based on the employment rules of their locations. In addition, they may also receive additions to pay, known as bumps, which are given to union actors for bringing in special wardrobe, such as a firefighter’s uniform, or performing unusual actions, such as swimming. However, these additions are at the discretion of the employer.
Because the two major acting unions, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, merged in 2012, union rates for background actors were still being negotiated in 2012. However, as of July 2012, the rate for background actors ran $145 per day, with weekly rates of five times the daily rate. Weekly rates had to guarantee five consecutive days of employment. Background extras who were employed as stand-ins, who substitute for actors during camera tests, received $160 a day, and those who had special abilities, such as dancing, playing golf or driving motorcycles, earned $155 a day. Those acting as choreographed swimmers or skaters earned $335 per day.
Related Reading: What Is a Technical Actor?
Union background actors received bumps for any additions to work beyond appearing as general atmosphere and performing everyday actions. Those who got wet, including under rain, or were exposed to smoke, made $14 extra per day. When wearing body-make up or oil on more than 50 percent of the body, such as when appearing as a monster, union extras received an additional $18 per day. When extras provided their own hairpieces, they received an additional $18 per day. If they brought their own formal attire, a fur, a national dress costume, or uniform, they earned $18 a day for maintenance, or $36 per day for police uniforms. Complete changes of wardrobe added an additional $9 per day for the first change, and $6.25 per day for each additional change.
Production companies generally supply props for background actors to use. However, if they required background actors to bring in their own props, they pay additional daily bumps. Pets granted $23; a set of golf clubs with a bag, $12; luggage, $5.50 per piece; tennis racquet, $5.50 with no additions for a tennis outfit; camera, $5.50; and skis and poles, $12. Vehicles were paid at the rate of 30 cents per mile round trip. Cars earned $35; trailers, $19; mopeds, $15; motorcycles, $35; police motorcycles, $50; and skates or skateboards, $5.50. Legally, only union extras received these additions, though in most cases, nonunion extras also received similar allowances, though sometimes at lower rates.