Lights, Camera, Action! A Day in the Life of a Background Actor
On Wednesday evenings, I can often be found glued to my TV. That’s because Wednesday is the night the One Chicago series – Chicago Med, Chicago Fire and Chicago PD – airs on NBC. So when I was presented with the opportunity to be a background actor on Chicago Fire, I had no choice but to say YES!
Background acting is basically the equivalent of being an extra. The background actors are the people in the background of a scene. The focal point of a scene is rarely on them – they are basically human set dressings. Sometimes there are featured background extra roles that are more prominent on screen. Stand ins are also sometimes lumped in with background extras.
I was thrilled with the opportunity to go on the set of one of my favorite shows. But for those of you who are thinking a background actor’s day is all glamour and action … think again!
3:30am: Alarm! An early call time means an early wake-up call. When you’re a background actor, there’s no rolling out of bed and arriving on set. You’re expected to arrive in your outfit, hair and makeup ready.
5:30am: Call a Lyft to Navy Pier – today’s shoot location. There was a miscommunication with the driver and he drops me off at the wrong place. End up walking/running a half mile with my rolling suitcase full of outfit changes.
6am: Phew. Arrive just in time. Check in with the person managing the background actors then have a seat in the extras holding area. Thankfully the holding area is indoors as the outside temperature is expected to hit 90 degrees today.
6:30am: Hair and makeup check all of the background actors. My ponytail gets a hit of hair spray to tame flyaways and I also have some shine reducer smoothed onto my forehead.
7am: Now it’s time to get checked out by the costume department. I’m wearing black leggings, a grey tank, light grey running shoes and a silver headband. The person who checks out my costume decides I should wear something a little more covering on top so we look through my clothing options and decide on a lilac top. Pro tip: neutral colors and non-descript clothing, hair and makeup is almost always best for a background actor. The general rule is no white, no brights, no red, no distracting prints, no logos.
8am: Background actors are called outside to be placed into the scene. The role I was cast for is a jogger so I’m instructed to run to my mark and then make conversation with a group of bystanders.
8:30am: Rolling! I do my jogging bit a handful of times before they wrap the scene. Fun fact: background actors are not allowed to make noise while the camera is rolling so the “conversations” you see are actually just people pretending to talk. After the scene wraps, we’re told to go back to the holding area to wait until we’re called back for another scene.
9am: I head over to craft services with a few of my fellow background actors. The snack selection is pretty awesome – cut-up fresh fruit, nuts, chips, bakery items, coffee drinks, energy drinks, etc. I decide on cut-up cantaloupe and a water. After finishing my snack, I head back to the holding area thinking we’ll get called back to set soon.
10:15am: Even though it feels like I just ate, someone tells me craft services is serving lunch. So I head outside and get a small container of baked mostaccioli. It seems early for lunch, but I guess since we started so early it makes sense.
12pm: Still in the holding area waiting to be called to set. I’m halfway through the book I brought along. So glad I brought a book because my phone is quickly losing its charge and I don’t see anywhere to recharge it.
1:30pm: I feel bad for the main actors and crew – they are all overheating. The main actors are dressed in long sleeves, long pants and jackets for the spring scene we are shooting. I. would. die. I watch as one of the main actors comes inside and lays on the floor in an attempt to cool down. Anyone who thinks being on set is all glamour has never worked on set on a 90-degree day!
2:15pm: I’m told we’re going somewhere for lunch. I’m so confused – I thought the pasta was lunch!
2:30pm: Everyone gets on a luxe mini bus and we’re shuttled over to Lucky Strike, which has been shut down for our meal. I sit with another background actress who tells me about a working on the set of a popular show that has since ended. One day included wearing super-tall stilettos for 12 hours straight. My feet hurt just thinking about it.
3:30pm: Back in the holding area. I’m told we are going to go back on set once the crew gets set up.
4:15pm: Back outside and on set! This time I’m paired up with another background actor and am instructed to be a nosy pedestrian. We’re told to walk around the fire trucks to directly behind where the main actors are standing. Because we are so close to where the action is, I can hear the lines being delivered, which was super exciting. Not sure you’ll actually get to see that much of me but I did my best to look curious and perplexed by the situation, as instructed.
5:20pm: It’s a wrap! Everyone is happy with the final scene and we are done for the day – all that’s left to do is check out with the person managing the background actors.
Want to see it for yourself? Check out the season premiere of Chicago Fire on Wednesday, September 22 at 8pm Central Time on NBC.