You Ought to Be in Pictures

Zach Napolitano


There now exists an unprecedented opportunity to become the next Sir Laurence Olivier or Guy Standing at Bar. Thanks largely to Sofia Coppola, daughter of famed director Francis Ford Coppola, for single-handedly butchering The Godfather Part III (starring as Mary Corleone), and, oddly enough, the adult film industry for bringing casting couch sexploitation to the fore of public consciousness, two traditional barriers to acting—nepotism and/or a requisite lacking of dignity—have largely been eradicated. Newly affordable recording and editing equipment have democratized the process of filmmaking and scores of upstart filmmakers are now in need of talent. So what if big-box retail stores have undercut the fabric of American small-business culture to make their filming gear cost-friendly? You’re gonna be a star!


The easiest way to appear in a movie is by background acting: a convenient euphemism for extra. Background acting, explains veteran casting director Donna McKenna, is an attractive first gig for aspiring actors or filmmakers, as it provides an opportunity to network, peek behind the curtain to see how a film is constructed, learn how to behave professionally on set (if you’re lucky, from the likes of a Christian Bale or a Mel Gibson) and become familiar with esoteric industry-specific jargon such as cut, take five and action.


No experience is required to become a background actor. The simplest way to get work is to register with a casting agency that will, in return for a nominal fee, find auditions and casting calls for you to embark upon.


Grant Wilfley, of his eponymous New York City casting agency, has provided acting talent for legendary directors Martin Scorcese, Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone and Cameron Crowe.


Headshots, Wilfley says, are not necessary but helpful, as are body measurements, which can help in potential wardrobe fittings. In most instances, a well-taken photograph, such as a Facebook profile picture, is sufficient for such work. Cell phone photographs where you are shirtless in front of a mirror, however, are discouraged. First, your Ed Hardy T-shirt will be too distracting for any movie scene you’ll provide services to. Second, professionalism and timeliness are the essential traits for any extra. No casting director worth his salt can risk that you will miss a shoot because you got held up manicuring your pencil beard.


As the premise of Ricky Gervais’ HBO show Extras suggests, every backgrounder’s dream is to be bumped from obscurity to a role with dialogue or, as it’s referred to in the industry, a “principal” part. Principal parts are much sought after because they provide automatic membership into the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Other than playing the odds and background acting in as many features as possible, the first way an extra can procure a role with dialogue is by building equity with his casting agency. A history of competence and humility make you a prime candidate to be recommended for a speaking part. Ravaging the craft services table or accosting the director with script annotations will only you get you noticed for the wrong reason.

Being noticed is essential, though, if you would like to make the leap. A distinctive look or an intangible charisma that will “add something to a scene” or “make you stand out on set,” says McKenna, increases your chances of being upgraded from extra to principal. In other words, if you resemble Matthew McConaughey or a mutant from The Hills Have Eyes, then you may be in luck. If you have the avuncular look of a George Costanza, then you’d better be able to act the way Jason Alexander once could.


When you are ready for a more prominent role than what the acme of extra work has to offer, there is no hard-set way to be cast. Obviously, the more carefully you hone your craft, the greater upside your career will have, though acting lessons are not required for those who can nail an audition. The most reliable way to get work is to show you have worked before. But banking on a résumé that includes eight background jobs and a ShamWow infomercial is a no-no, unless you want to toil in extra-dom for eternity.


Thus every actor needs a reel: a compilation of past principal roles that shows a casting director you can act. To build a résumé and gain recognition, an aspiring actor should seek student projects, shorts, indie features or select adult films of high production value. If you do your due diligence on websites like, there are plenty of opportunities available -- sometimes without having to audition. While the pay will inevitably be low, and you will have to sift through a lot of canards to find the real diamond projects, the chance exists to gain invaluable experience. And one never knows when he or she will be cast in the next Paranormal Activity (budget $15,000) or The Blair Witch Project ($22,000).


Finally, if you don’t have the chops for the big screen but you believe your house to be the next Xanadu, Tara Plantation, or To Catch a Predator sting home, hiring a location agency is Step 1 to obtaining the social validation that caused you to build such a profligate abode in the first place. Location agent Debbie Regan, whose agency has more than 5,000 homes on catalogue, and founder of the renowned Hamptons Locations, Nancy Grigor, explain  that the better you convey the essence of your home, the better chance it has to be utilized.


Detailed interior and exterior photographs should be taken from all angles. A general rule of thumb is to, again, avoid anything in your home that may suggest you wear Ed Hardy apparel. Depth of field is essential for any director composing a movie shot and should thus be accounted for in your home’s portfolio. If your home is employed, gigs generally pay well. Rates are contingent on the amount of crew involved in the shoot, the overall impact the shoot will have on your property, and if the film features an exorcism….Which may prove necessary. Assuming you’ve sold your soul to the devil before this advice could help you. 

Author Bio:

Coffee, crosswords, and pens connoisseur; big spot enthusiast; maker and fixer of pages, Zach Napolitano is an Assistant Editor & contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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Mehdi Abdulrazak, Flickr
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