How to be a movie and TV extra in Toronto
Toronto is one of the best places to find a gig as an extra in a movie or TV show. From customers or staff in a restaurant, pedestrians on a street, onlookers at a crime scene, or even zombies in an apocalypse, Toronto offers plenty of opportunity for those not seeking a starring role. Background actors help add authenticity to a scene. While they never get the fame nor get to speak - beyond miming fake dialogue like "rhubarb, cauliflower, and cabbage" - those that do the work love it, because of its unpredictable nature and the opportunity to learn from industry pros and to network.
"If you want a job that has structure, this is not for you. You rarely get two days that are the same. It's not like going to the same nine-to-five job," says Cheryl St. James, who began background acting in 1998. Her portfolio includes TV's Bomb Girls, Murdoch Mysteries and The Rick Mercer Report - and the Oscar-winning film Chicago, in which she played a pedestrian - all shot in Toronto.
Being close to the pros is a plus, says St. James. "One of the best things about doing background work is that it gives you an insight into how actors do their work." One of her favourite experiences was working on the 2000 Timothy Dalton film, Possessed. For a scene shot in Casa Loma, she was unexpectedly upgraded to an actor role at Dalton's request. As Raggedy Ann, she got a single line: "Hello."
Networking is also a perk, says St. James, who owns an antique store in Hamilton called Weird Stuff. "I love period pieces, because it allows me to marry what I do in the real world with what I do for fun. Last year, the director of (TV show) Copper bought an antique medical machine from us."
Blaine McKenzie got into background acting through his work as a musician. An agent contacted him after seeing his picture online. "They were looking for someone who's rough around the edges and who's been around. Facial hair, long hair."
He's played a prisoner, Hells Angels member and bar patron in TV's Nikita, Outlaw Bikers, and Rookie Blue respectively - and a fan holding a sign in Score: A Hockey Musical, which opened TIFF in 2010.
While it's fun work, McKenzie says not to expect glitz and glamour. "You don't get a trailer," he says with a laugh. "Extras gather in a holding room, which could be a basement, a restaurant reception room or a gymnasium and you're there until they need people in a shot. So bring a book or something to amuse yourself. It could be hours before you get called out - and you may not even make it on screen."
But the opportunity to meet fascinating people makes the tedium worthwhile, says McKenzie. When he played "the guy running to a hotdog stand" in a scene filmed at the Ex for the 2012 Sigourney Weaver film Red Lights, he got instruction from its director (An extra usually works with the assistant directors). When he played a mob boss in a student production, he became friends with its director, who has since moved onto bigger productions like Life of Pi and the upcoming Superman film, Man of Steel.
Toronto churns out the third highest number of film and TV productions in North America - behind Hollywood and New York. For those looking to fill the demand for background actors, the first step is to find an agent.
St. James and McKenzie both suggest checking the website for ACTRA Toronto, a union that represents over 15,000 acting, stunt, and background professionals. It provides a list of agencies that have joined an entertainment industry coalition and signed an ethical code of conduct as well as a list of "no cheque" agencies.
Ramin Emad, who heads Toronto Film Extras, has a roster of 3,500 actors, ranging from newborns and pregnant women to those in their 90s. Last year, he provided extras for over 80 productions. Recent film clients include Total Recall, Robocop, and the upcoming Carrie and Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim.
Agencies charge an annual fee of $100 to $200 plus a commission, says Emad, and adds that one should avoid agents who continually ask you to fork out hundreds of dollars for professional photos and acting classes. Those with special skills - such as playing an instrument or martial arts - could earn a special skills rate. There's also no exclusivity, meaning background actors can sign with several agents.
Professionalism is key to sustaining a career, says Emad. This means showing up on time even if the call time is as early as 4am or an overnight shoot. Being adaptable is also important, in situations like shooting an outdoor summer scene in the dead of winter. Good behaviour is crucial: "background actors are supposed to be quiet. People that cannot shut up are kicked off the set."
Some background actors choose to join ACTRA and their pay starts at $24 an hour compared to $11.50 for non-union actors. Some actors choose to not join a union. St. James says she has met non union actors who say that there's more work for them. It's a multi-faceted decision and those who want to learn how to join ACTRA can visit their website.
Actors like St. James and McKenzie and agents like Emad agree that background actors should keep their day job. "I would never say that anything in the film industry is permanent," says Emad. "For anyone that wants to do this, my advice is to get a job and do this on the side. But for a lot of people who do this - who get the acting bug - they find the work very satisfying, meaningful, and fulfilling."