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Amy Jean Davis in No Ordinary Family
You’ve seen thousands of nonspeaking extras doing their work in the background over the years, but who are they? Why do they do what they do, and what’s it like to be them?

Judging from my interviews, background actors range from retired people looking for diversion to the temporarily unemployed trying to make a buck to serious actors with professional training and high aspirations. Some know that they’ll never go further than crowd scenes, while others view background work as a necessary evil to be endured between real gigs. Still others believe that background acting is the chrysalis stage between the caterpillar and the butterfly.

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“There was this scene in The Office where Rainn Wilson, who plays Dwight, had to push me aside about 15 times as he was running into the conference room. After the third time, he stopped and said, ‘Hey, man, I hope I’m not hurting you.’ I said, ‘No, fine, I’m cool.’ ” —Lary Crews
In that hope, they’ve got good company. “Everybody starts somewhere, and this is a good starting point for a lot of people,” says Lee Genick, head of New York City’s Sylvia Fay/Lee Genick & Associates Casting, the oldest background casting agency on the East Coast.

Many a big star has done time in the background, including Brad Pitt (Less than Zero), Ben Affleck (Field of Dreams), Sylvester Stallone (Bananas) and Renee Zellweger (Dazed and Confused). And many smaller-name working actors supplement their incomes working as extras. Cali Moore, a New York–based actress, has worked background in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Sex and the City 2 and TV’s Ugly Betty, and she recently landed a gig as Elizabeth Banks’ stand-in on the upcoming Man on a Ledge.

“I think a lot of extras believe somebody big will see them on the set, but you can’t count on that,” Moore says. “Just look at it as a day of work. At least I’m not folding sweaters at the Gap. I’m doing something toward what I want to do with my life, and that’s enough.”

Moore’s comments were echoed by a number of background actors I spoke with for this story. They know the warts-and-all of the extra’s life — low pay (about $64 per day for nonunion actors in Los Angeles; $80 for those in New York), long hours (often around 12 hours per day), few if any speaking parts — but most of them love the business, and while they don’t expect instant stardom, most believe background can be a springboard to bigger things.

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“On 30 Rock, I had a scene where it was just Alec Baldwin and me in the room. Nobody else. He talked to me for 30 minutes about where I’m from and what I’m hoping to do. He was such a nice guy.” —Cali Moore
Selina MacDonald, who moved to Hollywood from England last year, exemplifies that realistic-but-hopeful approach. She took off fast, working on 30 to 40 shows and films during her first year, including True Blood and the upcoming Tom Hanks/Julia Roberts movie, Larry Crowne. But while MacDonald is eligible to join the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), she can’t afford the initiation fee of $2,277, even though union membership would more than double her daily rate. She works part-time in catering to make ends meet.

Background actors who belong to SAG earn about $139 a day, plus benefits (as opposed to $64 a day for non-SAG). SAG rules actually require that a certain number of union extras be hired on each production (in L.A., it’s 20 for TV shows, 55 for movies; in New York, it’s 25 and 85, respectively), but since many productions require hundreds of extras, after the SAG quota is filled, producers often turn to non-SAG actors because it’s cheaper. If a production doesn’t fill the quota, some nonunion actors are given union vouchers so they can participate, and, after accumulating three such vouchers (or having been given a speaking line), the actor becomes eligible to join SAG. However, most backgrounders who become eligible choose not to join because they believe they can get more work if they don’t (lower daily rate, more roles; higher daily rate through SAG, fewer roles).

Another busy background actor is Amy Jean Davis, who came to Los Angeles in 2008 as a semifinalist on American Idol and stayed to climb the magic mountain. Supplementing her income with work as a dancer, a model and a bookkeeper, Davis has played a string of curvy background babes in Love Bites, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, No Ordinary Family and other shows. The only downside to spending so much time as an extra, Davis says, is that she hardly has time to go on “real auditions.” She was close to getting two national commercials, but they fell through. Still, she doesn’t regret the time she spends doing background.

“You learn so much about how movies are made and who does what on a set, and that will really help if you ever get some sort of role,” Davis says. “Just pay attention to the experts. Where else do you get to see directors and directors of photography do their jobs?”

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“On Intolerable Cruelty, I was in a restaurant scene with George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones. When we were walking out afterward, I just couldn’t resist. I asked if I could shake his hand. Instead, he leaned over and kissed me on the cheek!” —Jo Kelly
For J. Michaels, a former Nashville musician whose background gigs include Men of a Certain Age, The West Wing (he was Bradley Whitford’s photo double) and the Will Ferrell soccer flick Kicking & Screaming, background work provides a test of an actor’s commitment and determination.

“You come out here, you make your pilgrimage across the country, and you cut a lot of ties you were comfortable with,” says Michaels, who now lives near the famous Hollywood sign. “It helps you see how serious you are about doing this. There are so many people going for it out here. It’s a lot harder than I thought it would be.”

Michaels and nine other L.A. extras were featured in a 2007 documentary, Strictly Background (available on Netflix). The film aptly portrays both the ecstasy and the agony of an extra’s life — the glorious seconds when you’re “in the shot” versus the sad reality of those days when the phone doesn’t ring.

“I’m pretty good at dealing with rejection,” Michaels says. “Maybe that’s a weird thing to be good at, but I just figure, ‘Well, it’s their loss, not mine.’ ”