Don't talk, just walk on: 'supporting artistes' are sprinkled with stardust

Being a film or TV extra won't earn you a credit, but it can help pay the bills, writes Jasmine Birtles
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The Independent Online

If you have time to spare during the week, live in or near a major city and would like to rub shoulders with famous actors, then being an extra, or "supporting artiste" (as some like to be called), can be a great way of earning additional income.

Anyone can be a film extra. You don't need any acting ability or particular characteristics. However, you do need to be available on weekdays (and some nights) and it helps if you have a car and, ideally, your own props. Some people who do regular assignments have wigs, police uniforms, medical clothes or even religious garb, which can get them more work and a better rate of pay.

Being an extra involves hanging out for the day on a film or TV shoot and doing what you are told by the director. Usually there are long periods when you are not needed, so it can fit well if you have other work – writing or research, say – that can be done anywhere.

It is not hard to get work but you need to go through an extras agency. You can find a comprehensive list in Contacts (£10.99, Spotlight Publications).

Rogue agencies are a real problem. They impose a fee for registering with them – sometimes as much as £300 – and then do nothing for you. Agencies can reasonably charge for taking your photograph and including it in their books; expect to pay between £60 and £100.

Rob Martin, who runs the London agency Casting Collective, says the best way to make sure the agency is approved and not just fly-by-night is to check with the union, Bectu.

There are strict rules, set out by the Film Artists Association (FAA), on how much extras should be paid per day and per hour. "The basic daily rate under this agreement is currently £76.85 plus travel money, usually £7, plus overtime, payable after nine hours, of £6.74 per half-hour," says Mr Martin. "But for television work, both the BBC and ITV have different agreements. Background on a commercial is £90 for a 10-hour day. A proper walk-on part in a commercial could expect £200 for a 10-hour day."

If you have other skills, such as juggling, rollerblading or playing a musical instrument, that can help you get more work. But most important for an extra is to be available most of the time – including at night, occasionally – and to live fairly close to the film studios.

A kiss with Kate Winslet... well someone had to do it

"Without question the highlight was snogging Kate Winslet in the film 'Iris'," says John Random, 48, a writer from London with over 20 years' experience as an extra. "I'm still stage-struck and it is exciting to work with actors who've been around for years, like Dustin Hoffman or Johnny Depp.

"Some of the things I've had to do are just plain weird. I've been a dead body several times. Once I'd gassed myself in my car; another time I'd fallen off a mountain."

Days often start at 7am and go on for around 12 hours, and this can cause problems. "I have a son and there are times when I have to turn down work because we can't get childcare in time," he says. "But it's great if I can get there – it never feels like work."

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