There is a category called “Featured Background” which exists here in Hollywood. It’s kind of a strange term, because it doesn’t have any real meaning. Background work is background work. The pay isn’t any better if you are cast as a featured background actor. You won’t be given a credit. There will be no residuals. You can’t put it on your resume.
The only distinction between featured background and just plain old regular background is that you will be on camera if you are featured. Your face will be recognizable. Normally, when you work background, you might see a quick glimpse of your left shoulder, if you hit pause and zoom in to the point where everything is pixelated. When featured, you can be reasonably sure that you will see yourself on camera. In fact, featured roles are often roles that should have lines, but the production is trying to cut costs by not having to hire actors as principals.
When I work as an extra, I usually try to stay out of the frame. If they see you too much, or too often, they won’t hire you back.
“Oh, we’ve seen enough of him already. Get someone else.”
In the past few weeks, however, I have found myself being featured in three projects. Two were rather big budget movies, and one was a new TV sitcom. Without revealing any details, I think I can share a few interesting moments.
The first movie is a biography. I won’t say who it is about or who are the stars, only that it will be getting alot of attention next year when it is released. I worked for six days on this film, and enjoyed every minute of it. Great crew. Happy tone. Everyone was glad to be part of the project, and that trickles down to the lowest members of the totem pole. Meaning the background.
On my first day on set, I was playing an office clerk. They had me positioned at a work station in a great big office space with open cubicles. After one shot, the director walked by and saw me typing. I can type. For real, not just hunt and peck like most people do. I was typing what was printed on a glossy pamphlet, which featured the logo of the company for whom I was supposed to be working. This logo figures prominently in the movie.
The director said, “Hey, let’s get a shot of this guy typing. We haven’t seen that version of the logo yet, right?”
The cameraman focused on my hands.
“No, no. Start on his face.”
So, with the director standing right next to me, I was instructed to look at my computer screen and start typing. They shot a closeup of my profile, then panned down to my hands. The logo was about two inches away from the tab key. If it makes it into the final cut, it will be an establishing shot.
The next day, I was one of two actors asked to stand before the director, for a line in a brief scene. No audition was necessary. He was only interested in finding the right look, which the other guy had. The director chose him without even glancing at me. That was fine. I knew the other guy would not be working on this film again, after the brief scene. As an office clerk, I could easily be booked on other days. Which I was. Besides, I would much rather have the closeup than the line.
Normally, I couldn’t care less about seeing myself on screen, and rarely even bother watching whatever show I’ve been working on. In this particular case, for reasons which have nothing to do with work, I would be absolutely thrilled if they use my closeup. It would be like being in a Harry Potter movie. Really. It’s that exciting.
The second movie is also a biography. Set in the same time period as the first, but about an entirely different figure. I won’t name names, but the movie stars involved are big. The budget is huge. The director is well known. The producer is practically legendary.
At my costume fitting, I was told I was cast in a scene in a little shop. This meant that I would only be working the one day, as it was difficult to imagine the main character spending any amount of time in a little shop.
When I got on set, I found there were twelve extras. The AD came over and said that this well known director likes to keep things small. Only two or three people might be used in the scene. The rest of us will sit around for a few hours and then be sent home. He picked two girls and one guy, but it was quickly decided there should be one girl and two guys. I was selected as the second guy.
Once in the shop, we were lined up for the well known director to approve. What we did not know was that one of us would be featured, walking into the shot while carrying a certain prop which had significance to one of the main characters. Played by a very big movie star.
The director chose me. I was given the prop and blocked into the scene. Suddenly, I was treated very differently. The crew learned my name right away, and it was fun to hear them on the walkie talkies:
“Christopher is heading out.”
“Cameras turning around on Christopher next.”
It felt just like I was a real actor. The scene was simple. Neither of us had lines. Still, I was acting with a big time movie star. I stood behind the camera for his closeup. He stood behind the camera for mine. Sitting in a special chair, near enough for me to brush against his knee, was the practically legendary producer. I must admit, this was fun.
The great part about that day’s work is that it is unlikely that the scene will be cut from the movie, since what happens in the little shop leads to another scene, which has more significance in the plot. So I am reasonably sure I will see myself up on the big screen in this.
The TV sitcom is a bit different, as I knew in advance I would be featured. In fact, I thought I was being cast in a co-star role. The casting director, whom I had never worked with before, contacted me out of the blue. Not so unusual, since she was looking for a clown. Every once in awhile, a specific skill, like clowning, will lead a casting director to search outside her own files and call in an unknown actor. Like me.
Turns out it would only be a featured role, but it paid a higher rate, and work is work. I was overjoyed to take the job.
I’d never heard of the show, which is in its first season. I’m playing a clown at a birthday party, exactly what I have done in real life for years. They wanted me to bring stilts, unicycle, magic, balloon animals, bubble machine, juggling balls, and a choice of costumes. So I did.
First up, the director (whom I absolutely loved) wanted the unicycle. The tricky part was that he wanted me to weave in and out of the tables. Where the kids were seated. With background actors milling about. Not exactly easy. I was a bit nervous that I would not be able to do it, but on the rehearsal, everything worked perfectly. No one got in my way. I breezed around the obstacle course. Piece of cake.
Then the director yelled “Action!”
I fell off the unicycle within three seconds.
It took about eight takes. On each one, except the last, someone was walking where I needed to ride and I fell off the unicycle.
“Why he keep fallin’?”
Although I would love to have corrected the child’s English, I was too mortified to speak. It feels terrible to be the one ruining the shot. In between takes, I rode back around the first table where we had rehearsed. No problem. The director noticed.
“You seem fine over there.”
Like magic, a cameraman appeared and said he could move his setup closer to me so I could ride around the less crowded table. He liked the shot better, in fact. The director agreed, and they quickly re-arranged things.
Thankfully, I got the next shot in one take. When I did fall off, after riding around successfully long enough to please the director, I wrote the kid who got in my way an imaginary traffic ticket. That got a laugh.
Next up, I was to perform a magic trick that would cause all the kids to cry. At first, the camera was behind me, on the crying kids. Then they turned me around and I played right into the lens. The director stood behind the camera, coaching me. He let me clown around, and my exit out of the frame got a big laugh.
That was it. A cute bit, and when I find out when the episode is airing, I will most likely tell people to watch for me. From what I can tell, the show is very funny.
There you have it. Three gigs where I get to be in the foreground. For a welcome change.