Extras who are unionized via the Screen Actors Guild get paid $145 for eight hours of work, plus $27 an hour for the first four hours after that, and $36 an hour for anything over 12 hours. Non-unionized extras get California minimum wage: $8 an hour for the first eight hours, $12 an hour for the next two, and $16 an hour if they work for more than 10 hours.
Because extra work is considered taboo for “real” actors, the vast majority of extras are non-union, and most of the people I speak to consider it a pretty easy gig in a down economy. You go and sit around for a day, get free food, and walk away with about $80 to $100. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s something, and you get to earn it while staring at Ashton Kutcher crack-wise between takes. “You’ve got to go to a lot of castings,” says one woman in her 20s who asks that I not use her name, “but if they pick you, it’s a pretty easy way to get rent money.” On the set of the film about one of America’s foremost innovation obsessives, the extras are just trying to get by.
Every person I know who has been an extra for a TV show, or movie, or commercial has never had any positive things to say about their experience except that they got the money they needed to pay their bills. Cord Jefferson’s experience as an extra on the set of the upcoming Steve Jobs biopic is another one of those, I-was-an-Extra-and-it-was-a-nightmare stories.
I once asked my friend Chris Kelly, who is currently a writer on SNL, about his experience being an extra for a story I was working on. This section of the story hit the cutting room floor, but I now have the ability to publish it here.
What’s it like to work as an extra?
I’d recommend it because you’ll come across the funniest, most awful people that you’ll ever meet in your entire life. Just terrible, sad monsters.
What shows did you work on?
I was on the pilot of Heroes. I was there for 12 hours, three days a week, and I saw three scenes being filmed, and I was like, “How are they filming enough each day to make a show?” I got sent home early one day. They paid you $20 extra if you brought your own bike so you could pretend to be a bike messenger to make it seem like New York. Well, what happened was, they were filming this scene 100 times, and I decided I wanted to call a friend while I was biking to tell her how boring it was. I ended up biking into Adrian Pasdar, who’s one of the lead actors on the show. He fell over, got up and tried to improv off it to stay in character. They sent me away.
I was also an extra in a Japanese jeans commercial. They told us it was a winter party, but when we got there, it was a summer beach barbecue pool party. And they made us all get into these really tiny bathing suits. I was in this speedo thing and I’m like, this skinny guy, and was thinking, “Why am I in this? They should have cast people that they wanted to see in bathing suits.” Two girls cried because they made them get into these bathing suits, so they gave us $20 more. We all got in the pool, and they picked me to be a featured extra. There was this famous Japanese woman who was wearing $400 jeans. The idea of the commercial was that she was going to be laying by the pool in a lounge chair. Someone was supposed to dive into the pool, get out and be wet, and start feeding her grapes. And that was me. And I was getting directions from someone in this thick Japanese accent like, “Tease her! Don’t let her get the grape! Make her fight for the grape!” It was so embarrassing.