What It’s Like to Be a Background Actor in Vancouver
February 10, 2017
Lesley Mirza is a Vancouver-based journalist, but last summer she started up a side gig as a background actor—a.k.a., an extra. The ongoing parade of Hallmark movies and TV series filmed here in good ol’ Hollywood North offers ample opportunity for Mirza to take a break from chasing scoops and instead embrace the fine art of pretending to drink coffee.
How did you get into background acting?
I started when I was a kid. I have an uncle who was a film producer. When I was 11, I was in a movie as background for him, and then I did another show in England. But then I didn’t do anything for years…but just last summer, I thought, I work from home, it would be kind of a nice to get out and meet some more people that aren’t necessarily in the journalism industry. So I googled “talent agencies” and a bunch came up, and I just chose one.
How often do you get a gig?
Just since last summer, I’ve done 20 days on set. Most of those are being on a single show. One of my favourite ones was Timeless—I was in the Apollo 11 episode as background.
How do you get chosen for a show?
My agents will send out the gigs and say, here’s the show that will be filming this date, here’s what they’re looking for, if you’re available let me know. There might be a description of what it would entail in terms of wardrobe. Then it’s the night before the actual gig that you get your call time and exactly the wardrobe you need to bring. Background people supply their own clothing, unless it’s a show like Timeless where they put you in costumes. You show up and check in, and you’ll be dressed in what you think is the perfect outfit, but you have to bring other clothing just in case. They’ll check your makeup.
You only get your call time the night before? That sounds last minute.
You do need to wait up until you get your call time. My understanding is the production team has to figure out where they’re filming the day before, so I sometimes I have to wait up until 10 p.m. for my call time the next morning. I had to get up at 3:30 a.m. once to get ready to go filming. I’m a morning person, but that’s still early. And when I’m awake, the pugs are awake and my husband is awake.
What do you like about the job?
It’s kind of like you get to dress up and be people that you wouldn’t be in everyday life. When I was in Timeless, I was a 1969 lady. I got my hair and makeup done, and it was really fun. But the other benefit is the people I get to meet. There are so many fantastic background performers and they’re from all different walks of life doing it for different reasons. There are students, there are retired people…some want to be actors and they’re fascinating. I love chatting with these people. There’s a lot of downtime, so you get to make friends. And of course I love seeing how productions are made. So much goes into a TV show.
What’s the secret to being a successful background actor?
People that have a character look, people who are unusual looking, that might help them get booked more for shows. I’ve been told I have a “wholesome mom” look. Different people are great for different shows. I believe if you show up on time and dress to the best of your ability and are easy to work with, people will remember that. When my agent puts my face forward, I hope people go, “Oh I remember her, she’s great.”
How do you juggle it with your other job as a journalist?
I do my job as background actor, and then I just walk away. In that way, it’s kind of a 9 to 5. But for journalism, if I go to an event, I’m thinking about stuff and how I can write about it. It fits in really well with my journalism because I can choose when I want to work, and if I don’t, my agent’s fine with that.
Considering you’re basically being chosen for roles based on your look alone, do you ever feel uncomfortable about that?
I try not to worry about, “Why didn’t I get booked, was it because of how I looked?” If I started worrying about that I’d probably drive myself crazy. I think there is plenty of filming going on in B.C., I know I’m going to get work, and I don’t want to work full time anyways.
The impression I get about being an extra is that there’s a lot of waiting around.
I have sat for a while in “background holding.” You check in, you’re approved for your look and you wait to be taken to set. It can be an hour, it can be a couple of hours. I always bring a book, I’ve seen people knitting, doing art, I could probably write articles if I wanted. But for me, because I do work from home normally and don’t get to chat with people all the time, it’s a fun chance to talk. I think it’s great—everyone’s super friendly.
What sort of roles do you usually play?
Usually I’m a diner patron or a passerby. Passersby are usually very popular. My goal: I would love to be a dead body or a zombie, and I would love to be given a line. I’m going to go do some acting classes.
What’s the secret to being a good background diner patron?
I’ve had real food and I’ve had beverages in a bar scene, but I tend to not fully eat the food, and a lot of the time you’re blurry. It’s better to mime because they don’t want to pick up on extra sound. I’m getting pretty good at having a fake conversation. It’s like you’re saying words but you’re kind of exaggerating your lips a bit, and trying to be as you would in a conversation—if you’re a person that does hand gesturing, do that. Sometimes we’ll clink glasses, but with our fingers in the way so they don’t actually clink.
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