An extra, also called a background actor, is a performer in a film, television show, stage, musical, opera or ballet production, who appears in a nonspeaking, nonsinging or nondancing capacity, usually in the background (for example, in an audience or busy street scene). War films and epic films often employ extras in large numbers: some films have featured hundreds or even thousands of paid extras. Likewise, grand opera can involve many extras appearing in spectacular productions.
On a movie set, film extras are technically referred to as "background performers" or, simply, "background." In a stage production, extras are commonly referred to as "supernumeraries." In opera and ballet, they are called either 'extras' or 'supers'.
Casting criteria for extras depend on the production. Becoming an extra often requires little to no acting experience; punctuality, reliability and the ability to take direction may figure more prominently than talent.
There are several casting agencies that specialize only in background work. When hiring extras, casting directors generally seek out those with specific "looks" that will contribute to the ambiance desired for the film, for instance, "high school students," "affluent senior citizens," etc. Casting directors may also look for extras that possess special skills needed for the scene, such as rollerblading or dancing. In addition, as extras are often required to use their own wardrobe on the set, casting directors may seek those who already possess specific costumes or props, such as police uniforms or musical instruments.
On smaller productions or student films, extras may be hired en masse with little formality.
The length of an extra's employment on a production largely depends on the needs of the director and the scene(s) being filmed. Some extras are only needed on the set for a day or two; others may remain with the film for extended periods of time. On James Cameron's film Titanic, for instance, a group of 150 "core extras" were hired to play the ship's passengers; these extras were employed throughout the entire length of filming.
In the United States, most major film and television productions fall under the jurisdiction of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) or AFTRA; extras are protected and guaranteed the same working conditions as actors with speaking roles. The UK equivalent is called Equity.
Producers are allowed to hire non-SAG extras after a certain number of SAG performers have been cast; non-union extras are paid the minimum wage. On productions outside of union jurisdiction, payment for extras is at the discretion of the producers, and ranges from union-scale rates to "copy and credit" (i.e., no pay).
Between 1946 and 1992, extras in film and television were largely represented by the Screen Extras Guild. SEG was disbanded and re-incorporated into SAG in 1992.
Extras get very few details when called to take on a role from their chosen agency and full details are given the night before the actual shoot. They are given their part, a call time, location and guidance on what to wear for that part.
Extras expect long days and long periods of waiting around. Some extras may be used very little or sometimes not at all, even if they are on set all day.
Many actors who became celebrities began their careers as extras in other productions. For example:
The television sitcom Extras follows the exploits of two professional extras, Andy and Maggie. They spend most of their time on set looking for a speaking role and a boyfriend, respectively.