For many actors, winning an Oscar is the ultimate accolade, which brings respect in an industry that is oftentimes competitive and toiling. Having a passion for the craft, getting regular work and generating a lucrative salary are motivations that keep most actors in the acting game. But the starting point of becoming an actor, could just be becoming an Extra – also known as a Background Talent.
There are many Oscar winners who first started out as extras. Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, Lady GaGa, Viola Davis, Donald Glover, Terry Crews, Channing Tatum, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, Megan Fox, George Clooney, Bruce Willis and Marilyn Monroe are just a few huge movie actors who started as a background talent. I’m still actually compiling the long list!
What set these actors apart from the regular background artist is the belief in themselves that they were indeed, EXTRAordinary, instead of just an Extra. Yes, being considered an extra or a background talent isn’t too appealing to many actors, especially when extras are at the bottom of the totem pole in pay and often don’t get much respect. But like many things in life, it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish that truly matters. . The journey to becoming an actor can be one of the most frustrating journeys one might experience in job hunting, but it can also be one of the most incredible and rewarding journeys, if you have the right attitude. Your destiny as an actor is determined by your talent, but it is also determined by what you think of yourself and persistence. Whether you’re a background talent or principal actor, never think of yourself as someone of little significance or as just an extra. Think of yourself as EXTRAordinary.
I began my acting career in high school, as a Munchkin in my high school play, “The Wiz,” which was also a Broadway play and a movie, staring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. Although I was an extra (so to speak), when the thunderous applause came at the end of the production, I knew that I wanted to act. I studied journalism in college and obtained my degree in Communications (because I also loved to write and report), but deep down in my heart I still wanted to act. I got even more of the acting bug when I was in the college school play, “Purlie.” My performance left the audience in stitches, so I determined, “Hollywood Here I Come!”
But like many aspiring actors, my pursuit of acting in Hollywood was not a smooth yellow brick road. After getting a coveted internship at “Entertainment Tonight” and moving to L.A., I hit the pavement on my days off from interning with hopes to become an actress. After experiencing closed door after closed door, money problems and meeting directors who wanted to teach me what the “casting couch” really meant (which I said “NO” to), I was down and out in Beverly Hills. Actually, I was broke, busted and disgusted in Inglewood, L.A. Westwood, Hollywood & Carson- all the places I lived within a year. I threw my hands up and decided to take the midnight plane to Georgia at my boyfriend’s (at the time) ultimatum request. After all, “It’s just not working out for me in La La land,” I reasoned. And not only had I pawned off my grandma’s jewelry – just to ride the bus, but I did not land the full time job I so wanted after the internship ended at “Entertainment Tonight.” I did not feel EXTRAordinary at all. I felt like a failure.
But thank God it had been ingrained in me from childhood (by my mother, mostly), that “tough times never last, but tough people do.” Upon returning home to Atlanta I picked up the pieces of my life, working for Macy’s and then the local cable station and ended up becoming a flight attendant for a major airline as well as a freelance entertainment writer. I also broke ties with the man who had given me the ultimatum. At that point I made a conscious decision to allow my life to be led by God and not by any man. I was not the type to be caged in. Within months, my life became busy and full – with travel, celebrity interviews and writing deadlines. In fact, my life was so full that I was finding it a challenge to pursue the dream of acting in Hollywood.
Slowly, I tried to work my way back into the acting business- with auditions, work as an extra, photo sessions, and asking my big brother (who had gotten drafted by the NFL at the time) to give me $500 for what proved to be a rip-off acting school. I was determined to move forward, but again, I met a brick wall when I found conflict in my flying schedule and auditioning. I also often had more month at the end of my paycheck, so I decided to just focus on being a flight attendant and make my mark as an entertainment journalist. I worked for several local newspapers – as their entertainment journalist and was promoted to Upscale Magazine’s first entertainment editor within a year of being hired. I interviewed and wrote cover stories on Whitney Houston, Halle Berry, Wesley Snipes, Vanessa Williams and several other celebrities and became a true entertainment socialite – being invited to the A-List events in Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles. But my underlying passion (acting) began to rear its head again. After already auditioning for Spike Lee when I was younger – for “School Daze” – meeting him on a journalistic level made me question my creative direction. I grew a tad weary working for the very magazine that had propelled me to another level in my journalism career, and I’m sure they started to feel like my personal goals might become a conflict of interest. They clearly knew my desire to break into the movie industry. Eventually I created my own newsletter and magazine, Spotlight Entertainment & Sonya’s Spotlight, my magazine, which is still in existence and presently on the web at WWW.SONYASSPOTLIGHT.COM.
After interviewing some of the highest profile African-American entertainers and athletes in the U.S., it was in 2010 that I truly asked myself, “What about my acting career?” I had gotten a speaking role in a Bi-Lo commercial 11 years prior. I was hand-picked going into the grocery store and was so eager to be in front of a camera, that I did the commercial without getting paid for saying, ” Bigger, Better Buys at Bi-Lo.” Some would recognize me when they’d see me, saying, “Aren’t you the girl in the Bi-Lo commercial?” The recognition gave me a thrill.
After writing entertainment news for years, and even working for CNN World Headquarters, in 2010, I pursued acting – by becoming an EXTRAordinary Background Artist! My first extra scene in my new road to become an actress was as a flight attendant for the Lifetime Television movie, ” Marry Me, ” a role I had practiced and perfected for over 20 years. I’m the only flight attendant in the airplane scene.
From 2010 until 2019, I was in approximately 100 background scenes, some very featured – including a very exciting scene with the late Bobbi Kristina in Tyler Perry’s “For Better or Worse,” an adrenaline flowing scene with Harrison Ford in “42,” (my scene never made it to the big screen), an opening scene in Tyler Perry’s “A Madea Christmas,” a character role as “The Coca Cola Girl” opposite Cicely Tyson in “The Trip to Bountiful,” a true lifetime blessing for me, and a phenomenally exhilarating background role as a marcher in the Oscar-nominated film, Selma, where I worked the entire duration of filming. I’ve also been in industrials as a principal actress.
The road to getting principal acting roles is still a work in progress for me, but I’m now a director, whose first film, “Shayla’s Catch” (my book-to-film project), was published via Amazon Prime Video in 2019. The road to becoming a producer and director is an entirely different story that you can find via FilmFreeway.com under “Shayla’s Catch” Director, but working with some of the industry’s best directors – from Tyler Perry, Ava DuVernay to Lee Daniels, has a lot to do with my current passion in directing. Being an actress and filmmaker is a journey, not a destination.
Discover how you, too, can become an In-Demand Background Talent by following my tips below!
SCENE I – BE PHOTO READY
Many aspiring actors and background talent ask me the importance of photos in the industry and even question if having professional shots taken is a necessity. Let me just put it simply: Not having photographs in acting is equivalent to not having a paint brush as a painter. If your desire is to become an actor or an EXTRAordinary background talent you must invest in photographs- no way around it (unless you find someone who will invest in them for you) . Of course there are those who skimp on photos and get booked for background scenes with mere cell phone photos, but if you’re serious about being a background talent in demand, the more photos you have of yourself, the better your chances are of being booked for a particular scene. It does not take professional photos to be an extra, but I’m assuming since you’re reading this, you do, indeed, want to be PROFESSIONAL when it comes to acting, so investing in some clear, professional shots is recommended.
The first shot you should invest in is the headshot. That’s the close-up shot showing your natural look – from chest up. Of course make up sometimes does wonders for us all, but it’s important you don’t overdo it. Think “Girl or Boy Next Door.” Your headshot should give casting directors a clear image of whether you would fit a particular scene, based on your appeal – whether it’s glamorous or dull (and yes, a lot of “dull” looking extras get frequent work). You must also look like your headshot. If you took a headshot 2-10 years ago and you’re still trying to pass it off as how you look now, DON’T! Age is nothing but a number to me, but the fact remains that we do age and get fine lines, crows feet, laugh lines and other age-related features along the way. Don’t be afraid that someone will notice the bags under your eyes or your double chin. It may be just the look that a particular casting agent is looking for when booking a particular scene. At the same time, don’t accentuate the negative. Accentuate the positive. For instance, if your have a drop-dead gorgeous smile, you better show those teeth. If you have long, lustrous hair, make sure your hair is loose or that the photo shows the length of your hair. In the end, you will be the person who decides which headshot exemplifies you at your best, but if you have an agent or consult with a photographer who is accustomed to choosing good headshots, go to them for advice. Even friends can have a good eye for what a good headshot might be. Remember, recent photos are always better than older ones, so aim to get a new headshot every year, and even every six months if you change your look often.
I feel that one of the keys to my getting called back again and again is because I didn’t change my look much, although I experiment more now. But I realized what worked best for me as an EXTRAordinary background talent (photo & look wise) was not changing the color of my hair or the length much. In fact, I have seen background talent come on set with a totally different hairstyle than what their photo showed and they were not used in the scene at all. I have also seen background talent come on set with a different color than was shown on the photo they submitted, and again, they were not used or asked to wear a wig or questioned about their “look” because it did not fit the photo they submitted. In a nutshell, You must look like your photographs!
The next important photo is the full body shot. That’s the shot where the casting agent or agency can see your overall look, your physique. All of us do not have muscular, toned bodies like Dwayne “the Rock ” Johnson or Halle Berry, so don’t worry if you’re not the perfect, body wise. In the world of acting, especially for background talent, there are people of all different shapes and sizes. Side note: If you want to be an EXTRAordinary background talent, leaner is better. The camera adds 15 pounds to your frame, so it’s best to get in shape if you don’t want to look like a blimp on television. More on the subject of the physical preparation later.
It’s a good idea to have multiple photos of yourself in order to be cast in multiple background scenes. Most extras casting agencies ask you to send three to four shots of yourself when they make a casting call or post. I usually send four- the headshot, full body shot, mid length shot and sometimes a snapshot. There are some castings that specifically ask for non-professional photos because they really want to see the way you truly look (now) instead of a glamour shot. In that case, send them what they ask for. Also keep in mind the scene you are submitting for. If there is s casting for an upscale, party scene, do not send a picture of yourself in a bikini in your flip flops or wearing some torn jeans. Think the way casting people think: The more you fit the look, the better your chances are to be booked. Repeat after me: “If I fit the Look, I will be Booked.” Remember that mantra and try to look the part. If there is an office scene, send at least one or two photos of yourself in a business suit. If it’s an athletic or gym scene, send a photo of yourself in gym wear. If it’s a church scene, send a photo of yourself looking like a church girl or altar boy. Basically, allow casting to envision you being just right for the particular scene you are being considered for. You will get more work if you have the look for what casting is trying to book!
I take so many photos that my friends and family sometimes shake their heads at me – wondering if I’ll ever get enough of posing for many pictures. And the answer is “No.” As long as I am a part of the acting industry, I will always be posing for photos. You should to if you want to get booked regularly.
SCENE II: GET ON THE SCENE & GET BOOKED
Now that you’ve taken a few photographs and may even have a professional headshot – if you’re really serious about the business – you need to get on your grind – by getting yourself out there – and getting booked. There is no room for being slack or procrastinating in the acting industry. Here is some good news: You can get immediate and consistent work as an extra without having one acting class. The Internet is your best source, especially social media. All postings for background talent can be found on social media nowadays. So if you’re not on social media- for whatever reason- you must let go of the drawbacks in your mind and join because of the business benefits. You can even subscribe to acting sites that feature extras castings daily. They are plentiful. In short there are numerous ways to get into the game, but you you’ve got to play well in order to succeed.
If you’re serious about becoming an EXTRAordinary talent you should create a profile on some of the acting sites. One of the best ones I’ve used is Actorsaccess.com, although there is a fee to join.
If you check Facebook and Twitter posts daily and sign up on the acting sites there is no reason why you should not get a constant influx of castings that you can submit to on a daily bais, especially if you have no time restraints, like a full-time job that would interfere with you being on a set for up to 15 hours a day. No, I am not exaggerating.
SCENE & Not Heard
Whether you like it or not, if you decide to become an extra, you will be seen, but not heard. Extras pantomime, so if you think you’ll be going on set and magically get a speaking role when you were hired as an extra, you will probably be disappointed. There have been times where Extraordinary background artists get pulled (bumped) for a line or two, but this is very rare. More than likely, the principal actors have already secured the speaking roles by auditioning for those roles. But like any story in television or film, a great scene comes to life when the extras come on the scene. If you see a hospital scene where there are no nurses or doctors passing in the background, the scene won’t be as believable. However, when the camera captures the nurses, doctors, patients and visitors in the hospital scene, the believability is much grander.
In short, if you want to be an EXTRAordinary background artist, the doors are wide open – especially where I live – Atlanta. With Covid-19 protocols in place on major film sets now, regular Covid tests are given and safety is closely adhered to. Whatever you decide to do background work or principal work, there is no reason that you can’t be EXTRAORDINARY in whatever you do!
There is Nothing to It, But to Do It!
Writer, Producer, Director, Actress