A Little Background About Background Acting

The history of background actors, or ‘extras’, as been around nearly as long as the film industry itself. The first films date back to the early 1890’s and they were mostly unedited, slice-of-life, documentary style films that showed regular people doing everyday things. Though they weren’t touted as such, these regular people were the very first movie extras.

As films became more sophisticated, so, too, did the talent that was required. And as productions became larger, the number of movie extras needed increased, too. Fortunately for the burgeoning film industry in Hollywood, there was no shortage of movie extra talent as thousands of people flocked to Los Angeles every month in the hopes of becoming of a star.

By 1922, there were an estimated 30,000 movie exras in LA and not nearly enough jobs to go around. With no system in place to regulate background talent, many people looking to break into the industry as movie extras were exploited. The same newspapers and magazines that hyped Hollywood and led to the swelling numbers of hopefuls were soon reporting stories of these exploitations.

The motion picture industry was facing a PR nightmare. Angry Americans deemed the movie industry immoral and there were calls for government regulation. Major Hollywood producers responded by turning to Republican Party leader Will Hays whom they commissioned to direct a campaign to restore their public image. Hays in turn commissioned the Russell Sage Foundation to study the problem. The results of this study led to the unlikely alliance of the major Hollywood producers, comprising the Association of Motion Picture Producers, to establish their own organization that would provide movie actors for their films. The organization was called the Central Casting Corporation and it opened for business in 1926.

For producers, the creation of Central Casting allowed them to continue operating without government interference while providing a consistent stream of background talent for their films. For background actors, Central Casting provided a road map to working as an extra in Hollywood. Background actors could register with Central and all they had to do was call a job hotline to find work rather than having to drive from studio to studio looking for their own jobs.

In the 80 past years, a lot has changed. Background extras formed their own union, the Screen Extras Guild, in 1946; created their own newspaper dedicated to the Hollywood extra, The Hollywood Megaphone; and even had their own awards for stand-ins called ‘The Elmers.’ Today, the Screen Extras Guild, The Hollywood Megaphone and The Elmers no longer exist. The Screen Extras Guild merged with the Screen Actors Guild. The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists also has jurisdiction over television extras, and all soap operas extras.