Can Background Actors Still Find Work in Pandemic-Era Hollywood?

“It doesn’t seem like there are a lot of options for us,” background actress Carolyn Meyer tells TheWrap

As Hollywood gears up to head back into production, new coronavirus safety regulations that require sets to limit cast and crew members have worried background actors who feel threatened by being replaced by visual effects. 

How the industry adapts to the new regulations will impact the livelihoods of thousands of actors who fill large crowd shots or add depth to a scene — after all, what would a bar scene be with just two lead actors, or baseball games without an audience? Many of these background actors, who are independent contractors who make a living in Hollywood from hopping from to set to set to fill in scenes, are worried about being forgotten as Hollywood makes changes to the way films and shows are shot.

“It’s scary — I’m not someone who jumps to conclusions, but it doesn’t seem like there are a lot of options for us,” Carolyn Meyer, a background actress who has done stand-in and background work on “Stump Town,” “Grace and Frankie,” “Superstore” and “black-ish,” told TheWrap. “It’s terrifying. I’ve also read that they are doing a lot of CGI and green screen work and that they are even going to limit the props on set. To me, that really is scary because you are already doing a lot of pretending as an actor, and then you have to pretend your surroundings are there. It makes me start questioning if this is something I want to do.”

Meyer explained that pre-COVID-19, there was virtually no social distancing on sets, especially in the holding areas where actors would wait for their scene to start. Hair and makeup procedures will have to change to accommodate social distancing requirements, and even getting to set will have to be reevaluated. Meyer explained that she often parks in a lot and is shuttled to set with other actors. This will have to change.

But Meyer is most concerned about how vouchers, which is basically a piece of paper that acts as payroll, will be handled from now on, given that they move from hand to hand. 

A Hollywood labor insider, however, told TheWrap that “there is no blanket rule against background actors” and that no production, so far, has been asked to cut out extras, meaning that COVID-19 has not made it a mandate to eliminate background actors.

While there certainly has been a significant reduction in the number of background actors being used by producers and directors so far, the insider said SAG-AFTRA’s reopening team discusses any scenes where background actors are necessary with the project’s production team during pre-production meetings to ensure that social distancing is being followed.

Jeron Wise, who was a background actor in Denzel Washington’s “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” as well as the TV series “Glee,” agreed that the future of his career is unclear. He said that it’s daunting to see how the industry will adapt to the new regulations without impacting background work. 

“I just think it’s going to be different just because acting is so much about interacting with people, so I’m just wondering if they are going to be more selective, instead of how it used to be, where you fit the profile and you were hired,” he told TheWrap. “Being a background actor, you already can’t talk to the lead actor, and now it’s going to be a lot more than that. I think it’s going to be very limited on set and there’s going to be very limited interacting with the lead for the backgrounds. It’s all going to be very methodological.”

He anticipates the holding areas to completely change, and vouchers to go the computerized route. 

“Right when they started saying the word coronavirus, I knew everything was going to change,” he added. “There are going to be less jobs and they’re going to go off your track record. They are going to pick a continuous actor instead of picking actors that fit a specific scene.”

Jennifer Bender, executive vice president of casting at Central Casting, the leading background actor casting company in the United States, told TheWrap that there have been ongoing conversations about how to get everyone safely back on set, including background actors, and that she doesn’t think the background industry will be that highly impacted.

“I can imagine that the background actors are feeling uncertain because there is still a lot that’s unknown,” Bender told TheWrap. “I would say over the last three months, everyone has been working really hard to figure out a way to have a crew back to set safely with the unions, and I think everyone is figuring it out. It’s going to be different, and it’s not going to be as easy as it used to be.”

While visual effects, also known as VFX, is definitely a safer option amid the pandemic, Bender said that she’s been talking to studios and producers who say they prefer to have background actors on set. She also said everyone is brainstorming their way through these “uncharted waters,” and while it may take more time to get production underway on a given day, “it’ll be okay.” 

“Logistically, there will be a longer checklist, but I think people are saying they can do it,” Bender added.

More vans or parking walking distance to set will have to be organized for safer transportation, and bigger holding areas will have to be set up outside as opposed to indoors, she said.

“In the early days, people were more uncertain because it was all so new and different, but now, there are a lot of people out there having smart conversations,” Bender said.

Things will be different, and Meyer just hopes that everyone will realize how valuable background actors really are.

“Hopefully, it will go back to normal later on,” she said. “Of course, it’s a whole other art form, doing CGI and VFX, and it gives other people jobs and opportunities, but as far as the actor, to me, it’s threatening why we even do what we do. Someone has to fight for us!”

Beatrice Verhoeven

Beatrice Verhoeven

Senior Film Reporter



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