After being cast for a local film, J. Nathan Simmons had to wait nine months for his paycheck. That's just one reason why he’s helping organize the New Mexico Background Actors Union. Since August 2007, a group of background actors has collected 138 signatures through an online petition. The group hopes to present the petition, which outlines basic safety and fair working conditions, to Gov. Bill Richardson.
Often the lowest-paid, “non-speaking extras,” or background actors, have many expenses. Factoring in headshots, wardrobes and transportation to remote sets, Alison Hinsel says she is lucky to break even. “I can’t tell you the number of movies that I have not made a dime,” says Hinsel, who has worked on six or seven productions a year since moving from Kansas City to pursue a film career.
The state government lists job growth among the reasons for using tax money to subsidize the film industry in New Mexico. This includes background actors, who must deal with sporadic assignments and last-minute calls. Casting Director of Far Horizon Studio Elizabeth Gable recalls as many as 1,700 people arriving for one five-hour casting call. She has 5,000 people in her database.
"We are shooting some of the biggest productions here,” says Gable, adding that New Mexico provides a large resource of background actors with its diverse population. Albuquerque is gaining prestige and respect, she says, including a second-place ranking for best places in the country to make movies, according to MovieMaker Magazine.
Background actors rely on casting directors, who technically represent the production company, to be advocates and negotiate on their behalf. "I care for my background artists and always fight for them," Gable says.
The industry standard is time-and-a-half after eight hours and double pay after 12. "It is not luxury pay, but all the films I work on earn way over minimum wage, plus overtime," says Gable, who will turn down projects that offer less than $8 an hour.
Gable says actors know the rate before accepting a job and unionizing will most likely not increase the average wage. She adds that for a project to be financed, a payroll account is often set up, but if filming goes over budget it is the financing firm that often holds up the payment to background actors.
There would be no movie without background. Everything would be empty.
J. Nathan Simmons, a background actor
Below-the-line talent (grips, gaffers, lighting technicians, etc.) and above-the-line talent (scriptwriters, directors, lead actors) negotiate through their respective unions. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 480 is for the technical crew, Writers Guild of America (WGA) for writers, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) for directors and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) for actors. Their contracts demand weekly or regular payments.
On set there is a separation of privileges, with the most obvious being a difference in meals for the technical crew and background actors. Simmons says he sometimes gets oatmeal with spoiled milk versus freshly made omelets. Due to Hinsel's food allergies, she relies on the Americans with Disabilities Act to get access to an adequate meal.
Every actor who wants to benefit from a union, she says, "should publicly stand with the group to establish a standard of expectations and ensure that they are upheld." The majority of productions run smoothly, Hinsel says, though she's felt disrespected and bullied by crew members at most. About a quarter of the productions she’s worked on may have violated labor regulations, she estimates. She adds that there is no justification or reasonable excuse for bad treatment.
Many productions do not build a budget so everyone involved in the project has the same access to amenities, Hinsel says. Often, the background actors are penned-up in holding areas, which Simmons compares to being treated like cattle.
Gable says conditions are not easy on location, but medics are always available. Long waits are part of the job, she adds. She acknowledges that there is lower quality—but not bad quality—for the background actors’ two free meals a day. The technical crew works the hardest, she says, and is the first to arrive and last to leave.
Productions expect a lot from background actors, Simmons says, “and we are not that demanding.” Among other things, he's seeking hotel reimbursements when shooting wraps at midnight in Santa Fe and the call time the next morning is 6 a.m. He also criticizes shelter that only protects against the cold wind or hot sun but is not clean and free of sand.
As a crewmember, director, screenwriter and producer, Hinsel offers advice for new background actors: Take an interest in every aspect. It is important to practice going against your instinct, such as talking without any noise or limiting your facial ticks. “Just the flick of your eye is very noticeable,” she adds.
Simmons administers New Mexico Actors, the 24-hour talent registry that allows members to network and post contact information for possible jobs. “Background actors come from all walks of life, including blue-collar workers, doctorates, retirees and veterans,” he says. He also provides updates to the members and rates productions based on feedback from local actors. "There would be no movie without background," says Simmons. "Everything would be empty."