Extra actors, sometimes called background extras or just extras, populate the background scenes of movies and TV programs to enhance the reality of actors in the foreground who are speaking. Though they may have special skills, such as horseback riding for a Civil War film, most are undistinguished, everyday folk who do not pull focus from the leads. Their salaries depend on whether or not they are in the union.
Non-union extras are paid a daily rate equal to eight hours times the minimum wage. As of January 2011, that rate is £5 per hour, which pays a rate of £41 per day. This rate applies even if the actor works for only a few hours. However, the average workday is 12 hours, and extras receive overtime pay of time-and-a-half. So the average daily wage for non-union actors is usually £72.
Wages for union actors are governed by contracts negotiated by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). The daily rate for general background actors as of June 10, 2010, is £90 for an eight-hour day. For special-ability actors, such as those who can swim, ride animals or play organised sports, the daily rate is £93. Stand-ins who substitute for actors so lighting and cameras can be adjusted get £96, while choreographed swimmers and skaters receive £202. As with non-union extras, work over eight hours receives time-and-a-half pay.
SAG actors also receive additions to pay for more complex work that may be granted to non-union extras at the discretion of the production company. For example, working in smoke or water adds £9. Costume fittings are paid at one-quarter of the daily work for up to two hours. Actors who supply their own formal attire, national dress costume, tropical suit, uniform (other than police) or period wardrobe get £11 a day. A police uniform garners £23 a day. Other daily additions can include £14 for pets, £7 for golf clubs, £3.50 per piece of luggage, £3.50 for a camera and £22 for a car.
Typically, regular non-union actors become members of SAG by auditioning and then working under SAG conditions. However, it is possible to become a member of SAG as an extra and receive higher rates. Before non-union extras can work, a number of union extras must be hired. If a union extra does not show up for work that day, the assistant director (AD) must give that voucher to a non-union extra, and pay him at the higher union rate. These vouchers may be handed out at random or to extras who perform special work. Having a voucher does not make an extra a SAG member automatically. She must still pay the required SAG initiation fees, which run to thousands of dollars, and the yearly dues.