A guide to finding background actors in a rural area

Occasionally I have the opportunity to travel and work on films that are shooting around the world. One of the challenging factors I have faced when shooting in a city or state that does not have a huge talent pool is finding background actors.

Most recently I filmed a movie in Kentucky and was tasked with the assignment of finding hundreds of volunteers to be background actors in our film. Because the budget was very tight the budget I had for background actors was used to feed them and hire someone to help me find them.

Here are the steps I did to recruit hundreds of volunteers in a small town in Kentucky:

  1. Create a generic email address nameofmovie@gmail.com. Use this email for all correspondence with the background actors. You don’t want to give out your personal email account because you may have several people logging into this email to reply and stay updated with the correspondence.
  2. Create a sign up form using google forms or another online form maker. I tend to use google forms but I realize there are probably additional sites out there that would be great for this. In the form you want to include name, email, phone, gender, age, photo link, if minor parent’s info, roles interested in and dates available.  This form will give you a link that you can send out. Make sure to include the title of the film, a logline and something enticing starring “Denzel Washington” etc..
  3. Send out a sign up link to various groups and organizations. Depending on the type of project I would try and partner with similar organizations who might want to help. I was working on a faith based movie so we contacted a dozen churches and asked to see if they could include this link in their e-newsletter or on their church’s facebook page. I also joined local facebook pages to the city and state that were related to film/acting/movies. I contacted the local news organization who was able to do a story on us and they were able to post the link as well. As it got closer to doing one of the school scenes I was able to talk to the communications person at one of the schools who was kind enough to post the link on the school’s facebook page. Was this a lot of work? Yes. Did it work? Yes. I actually got hundreds of people to sign up and the link was part of the key. It made it easy for them to sign up because it was simple and provided a sign-up process that was very straightforward.
  4. Sign up people in person. As much as I love digital forms and technology I believe that there is something to be said for going old school and taking a personable approach. I contacted a local high school and was able to do a presentation with the theater class. After the session was over I had nearly a dozen students sign up to be extras. Old school worked!
  5. Figure out who will handle the communication. If your film has between 20-30 extras throughout your entire film its very possible that the 2nd AD can handle the communication between all the extras. If for example your film has several hundred or even thousands of extras you will most likely want to hire a person to take this workload off the 2nd AD’s shoulders. Anytime I can afford an official Background Casting Director or Background Casting Company I always do it. If however you are shooting in a rural area your options may be very limited. It is at this point that you can hire an office PA and train them how to do the job.
  6. Create a facebook group. Create a secrete facebook group just for your film. Invite everyone who has signed up to be an extra in your film and occasionally post last minute needs in the group. This is something I wish I had done on previous films and plan to do in the future.
  7. Communicate clearly with the background. We chose to confirm twice with most of our background actors. Because the people we were working with were volunteers things would come up, people would get sick and so confirmations were essential. Its a good idea to book about 10-15 more people than you actually need because you will typically have a few drop out last minute if they are not paid. I like the idea of emailing background two days before the shoot day to confirm their availability and then the day before to give them all the details such as date, time, location, wardrobe info and things they should know. I give them specifics such as  how long they will be on set, if there will be food provided and other details etc. In the second email I give them a deadline to reply to. Once this deadline is passed we begin to text those who have not confirmed the second time to see if they are still planning on coming.