Commercial Background Work

Consider Being in the Background!

Actors performing a scene on a film set
Caspar Benson/Getty Images

If background work in general as a day job does not appeal to you, before dismissing the option altogether, I truly suggest that you explore the world of commercial background work.  It's tough to break into, but like anything else in entertainment and in Hollywood, once you're in, you're in!  And the amount of money that you can make can be great.

TV/Film Background vs. Commercial Background

When you compare television and film background work to commercial background work, you will notice one main difference:  money.  This is especially true if you're a member of SAG-AFTRA.  Although you're working as an "extra" on the production, your compensation for your work makes it a very enjoyable experience.  Allow me to break everything down for you.

The current rate of pay for a union background performer in a commercial is $342.40 for an 8 hour work day.  Yes, you read that correctly - $342.40!  That breaks down to $42.80 per hour for the first 8 hours of your day, whether you work 1 hour or 8 hours.  Pretty awesome, don’t you agree?  What’s more, if the commercial shoot goes past 8 hours, you can start making some serious cash in overtime!  


Per a typical SAG-AFTRA commercial background contract, overtime is paid in two different tiers.  You will receive “time and a half” ($64.20) for hours 9 and 10 on set.  After hour 10 on set, you will receive “double time” ($85.60) until you reach hour 16. 

As is true with other SAG productions, once you surpass hour 16 on set, you will make a “session rate” for every subsequent hour.  On a commercial, that would mean that you would make $342.40 for each hour once you reach hour 16.

Obviously, not every commercial background job is going to reach overtime, but even if you don’t go into overtime, you can essentially pay a large portion of your rent with one day of commercial background work.  What's more, if you're booked on a weekend, the rate is even higher for the day! (You can read all about payments for commercial background work in the "SAG-AFTRA commercial background contract" link above.)  

While no residuals are paid for background performers in commercials, there is always a chance that you may be upgraded up to a principal role, (as is true with TV and film). When this occurs, you will make a lot of money!  (I can say from personal experience, it happens!)

Upgraded to a Principal Role on a Commercial

What constitutes a background performer’s being upgraded to a principal performer on a commercial?  There are 3 factors.  As listed on the SAG-AFTRA website:

“There are several ways to qualify for an upgrade to principal performer. Here are the most common:

  1.  A performer is directed to speak a line (other than omnies [atmospheric sounds/mutters]); or
  2. A performer is performing an identifiable stunt; or
  3. A performer is in the (1) foreground, (2) identifiable, and (3) demonstrating or illustrating a product or service or illustrating or reacting to the on/off camera narration or commercial message. (The performer must meet all 3 criteria simultaneously in the spot to qualify for a principal upgrade.)”

(If you work on a commercial, be sure to check on these criteria once the commercial airs, to be sure that you’re not owed an upgrade!)

Will Background Work Negatively Affect Your Career?

The argument of "will this negatively affect my career?" always comes up around Hollywood. Some actors say “yes,” while others say, “no.”  I believe that background work is most likely not going to affect your career negatively or prevent you from booking a job as a principal actor. Every situation is different, but in my case, background work has always helped me rather than hurt me.

Most industry professionals understand that the majority of men and women who work as extras are doing so in order to have a job on set and to (hopefully) learn. Rarely, if ever, do people think, "He or she is only doing background because they can't get a principal job." If someone on set does think that, then they clearly don't have an understanding of what it means to be an actor!  There are ups and downs throughout our careers, and I believe that background work - especially commercial background - is a great way to make money, meet people, and learn about the entertainment business.

Commercial Background Casting Agencies

There are several casting offices that specialize in casting extras in commercials.  Some of the commercial extra casting offices that I am signed with are “Extra Extra Casting,” “Commercial Extras” and “Peas and Carrots Casting.” There are others, so be sure to do your research. 

Remember, it can take some time to break into commercial background, as it is highly competitive.  But you can do it if you are persistent, and as always, do one thing toward your goal every day!  The background can be an interesting and profitable place to explore. Good luck!

Click here to read an interview with Samantha Kelly, from Extra Extra Casting!