Extra! Extra! A Day in the Life of a Background Actor

I recently had the opportunity to work as an extra on the NBC show, Chicago Med. When I moved down to the city freshman year, I told myself I’d do it. They film out west of the Loop, and I figured since I was closer to it at school, this was my chance.

Flash forward to 2 years later and I’m realizing I’m that graduating and likely moving back to the suburbs in May. And I still hadn’t gone and tried to be an extra! I committed and started applying to all of their postings.

Chicago Fire, Med, and PD have a shared casting call page on Facebook called ‘Chicago Fire Extras’. They post whenever they’re looking for extras, which is super frequently. I had been following the page for probably 3 years? And I submitted for parts occasionally, but was never contacted.

This year I applied several times hoping for my chance, and was about to give up when they finally got back to me. They wanted me to come in as an extra on Friday and Monday to play a med student in the NICU. I applied for both dates because I was “available” for both, although I only really wanted to work one.

I emailed back immediately saying that I would absolutely do it, but was it possible to choose just one day and not do both? Not because I didn’t want to do two days, but because I was hesitant to take two days off of work. I knew one would be fine and not an issue.

They got back to me and said it was no problem, and then gave me some more information regarding what to wear, what to bring, etc. I was told to call the hotline between 11a-1p the day before (Thursday), for more information.

I set my alarm on Thursday and literally called right at 11a.m. They don’t tell you what time you need to be on set in any emails, so I was hoping it would be available on the hotline at 11a., because that is how you get your call time info! I was disappointed to find out that it was just a summary of what to bring and wear (again), and then told you to call back after 10p.m. for the call times. They needed you to call in at 11a.m. and confirm that you were still coming. Which is why they have you call twice. Once early to check in, and once later to get you your call time. If they got the information earlier, a message saying, “call in now,” would be posted on the Facebook page.

It’s pretty inconvenient to find out what time you need to be on set at 10p.m. if there is a chance you might need to be there at 5a.m.! So this is definitely not for everyone, and it’s a big part of what held me back from doing it in the past. I like having a solid plan early on. I don’t do last minute, it stresses me out too much.

I was able to find out my call time at 6:30p.m. because they got the information a little bit earlier, but that isn’t always the case. There also was the chance that they could change it later that night, or even in the morning!

My call time was at 7a.m. With the trains and buses I would need to take to get there, it would take an hour and fifteen minutes to get there. So I needed to leave my apartment by 5:30a.m. If they updated the call time between 5:30-7a.m., it would have been brutal. I got lucky and that did not happen!

I got to Cinespace, where Chicago Med films, by 6:40a.m. It took me 3 trains and a bus to get there from Rogers Park, but I did it! I was really worried that people would be mean or rude because I had heard extras are the lowest on the totem pole and often treated as such.

I was greeted warmly by almost everyone! No one looked at me funny or was harsh to me. When the bus dropped me at the studio (the 157 drops you literally IN FRONT of where you need to be), I wasn’t sure what entrance I needed to go in, or even if I was in the right place, because it is quite unassuming.

I hesitantly approached a security guard. He was so nice and directed me down the alley to the entrance I needed to be in. When I got confused again, someone else helped me. And so on.

They provide breakfast when you show up in the morning. And when I say breakfast, I’m not talking free continental breakfast at a hotel. No. Not even close! Med provided pancakes that were cooked to order right IN FRONT OF YOU, juices, eggs, bacon, and more. All of it looked fantastic, but I unfortunately wasn’t super hungry, so I passed on it.

Once the clock strikes your call time (for me, 7a.m.), you line up to get your non-union voucher. This is how you’ll get paid. They write down the time you checked in, then they’ll hand it over to you. It comes with your name and role filled in, but you’re responsible for filling out details such as your address, birthdate, and social security number. I had been told to bring a passport or my Social Security Card, but was never asked to present either item. I mean, if you don’t have your social memorized, then I guess it would be important to bring your card!

Also, if it’s your first time, you will need to fill out the “starting a new job” tax forms. They rush you about it, too. I was handed the forms and she goes, “ok just fill out the highlighted portions,” and they try to hustle you to wardrobe. And you’re sitting there trying to decide how many allowances and everything! I just hope I got it all filled out correctly. It was stressful. But, you only have to do that the first time you work. If you ever want to go back after that, you never need to do it again.

Once you’ve got your waiver (which has carbon copies for later use), you head outside to wardrobe. They’ll take your voucher (to see your role so they can know how to dress you), and then they hold onto it until you return your props/outfit that way, if you don’t return it, you won’t get paid! OR if you return it missing some items, they know exactly who you are and can dock your pay accordingly.

Oh, did I mention the pay? The standard rate of pay is $104 for 8 hours. If you have different qualifications (i.e. you’re a stand in, you’re a real life EMT, doctor, or nurse), there will be a pay bump. I’ve seen it around $184 for 8 hours, sometimes even greater. Then sometimes you’ll get a special ability bump on top of that $184. Like, a paramedic will be paid $184 for 8 hours, and then on top of that, they’ll get an extra $25 for being a paramedic. If you go over 8 hours, then it’s time and a half. If you’re under 8 hours, you’re still guaranteed the full 8 hours pay, which is super nice.

After you’ve gotten your outfit, which for me, was a set of grey scrubs and a lab coat, from wardrobe, you go change. Different “roles” get different outfits! Pink was nurses. Darker red was doctors. Beige for med techs. Grey for med students!

Then, once you’re changed, they’ll take you for props. As a NICU med student, my props included a stethoscope, an ID on a lanyard, a pen light, and a pen. Easy. These are things that if you don’t return them, they’ll take the cost of whatever it was out of your pay. Part of why they hold onto your voucher.

Most of your day will be spent sitting. We were asked to bring chairs from the area where we ate onto stage 1, that way we could sit closer to where they were filming and they wouldn’t have to come as far to find someone for a scene. So we grabbed folding chairs and sat on stage 1 for probably 90% of the day.

For our first scene, almost all of us were brought out. All of the scenes were in the NICU. I was paired up with a super nice person (Nikki if you’re reading this, you are awesome!) who had (thankfully) done this many, many times before. We were told to stand at the counter near where one of the actors would enter the set. We would talk there for 10 “beats,” then head into a room. After 10 beats, she would leave. After another ten, I would head out to go “check something on a computer,” and after 10 or so beats of checking the computer, I’d walk into a hallway and off the set.

Honestly, it was super reminiscent of high school theater programs. We all had to walk off set, and cram into a small space where we would not be seen. And the minute we were out of sight, there would be whispering and giggling going on. Even from the actual actors! It really was strange how similar it was to high school theater. A bunch of people crammed into the wings, goofing off silently, and waiting for someone to yell “cut.” That was my first scene. (Season 5, Episode 11, if anyone wants to watch!) I believe it was Scene 17.

Now, they basically line you up against a wall and choose who they want for what. Then, if you’re lucky, they’ll explain everything to you in great detail. I was lucky I got paired up with someone who knew what she was doing! The PA in charge of us was very very brisk. She did not bother to explain the meanings of “first team,” “second team,” or “on a bell,” or even what a “beat” was.

  • First team = principal actors and background actors
  • Second team = stand ins
  • On a bell = when they’re about to start filming
  • Beat = basically a second. Why not call it a second? I don’t know.

So the first few run throughs were scary as I gathered my bearings! One thing I didn’t know (because I’d never done it before), is that everything is ABSOLUTELY SILENT. When you see extras talking in the background on tv? They’re actually not. You’re silently mouthing words to each other because you’re not allowed to actually speak. The microphones will pick it up. So our conversation? She would move her lips nonsensically and I would nod and mouth “ok” every time we ran that scene. It got old really fast!

The PA would constantly go, “I see everything, guys,” and readjust us. I was initially supposed to walk off into a hallway. When she noticed she could see us standing there in the shot, we were told we needed to get completely off set. And this was when I got the high school vibes. When we all got yelled at (including a principal actor), and told to get off the set. And then we all would cram in there and giggle. Stuff like this happened multiple times to many different people!

When I say “silent,” I mean “SILENT.” The very first rehearsal for a scene, she got upset. Our feet were too loud when we walked. So we tried again quietly. I guess when we did that, people looked too much like they were trying to tiptoe and move quietly which meant they were not “walking with purpose”. So she stopped again and made us all put booties over our feet. You know, the kind you wear when the carpet has just been cleaned? Those.

Then, Nikki I were stopped again to remove the booties because they realized they were in the shot! You could see from our heads to our toes when the main actor walked onto set because they wanted the look of the whole suit + shoes on him. Everyone else had to keep theirs, but ours were taken away.

We did that first scene (talk talk talk – walk into room – wait – walk out of room – check computer – walk off set), more times than I could count! Once it was done, we were all taken back off set and lined up against a wall. Then, we waited. And waited. They grabbed a few people and filmed another scene, while we all just sat.

From there, it was more of the same. Sitting for a long while. Then, they moved the cameras and were filming from a different angle. And we had to go back out and do our exact same thing again. But then, we finally were all led back to stage one to sit in “holding” on the chairs we had brought. We got back to find out that they had brought out snacks for us! In the morning there had been tea, coffee, and drinks, but now, there was a whole bunch of candy, and snacks like goldfish and granola bars.

We sat there for a LONG time. Honestly, that was the majority of my day. I got paid $104 to do nothing but walk back and forth for an hour or so. The rest of the time I was free to sit and be on my phone, or read a book. Which I did. You can also bring your phone on set. I was able to spend a lot of time on my phone while we were waiting for second team to finish lighting, or for the actors to get situated. It wasn’t an issue. But your phone needs to be on silent. Vibrate is not an option because the mics will pick that up, too!

We sat in holding for a long time. A couple of times, they’d come grab someone, but it was never me. Finally, we were brought back out. We had to learn new “parts”. This time, I was standing at a computer. I was told to look busy at the computer, then after 10 beats, walk over and talk to the nurse at the desk. After 10 beats, walk in and check on a patient. Done.

We made it halfway through the first shot, and all of a sudden all of these guys are waving hands at us extras. They’re completely silent because the cameras were rolling, but everyone is flashing “stop” with their hands and mouthing “no more”. Turns out, extras weren’t even going to be seen! We were just unnecessary noise.

They had us all go sit down off set, but not back in holding while they shot the scene. So if you do watch S5 E11, know that when she’s saying, “Patrick IS the father,” I’m right there, hiding inside either a patient’s room offscreen, or in the waiting area! After they were finished, they were like “oops, sorry guys,” and herded us back to stage 1. Where we sat, again.

Finally, a long while later, they came back and asked for the same 12 people who had just been up. Us. They were filming from a different angle and now needed background actors. We would actually be seen and utilized this time. At this point, I also got a text from casting. They really needed me to work Monday as well, if it was possible.

So I emailed my boss, and explained the situation. Luckily, she was fine with it! And I let casting know that I would, in fact, make it back on Monday to reprise my coveted role as a med student.

We went in and got to our “first mark” (where you start out at during a scene). I was prepared to be at computer, talk to nurse, go to room. However, the PA in charge of us had vanished! All of a sudden, some other guy comes up to my nurse and goes, “hey, this girl (not me), is going to approach you and ask for directions. Help her out for this scene.” And part of my actions disintegrated. I looked at the nurse like, “if you’ll be talking to her, what the heck do I do for 10 beats?” So I improvised! Actually, 94% of us improvised because the PA was gone, and no one told us no.

I instead worked at the computer for 10 beats. Then walked to check on a baby for 10 beats. Then I walked back to the computer and checked for 10 beats. Then I walked and checked on a different patient until they yelled “cut” (less than 15 beats). And no one stopped me, so it clearly worked! Other people improvised when we realized that her “plan” sent 4 of us into one room at the same time. So we all kinda changed it up so it seemed less crazy and odd. It worked out well!

We spent FOREVER on that scene. They kept having to change the lighting or work with the actors or something or other! At this point it was around 1:30 and we still had not gotten the “hot lunch.” Many of the seasoned vets were saying, “ohhhh they’re going to send us home now so they don’t have to feed us.” I was pretty bummed and really hoping that wasn’t the case!

Anyhow, we finally finished shooting that scene and headed back to Stage 1 to sit. Awhile after that, they came out and said, “thanks guys, you’ve been great. Please take your props back and carry your chairs back upstairs.”

So we all went to return our props, and then brought the chairs upstairs. From there, we changed out of our scrubs/lab coats/etc. Wardrobe had gone to lunch, so we had to wait to return our stuff. It was fine, because they had HOT, DELICIOUS, CATERED LUNCH! I talked to some of the vets again and they said that Med, PD, and Fire feed you better than anything else in Chicago. I ate steak, mashed potatoes, bread, and mushrooms. For dessert? Half a slice of carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, and a chocolate chip cookie. That alone made the commute out to Cinespace worth it!

After we ate, wardrobe was back and we were able to head out and return our costumes. Since I was returning on Monday, they flagged mine and set it aside for me to reuse. They also returned my voucher. Then I had to go back inside to have them write the time I checked out on my voucher. They keep that and give you a carbon copy. And you’re done!

My next day on Chicago Med was more of the same. Luckily, a lot of the people who had been on on Friday were back again on Monday, so I knew a few people going in. I felt that we did a lot more on Monday, as well! I spent far less time sitting (maybe only an hour total?), and most of my day was spent in the background of scenes.

Fun fact: the episode I’m in was obviously in the NICU. The storyline of the episode (S5E11) revolved around a couple of pregnant women. Guess what their baby was named? She was named Mazie. I seriously think it must’ve been fate for me to end up scheduled on this episode. On another note, it was SO confusing, as everyone was constantly saying “Maysie,” in reference to the baby. I got terrified every time my name came out of the director or any of the higher up’s mouths. I always thought they meant me!

On Monday, the PA was also fantastic. I said I was thrown in on Friday? On Monday, he walked us through every little thing. When we all showed up, he took time to suss out who was new (not me at this point) and went through a spiel explaining all the terms and what we needed to do. He also would explain each thing that they did during filming, which was so amazing! He gave about a 15 minute lecture on how everything would work and what the day would be like. I wish I would’ve had that my first day. The girl PA who was in charge of positioning us on set was also much more chill, I actually enjoyed talking to her and didn’t feel ridiculous for asking a question.

I think I was also in more scenes on Monday. On Friday, the first day I worked, we sat for probably 3 hours doing nothing. I know for a fact it was a long time because I managed to read two books on my Kindle (thanks Kindle Unlimited), and still end up with time to be bored on Friday. On Monday, I don’t think I ever had the luxury of sitting for a whole hour and doing nothing.

I was in many scenes doing so many different things. Luckily, in a few of them I did get to sit, so I wasn’t on my feet all day! I spent some time flipping through files and looking busy doing admin work at the desk. Then I spent some time sitting at the computer and directing another extra who was lost in the hospital. We seriously must’ve beaten the world record for the longest silent conversation. The scene was so long! And we had to silently talk to each other for the whole thing. It was one of the strangest experiences of my life, silently talking to a random guy whose name I never even got!

In another one of my scenes, I had to go speak to a doctor, then run into one room, grab some supplies, and walk them across to another room. Then, provided the scene was still going, I’d walk a few laps around the area. I really liked our PA, she just let us do what felt natural and didn’t try to overload us with instructions!

After filming those few scenes, we got to eat another fantastic meal. This time, it was stuffed flank steak, broccoli cheddar soup, roasted cauliflower, and lasagna. I topped that off with a cookie and a few brownies! Yum.

All in all? I had a fantastic experience! I’m really bummed it’s over and am hoping to get to be an extra again one day soon.

Most Important Things to Know Before Your First Day:

  • Don’t be embarrassed if you’re bringing a duffle bag of clothes. I was so worried it would be total overkill. They told me to bring: 2 business outfits, 2 long sleeve shirts, and a pair of gym shoes. I also had to bring business appropriate shoes to go with the dressy outfit! The easiest way for me to carry it was in a duffle bag. I thought I would look like I had too much stuff. Ha! Nope. People had full on suitcases. The best part is, most of it never even needs to be worn. You bring it “just in case,” and according to the veterans, you’ll probably never need it! I definitely didn’t need to use anything I brought with. Will I bring it again next time anyways? You bet! Never know if you might need it. And if you’re the one extra who actually listened and did bring the suit? Maybe you’ll get lucky and end up getting extra pay for doing something else, or even ending up with a bigger role! Who knows? So always be prepared.
  • Do some googling and learn the lingo! You may get thrown in the deep end like I was.
  • Know that background actors start moving around before everyone else. They’ll call out “background,” and that’s your cue! A few seconds later, everyone else starts going.
  • Be absolutely silent. Seriously. For some reason, I was expecting loud sets. I don’t know why, but because of the way they edit it or mic the people on TV, I felt that they’d be much louder in real life. In reality, they just sound so loud because everything is SO quiet on set. Most of the scenes I was in, the actors spoke quietly enough that I couldn’t even hear most of the conversation.
  • Have some idea of who the people in the show are! I don’t watch Med so I was clueless. At one point they came out to the lineup of us background actors. He goes, “Who kept walking behind Yaya in the scene? Who? Who?” And I’m going, “who the heck is Yaya?” She’s one of the main characters on the show! Luckily, I wasn’t who he was asking about. But after that, I made a point to know the names in case another question like that came up, and it was directed at me.
  • Bring stuff to do! Most of your day will be sitting and waiting. I brought my Kindle and that helped save my phone battery. Of course, I also brought my external charger (no outlets in holding), but I tried to use my Kindle to conserve phone battery as much as possible.
  • Pay attention! At one point, a guy came into holding and said, “three medical.” He said it so quietly half of us missed it. And he grabbed 3 people before I could even volunteer. If you’re paying attention, you can volunteer right away to spend time doing more actual work!
  • Have fun!! I had so much fun doing this, and I would totally do it again if it was easier to get to and you got more advance notice. You meet awesome people, too, so don’t spend the day with headphones in and not trying to talk to others.
  • Bring layers! Stage and holding were both FREEZING. When you’re in holding you can layer up, so make sure to bring layers. Likewise, if it’s hot, make sure you’re able to take a few layers OFF. I’ve heard it’ll either be super hot, or super cold.
  • Only wear what wardrobe gives you/tells you to. If they don’t give it to you, don’t wear it. A girl who was also playing a med student got scolded pretty harshly. She had layered a black long sleeve under her scrub top (nurses are told to layer long sleeves under scrubs). However, med students are simply supposed to wear a scrub top + lab coat. They got SO mad that she was wearing something they had not given her, and made her go change.

If you have any questions about working as an extra, let me know! I’m not an expert, by any means, but after 2 days on Chicago Med, I know some. So if you have any questions that weren’t answered by the above, just reach out!