To be seen and not noticed—that's the job of a movie extra, or background actor. And with the steadily growing New Mexican film industry, some are making "living backdrop" a full-time role.
"I started doing this and now I'm addicted to it," Jason Koroll, 46, tells SFR. Koroll landed his first role as an extra in the 2009 film Gamer. He now makes background acting his full-time job. "I like doing it and I'm having just as much fun as if I was on vacation at another job."
From local indies and student films to Breaking Bad and The Avengers, New Mexico has become a major hub for movie and television production. This is largely due to the state's substantial film incentives: The state offers a 25-30 percent tax rebate to film and television production companies for most in-state expenditures, including the hiring of local crew members. The currently filming Netflix series Daybreak, for example, employs approximately 3,000 local background actors, according to the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions.
Koroll, who lives in Santa Fe, heard his first casting call on the radio. To find new jobs, he now regularly scans casting Facebook pages and message boards. He is also on the online databases of several local extra casting directors.
Elizabeth Gabel's EG Casting, for example, is based in Albuquerque but has cast extras for movies across New Mexico since the early 2000s. She estimates about 30,000 potential background actors are included in her online database, though only 10,000 have up-to-date information.
"I'd say 50 percent of my database is retired people," Gabel tells SFR. "The problem is, if we're casting a scene, we can't cast it all with retired people. We do get a lot of younger people between 18 and 25; however, they're very unreliable. They have a 30 percent no-show rate."
Casting background actors in New Mexico comes with another challenge, according to Gabel.
"One of the biggest problems that we have in New Mexico is that people are overweight," she says. "In LA, women will be a size four. In New Mexico, their average size is 14. I try to tell people—and it sounds so mean and it sounds so horrible, and I hate that—but I can't hire you if you're not going to fit the wardrobe. That's frustrating for them, but it's like, your body is your product. That's what you're selling."
In addition to posting casting calls on social media and contacting people from her database, Gabel sometimes holds in-person casting calls. For The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a 2018 Netflix original movie directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, she says 1,200 people showed up. Around 250 fit the parameters needed for the movie.
"A lot of people showed up because they wanted to be in a Coen brothers movie," Gabel says. "Because of security purposes, now we aren't allowed to advertise what movies we're working on, and that really hurts us. I just finished up a project with Uma Thurman, and if I was able to advertise her name, more people probably would have come to the casting call."
Life on set
For Koroll, a big perk of movie work is the community he's found among his fellow background actors. "It's a social scene you haven't seen in your life since you were in high school," he says. "You make friends with every age group, every color, every orientation."
Sonya Byrd, 40, who began background acting this May, says she's made some of her closest friends through the work. Koroll and Byrd both say they spend the vast majority of the day "in holding:" waiting around in between scenes.
"It's not a career for everybody," Byrd tells SFR. "Sometimes there's really early call times and you might have to show up on set at 5 o'clock and be on set for 15, 16 hours. And a lot of that time you may just be waiting around. I bring an iPad, a book, something to keep me occupied during those many hours."
Background actors are typically paid minimum wage for their first eight hours of work. After that, they receive time and a half. The long hours aren't the only downside to the job, according to Byrd—background actors are near the bottom of the food chain on set.
"I worked outside some of these nights when it's really cold," she says. "A lot of times the extras will be outside and they will provide heaters for us, but we're there outside by the heaters while some of the actors and crew are inside somewhere warm. Then for the crew sometimes they provide better snacks and stuff than for the background actors. It just depends on the production."
Many background actors have big dreams of climbing their way up in the film industry. According to Gabel, that hope is more achievable than some might expect.
"Becoming an extra is an excellent way to get into the film industry because the film industry is mentor-oriented," she says. "The way to do it is to get on set and to meet the people in the area that you want to work. So a lot of the people who were working for me 10 years ago as extras are now actually production coordinators and in props and in wardrobe and moving up into the management position."
Gabel says that it's fairly common for background actors to get bumped up to speaking roles. Kiko Sanchez, 39, got his first line in the 2014 comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West.
"I saw a few people who looked like they could be important-looking … so I stood in front of them and they asked if I wanted to be the meat vendor," Sanchez tells SFR.
Sanchez now has an agent and soon plans to join the Screen Actors Guild. He stopped background acting about a year ago, in part to avoid being "burnt"— a TV show isn't likely to cast for a character role someone who's appeared as an extra in an earlier episode. Even as his acting career has grown, however, Sanchez has never wanted to leave his home state.
"I think there's enough work out here to build a resume," he says. "I always thought if I did go to LA, it will be because a project takes me there. There's a good acting community out here. There's so many creative people in New Mexico that want to make movies."