As we're all still safer at home and spending more time re-watching TV shows, I urge you to take a closer look at them. No, not moving closer to your television; watch the frames more closely and think about what it took to make that scene come to life. A concert scene in Bohemian Rhapsody? Yes, there are the actors doing a great job on stage and even the director and crew that makes it all happen… but what about the people you see but never think of? Most of "The Magic of Hollywood" still involves very real people.
In Bohemian Rhapsody, the Live Aid recreation would look absolutely silly without the thousand or more people they hired to dress in 1980s clothes, have their hair and makeup done correctly, and stand outside jamming out to the concert for 12+ hours, each time reacting with the same high-energy. With real concerts and audience gatherings on hold indefinitely, the impact of the industry shut-down not only extends to film crews (who can often be comprised of a hundred people or more) but to those who add to the scene on screen. I'm talking about the background actors.
Hollywood is filled with actors? Say it ain't so!
I know that's a dumb realization for some, but when you're into a show or movie, it's easy not to realize that they're not just out and about – every single thing you see in that frame and even what lies just beyond frame is staged. Every person is paid to be there, whether they're the lead actor or the elbow blur in the background, or someone not even caught on camera.
So, let's start at the beginning: what is an extra? Whenever you watch a movie or TV show that's not a reality show, there are usually people moving around in the background to make it look like they're in a real store on an actual street and not a studio backlot, same as in a restaurant scene or anything else where the action is happening somewhere other people are.
To borrow a gaming term, Hollywood's background actors are real-life NPCs (non-player characters) for television and movies.
No, they are not really on a busy New York street, it's just a closed block of downtown Hollywood in August with a hundred people in coats pretending to be pedestrians. Congratulations, everything in Hollywood is an illusion. On a related note, Santa Claus isn't real and your childhood pet didn't suddenly go to live on a farm, they're dead.
Some sets take place in present-day, which means background actors are told what to wear (category is: fall in the midwest). They show up in their own clothes and do everyday activities – sometimes it's walking up and down a city block, sometimes it's sitting at a bar or a park or a restaurant, or even dancing at a party. In the case of the more action-heavy shows like NCIS, 9-1-1, or SWAT, they have to react to a shooting down the block, or stand behind a barrier and look on at a crime scene or accident.
Background Actor or Time Traveler?
Ambiance for normal shows is all well and good, but where things get interesting (in my opinion at least) are the "period pieces," which is a term meaning the show is set in a time period before now. This does happen to go right along with my love of all things retro, but it's still cool regardless of "when" you are.
One of my very first jobs in this industry had me watching a scene be filmed that took place in a bar during the "live" broadcast of the 1969 Vietnam draft. Both onset and when it came out, it sparked conversations and curiosity for those of us who hadn't lived through that time in history – how did the draft function, what did it feel like, why was the nation so divided at this point? It's perspective like this that you don't get from a history book; this is as close to living it as we can get.
Stepping on a period set, especially a historical one, is just like traveling through time – you get to step back and experience a party in 1975, just like ones your parents may have gone to back in the day. The emphasis is on accuracy from the hair, makeup, and wardrobe to on set where everything is exactly as it was at the time – everything has that "just stepped out of the DeLorean" feeling…but without actually meeting your teenage parents.
If you're not a history buff, this all may sound lame, but it's one of my favorite examples of how the entertainment industry can educate and help people learn about the past in a tangible way. And let me tell you, stepping onto the set is great, but it didn't come alive until the extras came in – full wardrobe, hair done, cars of the day parked out front; everything was exactly as it would have been…save for the thoroughly modern film crew.
The Pandemic Impact Goes Further Than Just Production Shut-Downs
COVID-19 has drastically altered the way movies are going to be made when production is safely allowed to resume, and we still have no idea what Hollywood in a post-pandemic world will look like. There's been a lot of speculation and predictions that scenes will be written in purposefully empty locations, and background actors will be mostly eliminated in the name of on-set safety. The only thing we know is that the days of concert scenes or large audience gatherings are gone for the foreseeable future; if the Live Aid scene from Bohemian Rhapsody were being filmed now, the entire audience would be CGI, if even shown at all.
The reality of it is though, we have no idea what our shows will look like once they're back. Period pieces may very well be scarce until we can get to where actors can safely perform together again and go back to recreating iconic events and situations, like Live Aid or people just sitting at a bar like they used to. Modern pieces have a little more leeway because they show life as it is currently, which means actors can be in masks and take visible precautions, and background actors can social distance on camera.
Thousands of people who work as background actors, including many people who use it to supplement freelance income, have seen that source of income disappear, and it may very well not come back. Will this lead to more actors auditioning for main and supporting roles? That could very likely happen, and it could bring us some amazing new talent; or it could lead to directors not wanting to deal with the throngs of people and just casting who they know instead, foregoing the cattle call process.
There are so many unknowns in Hollywood as the industry is creeping back into production, and nothing is certain. One of the only things we can be sure of is that media will not look the same for quite a while, if ever again – and yes, most of that is because of background actors. So, next time you watch something and believe every bit of the world they created, I urge you to think about and appreciate everything that went into creating that, because it is a lot of effort – an effort that may not be "worth the risk" for many years to come.