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Pandemic is a win and a loss for Hollywood’s background actors

Monique Farah sits outside a brick house near a tree.
Monique Farah works as an extra and is now back to work with many regulations because of COVID-19, including frequent testing.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Monique Farah considers herself one of the lucky ones. The 38-year old Westlake resident has worked as a background actor for the last 14 years, in between directing and writing gigs, for such shows such as “Swat,” “Goliath” and “Lucifer.”

She’s been able to rack up more days pay than she might otherwise, thanks in part to new film industry safety protocols.

Under the new rules, TV shows are offering to keep extras on for a whole season — rather than being hired by the day — or to be part of a recurring pod of background actors they are familiar with. They are paid to get tested for COVID-19, sometimes multiple times, and to not work elsewhere in order to minimize the risk of infection.

“It is a good time to be a background actor because so many industries are shut down,” Farah said. “If you worked in a restaurant right now you’d be screwed, and [for] a lot of background actors that is their second source of income. This is really like a saving grace for me. I feel very fortunate.”

The pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to many performers who’ve lost jobs due to production shutdowns. But it has provided an unexpected boost to some background actors, who are benefiting from new union requirements for producers to pay extras for any time spent to get a test or lost because of a COVID-19-related event like an outbreak on set.

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Moreover, productions are favoring a select group of background or stand-in artists whom they can trust and reuse. That is helping some extras counter the overall fall-off in work as Hollywood production remains limited by the health crisis.

“There appears to be a greater preference on the part of a number of producers towards hiring background performers for continued work on productions, as opposed to relying as much on daily hires as they used to,” said Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA’s chief operating officer and general counsel.

That shift can translate to a full week of work rather than a one-day gig for a half-hour TV show, or longer for an hourlong episode. But there is a flip side, he noted.

“It does also make it harder for other people to get opportunities,” Crabtree-Ireland said.

After months of negotiations, unions and an alliance of major producers in September reached an agreement on COVID-19 safety protocols and compensation for actors’ time spent being tested, in quarantine or recovering from illness. Under the new rules, background actors can earn money even before they arrive on set, with some shows asking cast members to test up to three times before shooting begins.

For SAG-AFTRA’s estimated 12,000 members in Los Angeles who work as background actors (many do not work exclusively as extras), they can command a daily rate of $178, or $209 working as a stand-in.

On top of that, the new contract, which lasts until April 30, requires that background actors are paid $100 for each day spent being tested, pay that can count toward their health and pension contributions if they are ultimately hired.

To be sure, the impact of the pandemic on film production has been heavy, with shoot days in L.A. down by more than 50% from a year ago.

The slow restart of filming has meant far fewer jobs overall for all cast and crew.

Productions that have resumed have relied on smaller crews in order to reduce the risk of infection spread.

Some producers have reportedly used crew members as stand-ins instead of hiring actors to reduce the number of people on set, sparking a warning from SAG-AFTRA.

“Background performers bring a unique skill set to the production, and we wouldn’t suggest that crew positions or anybody else be replaced by background performers,” Crabtree-Ireland said.

In the wake of the pandemic, the entertainment industry created a new position on set to help keep outbreaks at bay.

Sherman Oaks-based casting director Jeff Olan has seen a big decline in the number of background actors he is placing on film shoots.

Before the pandemic, he would place 300 to 400 extras a day on such shows as “Grey’s Anatomy.” Today, that number is closer to 60, he said.

Most of his 8,000 clients in the L.A. area work a day here and a day there, Olan said.

“You can look at it as being a little incentive that you’re making a little more money,” said Olan, who has been casting background performers for 28 years. “I think everyone would trade it in to go back to the way it was.”

Actors allege that changes made to a union health plan will make it harder for them to keep their insurance during the pandemic.

He too has found that some of his studio clients are building pods of extras that they are familiar with and can reuse, but the trend is starting to wane as costs escalate.

“They were bringing in people that they would test, and whether they worked them or not they would keep them on payment,” Olan said. “That’s changing a little bit because it’s probably costing the industry a whole lot of money.”

While some extras are earning more during the pandemic, many others are not.

Elizabeth Wachsberg has worked as an actor stand-in on popular network TV show for the last three years. She started as a background actor more than 15 years ago with her first union gig on the last season of “Friends.”

“It’s definitely changed the way people work,” Wachsberg said.

On her TV series, for example, only 30 actors were used in a scene depicting the 1992 L.A. riots, rather than the 200 to 300 that were originally planned.

“They did the best that they could with those people to try to make shots work a certain way in order to to make it look like a bigger crowd of people or they’re adding people in post [production],” Wachsberg said.

As a result of the new protocols, she’s working shorter days with less opportunity to get overtime pay.

“My income has been affected just by not being able to have the extra hours,” Wachsberg said.

Like many of her colleagues, Wachsberg worries about losing union health insurance benefits, which are contingent on reaching minimum earnings thresholds.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, new technologies are being developed to meet the needs of producers having to navigate stringent safety protocols for filming.

Previously, the Los Angeles resident would have been able to access SAG-AFTRA’s health plan with just $13,000 in annual earnings as she turned 40 this year.

But in August, Hollywood’s biggest union raised the minimum income threshold, citing higher costs during the pandemic.

That’s a real concern for Wachsberg, a colon cancer survivor who underwent chemotherapy treatments last year.

Actors, including “Lou Grant” star Ed Asner, last week sued SAG-AFTRA‘s health plan and its board of trustees over the changes that made it harder to qualify for benefits.

“We aren’t working as many hours [and] we aren’t making as much money, so a number that I would have normally already reached, I won’t reach until February,” Wachsberg said.


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