Breaking into the business of Hollywood is a cutthroat process that only the talented few eventually achieve. Most actors have to start from the bottom of the ladder as extras, or in industry terms, doing 'background work'. So those unnamed people you see in the background of your favorite television shows or movies could be the next A-list celebrity. All those crowds of faces you may or may not notice in the background of your favorite programs are actors, and each of their movements are perfectly timed and coordinated with the scene. While many actors get stuck “being an extra”, the position can offer the opportunity to connect and network with industry big wigs, which could open doors to a fully-fledged acting career.
There's no question that filming as an extra can be a very exciting process, with a chance to work within arm's reach of some of the world's biggest celebrities. And while the initial role as an extra may be humbling, everyone has to start somewhere. For those aspiring actors who may be doing background work and wondering if they’re doomed to be an extra for their entire career; do not lose heart. Many of the big name actors we know and love today were in the same position not so long ago.
For example, before she was starring in films such as “Transformers”, “Jennifer’s Body”, and the upcoming “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, Megan Fox started her acting career in 2001 and was getting by as a background actor by taking on roles such as “Partygoer Dancing Under Waterfall” in “Bad Boyz 2”. Her background work paid off, landing her a regular spot on the show, “Hope & Faith”, which would open the door to Michael Bay offering her a role in the Transformers franchise.
There is more to background work than simply walking by the camera or being part of the background atmosphere while the stars of the film take the focus. Some celebrities who started out as extras got their Screen Actors Guild eligibility by being “Taft-Hartleyed”, or filling in for a bigger role and being compelled to join the union. Extras can also join SAG by collecting vouchers for doing background work, and that membership will put that extra a step ahead of the rest. And for a select few, the extra work will lead to a big break. The following are the ten richest celebrities who got their start as extras. If you find it hard to believe, take a peek at some of their movies and television shows from the past - and don't blink, or you might miss them!
10 Channing Tatum - $14 Million
Some of Channing Tatum's first acting gigs were as an extra. He was also a rather successful model and dancer early in his career, but he definitely had Hollywood acting in his sights. One of his most notable (and more noticeable) background roles was the church scene in “War of the Worlds”. He can also be spotted in the music video for Ricky Martin's 'She Bangs'. Tatum, a talented dancer, eventually got his big break in “Step Up” and has since become one of Hollywood's favourite heartthrobs.
9 Marilyn Monroe - $27 Million
8 Renee Zellweger - $60 Million
Next time you watch the 1993 classic “Dazed and Confused” keep an eye out for a character called, “Girl in Blue Pickup Truck” - none other than Renee Zellweger! In the same year, she had a (cut) bit part in horror/comedy "My Boyfriend's Back". While living in Texas, she had a few roles in commercials, which is where she earned her SAG membership. She has, of course, gained a much higher profile since those days, now taking on roles such as the iconic Bridget Jones in several films as well as Roxie Hart in the film adaptation of “Chicago”. Before working as an extra, Zellweger had Zellweger should be a role model for aspiring actresses out there; she shows that with tenacity and hard work, that big break may just be waiting around the corner.
7 Jackie Chan - $130 Million
Before he became the legend that is Jackie Chan, the actor was kicking butt and taking names as an extra in two Bruce Lee films. The first one was the 1971 film “Fists of Fury” and the second one was the 1973 film, “Enter the Dragon”.
6 Matt Damon & Ben Affleck - $140 Million (Combined)
It seems that during the start of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s career, they were doing everything together, and not just “Good Will Hunting”. Damon and Affleck, childhood friends, were also extras together in the 1989 film, “Field of Dreams”. Where are they, you ask? Check out the scenes at Fenway Park. Since that time, these two actors have developed quite successful careers for themselves, almost entirely erasing their 'extra' work from the history books of their career. So, if you decide to become an extra and you make a friend, keep them around. You may write a hit movie together in the future.
5 Bruce Willis - $150 Million
Don't blink during the courtroom scene in Paul Newman’s 1981 film, “The Verdict”. Look closely and you'll get an early glimpse of one of Hollywood’s most loved and iconic leading men. Just seven years later, Willis would land the role that would immortalize him in Hollywood forever when he was cast in “Die Hard”. Perhaps it’s his smile, his tough guy persona, his big heart, or versatile appearance - whatever it is, Bruce Willis has certainly moved up from that background actor in the courtroom.
4 George Clooney - $160 Million
Before George Clooney was the big name actor that he is today, he was doing small parts and background work to pay his dues. His earliest background work dates back to a 1978 miniseries about the economic growth of Colorado, and then Clooney got through the eighties doing small cheesy lines in one of the numerous cop dramas that were on the air at the time. Eventually, he got to say a line or two in television shows such as “Sisters” and “Roseanne”, which then paved the road for Clooney to land his role on the medical drama “ER” which made him a star.
3 Brad Pitt - $240 Million
2 Sylvester Stallone - $275 Million
During Sylvester Stallone’s years of writing the film, “Rocky”, and trying to make it big as an actor, he was doing background work not only to pay the bills, but also to network with directors and producers. You might recognize him as the subway mugger from Woody Allen’s 1971 film, “Bananas” as well as an uncredited actor in the 1971 movie, “Klute”, which starred Jane Fonda. After “Rocky” became such a successful, Stallone found himself at the helm of one of Hollywood’s biggest franchises as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
1 Clint Eastwood - $375 Million
Clint Eastwood is a huge name in the industry as an actor and director; it’s hard to imagine that he was once an unknown extra getting work through Central Casting. Eastwood got his start doing background work for films in the 1950’s, with his work often going uncredited and unnoticed. However, Eastwood didn't let his time on set go to waste. He made connections and networked with producers and directors, which made him more memorable with each film he was a part of. Eventually, he moved up to speaking parts and a name on the credits, and his talent shone through. The same hopeful extra is now one of the most recognized and powerful names in Hollywood.