Working as a background actor is a great learning experience as it can help you meet the crew members, observe other roles, and get on set experience while earning a little extra money.
Jennifer Bender, Executive Vice President of Central Casting, talks with Tanya about her role at Central Casting and how it can help springboard your career into the industry.
Listen to Jennifer share tips on how you can become a background extra and use it to launch your career in film.
Learn more about working for Central Casting.
Key points: 2:03 - How Jen got started 4: 57 - Being a woman in Hollywood 10:01 - Central Casting returning to work 14:16 - Changes in the industry 16:46 - Set etiquette for background actors 17:38 - How does working as a background actor impact your ability to work in other departments 19:34 - Career longevity of a background extra 20:05 - What SAG covers 21:39 - Working with different studios 22:23 - Always looking for people 22:49 - How often do background extras get a speaking role 23:40 - Is being an extra worth the money 24:25 - What should you bring to the casting 25:10 - What color & car type should you have 26:05 - Advice for breaking in the industry
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Jennifer Bender (00:00):
So, those days of like 3000 extras are gone, and they've been gone for a long time. And then, there was a moment in time when they were trying to do blow-up dolls, with clothes on. But it was so bad. It was so bad. Because the wind would blow and they would all just sort of... It was a really unnatural thing.
Tanya Musgrave (00:26):
Welcome to There to Here, an educational podcast where industry professionals talk nuts and bolts and how they got from there to here. On today's show, executive VP of Central Casting, Jennifer Bender takes us inside casting background and answers listener questions on how things will actually stay the same in the changing landscape of the industry. As this is a new podcast, we're really wanting feedback, so go to media.CoLabInc.org, fill out the feedback survey, and you'll be entered to win a $25 Amazon gift card. From CoLab Inc, I'm Tanya Musgrave. And today, I have Jennifer Bender, executive vice president of Central Casting, the leading background actor casting company in the United States, specializing in casting extras, body doubles, and stand-ins for film and television across the country. Welcome to the show.
Jennifer Bender (01:10):
Thank you. Yeah, so happy to be here.
Tanya Musgrave (01:13):
So, I'm super excited to have someone from casting, from, well, just the casting world from here, because you hear about the journeys of going to LA and becoming an actor, becoming the celebrity, but you don't hear about the steady-paying jobs, with benefits, that are the shoulders that these people stand on, really. So, I'm very interested in hearing how you got into this. How did you get from there to here?
Jennifer Bender (01:34):
Like most people in the entertainment industry, it's a weird sort of winding road, how you get there. So, I came to LA and I initially worked in the music industry, and I was more designing stages for rock and roll shows and going on tours and all of that. So, that was my early twenties, and it was amazing and fun.
Tanya Musgrave (01:55):
Sounds like a blast.
Jennifer Bender (01:57):
It was a blast, but it's not sustainable, right?
Tanya Musgrave (01:59):
Jennifer Bender (02:01):
I ended doing that. And I was in Los Angeles, and some friends of mine were shooting an independent film and they're like, "Hey, do you want to be our casting director?" I was like, "Sure, what's that?" And they sort of broke it down. I'm like, "That seems easy. All right, I'll do that." So, I did their project and I loved it. I love the whole process. I love filmmaking, and all of that. So, I sort of learned a little bit more, took initiative to do a little more research, and I did a bunch of work independently for commercials, independent projects, smaller projects as a principal casting director. So, I did a lot of that work for a few years. And then at one point, I was like, I really want to deal with the big studios and the big budget and then network television, because it seemed a little further away that I am so curious about it, and I was in the casting world and I couldn't figure out how to navigate that.
Jennifer Bender (03:01):
And then Central Casting, which is the company that I work at now, was hiring and it's for background actors. But I thought, "Okay, there's a lot of translation there," but Central Casting works with all of the studios and all of the networks and the big, big names. So, I applied and they hired me, which was great. I thought, "I'll just do this for a couple of years." And I loved it. I actually loved it way more than the principal side, which is interesting, because most people think the opposite, but I really loved doing the background actors and the collaboration with production and the creative process, all the way throughout filming. So, that really spoke to me, and I got to meet like everybody.
Tanya Musgrave (03:47):
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Everybody needs you.
Jennifer Bender (03:51):
Yeah. So, super cool. That was sort of my journey landing in LA and getting where I have, the company that I'm at now.
Tanya Musgrave (03:59):
Yeah, yeah. So, what parts of your personality were drawn to this job? My guess is that you enjoy being a connector.
Jennifer Bender (04:06):
Yeah, absolutely. So, I'm a people person. This whole quarantine life is not, I realized, is definitely not for me because I like having people around, yeah, like meet people. I'm a people watcher. I really love that. And connecting and meeting new interesting people. So, that's a big piece of it. And I'm very observant about people and the intricacies of how they look and how they move and how they speak and how they interact, and just sort of translating that onto camera was, it was really fun for me.
Tanya Musgrave (04:42):
Jennifer Bender (04:42):
So, that's what really spoke to me.
Tanya Musgrave (04:44):
I do have a quick question on getting to the position that you got. Whether or not the fact that you were a woman, did that stand in your way at all?
Jennifer Bender (04:56):
That's a good question. And there's so much around, like the Me Too movement and all of that sort of has been exposed from that. Being a woman in this industry can be quite challenging. I would say women, you do have to work harder. You do have to prove yourself more. That's just a reality that still is today. Don't compare yourself to your male counterpart because you're going to say they're putting in less effort and getting more recognition. Yeah, that's kind of how it still happens, unfortunately. It's changing. It's improving. People are getting better. I didn't allow it to hold me back.
Tanya Musgrave (05:37):
Jennifer Bender (05:38):
I just stayed focused, and did the best work possible. But as a female, you will have to work harder. You just will. And that's okay, you're going to be better anyway. You're going to end up being better than them, so just go for it. Be the best that you can be.
Tanya Musgrave (05:53):
That's awesome. One part of CoLab really likes to focus on the business and entrepreneurial side of things, and you being exec VP, how much of your job is creative or business-oriented, like having to deal with finances and negotiation?
Jennifer Bender (06:09):
Yeah, sure. I'll take you a little bit on the journey through the company. So, I started as a casting director, and I did that for many years. And then at one point, I transitioned into a leadership role, which is hiring and motivating and training and teaching the other casting directors in our industry, and then now into an executive more administrative role. So, I would say in the journey, the casting piece is super creative because you're collaborating, and I loved that. And when you move into leadership or teaching, you're still being very creative, because you're still teaching that. And more in an administrative role, your creativity is just different.
Jennifer Bender (06:50):
Perfect example is, we are in a world today where we have to figure out how to go back to work safely. You need creative skills to figure that out, how to do things differently, how to think outside the box. This is unchartered territory for everybody. So, all of those skills of sort of thinking creatively from a traditional creative standpoint, you will apply that here because you're trying to think differently. You're trying to think in a nontraditional way. And that's really serving, I think, everybody in our industry, because you have to just really apply those, which traditionally were creative, and just painting a picture to solving, problem-solving.
Tanya Musgrave (07:32):
Interesting. And I know that you touched on this just before, but I mean that you're going through this very, very unprecedented time with this company. I'm assuming life looks a lot different for the company these days. Everything screeched to a halt. Has the company been able to do something in the meantime, like prep for something or they have just completely shut down the wheelhouse?
Jennifer Bender (07:54):
That's a good question. At the time of us talking right now, we're about three months in. I think early on was, we spent a lot of time just sort of transitioning. We're becoming, we do a lot of shows, and we have a large group of background actors that work for us. So, that whole transition though, it was abrupt on the surface. There's a lot of rolling off of that. So, we spent quite a bit of time rolling off of shows and just rolling down the business. And then, in the meantime, we've really focused a lot on skilling up people and focusing on different types of training, technology aspects that we're building out to sort of serve what will be coming up, working on that is where we're putting a lot of focus now. So, we'll see what happens and how long this goes, but we've kept ourselves quite busy and we've kept everyone employed.
Tanya Musgrave (08:50):
Jennifer Bender (08:51):
We're fortunate, we're a big company. And there was a lot of, all that work that a big company needs to do and you never have time to do it because you're so busy actually just casting.
Tanya Musgrave (09:01):
Jennifer Bender (09:02):
We're able to do all of that and we'll see for how long that is. But as of right now, we have been able to keep everybody on payroll, which I'm really thankful for because I love my staff so much. They work so hard. I was most worried about them, not myself but about them. So, it's been interesting.
Tanya Musgrave (09:20):
I'm sure you've seen all of the white paper coming across the desks. You've got IATSE protocols, and the AMPTP's massive like 22-page doc that producers are calling for smaller crews. And then the Guild is defending larger crews. Like, "No, you can't skimp in the name of safety. You can't just wear a bunch of hats. That's not how it works." But here's the thing, across the board, the one thing I keep hearing over and over again is that it will be up to the actors to create the baseline of that comfort on set. They're the ones without PPE, etc. And that background actors are going to be drastically reduced. So, how is Central Casting handling returning to work and what is the survival plan?
Jennifer Bender (10:04):
That's such a great question, and that's certainly front of mind with us. It's so funny because in the beginning, it was like, "We're going to eliminate all of these groups, including all of the background actors." And now, they've come to a place where they realized, you can't not have them. If you're going to leave a residence, you're going to need people, otherwise it looks really weird.
Tanya Musgrave (10:27):
It looks like Vanilla Sky.
Jennifer Bender (10:28):
Yeah, exactly. Exactly, and we've already done that. I think the conversation now is, okay, we know we need to have background actors and their transitional work, because they come in and out. How can we do that safely? Do I think there's going to be massive crowd scenes? There weren't a lot of those anyway. So, it doesn't surprise me that they're not going to have those, but they still need the restaurant scenes. They still need the street scenes. I think they're going to move cautiously. So, I think it will be fewer people to begin with.
Jennifer Bender (11:00):
And then, just applying all the protocols that you're reading in all of the places that you saw, whether it's the white paper and all the documents, and we're waiting on what the unions are going to say, because the unions will have a point of view on it as well. But it's what everyone's talking about. And I respect that and I totally agree with that because I want the background actors to be safe too. Hopefully, we can all sort of live by this edict and these standards, and get back to work and make that happen. I mean, you see people going to grocery stores and now, going to the hair salons and all of that and they're being responsible. So, I'm hoping if we all do that, it'll be a slow progression.
Tanya Musgrave (11:42):
How slow do you think? Is there a month or a date that you've kind of heard tossed around? Is there kind of a general consensus at all?
Jennifer Bender (11:51):
It's geographically specific.
Tanya Musgrave (11:53):
Jennifer Bender (11:54):
Right? So, you've got LA and New York, that's super condensed. And I think the amount of cases there is much higher than say in Atlanta or overseas, in some places. Australia has a low amount. Hawaii has a lower amount. So, I don't think it's going to be the same across the globe. I think it's going to be different, and what those months are, nobody knows. Everyone's sort of planning and then adjusting and planning and adjusting, because it's going to take the governors to lift restrictions and your local city legislature to do that, the unions. So, there's a lot of people that have to agree to this, including actors. They're going to have to agree to it too. So, I think it's going to vary. There is no one month that everyone's going to go back to work.
Tanya Musgrave (12:44):
I guess that means that you would end up moving a lot of those productions to those earlier-opened states, I'm guessing? I don't know. And then, those background actors will have a chance.
Jennifer Bender (12:55):
Maybe the studios are considering that. It's hard to travel everyone because travel gets tricky. So, I'm sure they're weighing all of that out. But yeah, it's... No one knows the answer to that. If you know it, we'd love to know.
Tanya Musgrave (13:09):
I'll get right on that.
Jennifer Bender (13:12):
Right. If you hear it through these interviews, call me, because I would love to know that answer.
Tanya Musgrave (13:17):
Well, I've been asking it to every single guest and every single guest has... At the very beginning, it was like, "Oh, October." October is the one that we've been kind of hearing swirling around. And then, I hear, again, from Jason, "Oh, no, it's actually, this is not going to be solved in a few months." And then, I hear from Matt, "Every single month out of the year." So, I'm just like, "Well, I don't know. Maybe Jennifer knows." Everybody is in the same basket. I mean, there's not really much that can be done, but in general, COVID could be seen as more of a catalyst, but things were already kind of changing in the industry. You have the streaming service and then you have this crazy ILM technology with StageCraft, and then you have a lot more VFX going. There's a lot more of a presence of digitally putting in background actors and stuff. So, has the landscape of your industry really changed since you've started? And do you see it continuing down that path?
Jennifer Bender (14:17):
I have seen some change. So, back in the Stone Age when I started, we used to actually cast thousands and thousands of people in a stadium scene or a concert scene, and then that was replaced with tiling, which I'm conscious that this is an educational platform. So, I believe they would know what tiling is. So, you have a group of background actors and then you just duplicate it around to create a stadium scene. That's been going on for a long time. So, those days of like 3000 extras are gone, and they've been gone for a long time. And then, there was a moment in time when they were trying to do blow-up dolls, with clothes on. But it was so bad. It was so bad. Because the wind would blow and they would all just sort of... It was a really unnatural thing.
Jennifer Bender (15:16):
So, that only lasted a little while, but they've been doing the tiling of the big crowd scenes. I think when you sort of go into more intimate settings, like a bar or a restaurant or a school or anything, it's really hard to do that and make it look realistic. And the actors don't like it because they want to act with an environment around them. It's an option for sure. It's cost prohibitive. It's very expensive to do, and you have to do it right. And the actor has to be comfortable acting in those scenes. So, is there some future down the line that that's the case? Maybe. I've been hearing this for a long time, but I think, when you're sort of going out in sort of the bigger scenes, you can pull it off more easily. But I think when you go down into just setting a scene or painting a picture, and getting that mood and that vibe that you need actual real people to respond to, and they respond to the actor and what's happening, it gets a little trickier there.
Tanya Musgrave (16:19):
It makes perfect sense. So, you would say that it's actually kind of stayed fairly consistent then over the years?
Jennifer Bender (16:27):
Yeah. Aside from those blow-up dolls, yeah.
Tanya Musgrave (16:33):
Oh, my word, that's fantastic.
Jennifer Bender (16:34):
Tanya Musgrave (16:34):
All right, so we have some listener questions from our Insta and Facebook Stories and Twitter. Shameless plug, if you want to ask your questions to future guests, our handle on Insta and Twitter is CoLabIncPodcast. There seems to be a lot. So, yeah, we might have to go rapid-fire. I don't know. But-
Jennifer Bender (16:50):
All right, I'm ready.
Tanya Musgrave (16:52):
Set etiquette for background actors, when is it okay to break the rules?
Jennifer Bender (16:56):
Never say never. But you have to be really mindful of your surroundings. So, some actors do not want to be spoken to at all because they're doing their craft. Some get super interactive with the background. And I think you have to really read the room and read the situation, and really listen to what the AD or the producers or the PA are instructing you to do. Yeah, that's a touchy one. I wouldn't advise it.
Tanya Musgrave (17:28):
Got it, got it. How does working as a background actor impact your ability to work in other roles in filmmaking? Is it a bad idea for people who want to work in other departments to work background?
Jennifer Bender (17:40):
So, in other departments, absolutely not. So many people come to us and they don't want to be an actor, but they're like, "I don't know what I want to be, so I'm going to go and be a background actor." It's the best education you're going to get because you are on set and observing every single role. So, you want to do hair and makeup. You want to be a grip. You want to be a producer. You want, all of those people you're observing in real-time and understanding the one time that it's a matter of opinion if you want to do principal work, should you do background work?
Tanya Musgrave (18:12):
Jennifer Bender (18:13):
My opinion, there's a lot of very famous people that started doing background work with us. So, if that's an example of whether you should or shouldn't, you can use that and make that decision yourself. But again, just from learning, you can go and take acting classes and your schooling, but you'll never learn what you're going to learn unless you're on set, really sort of watching the actor. And there have been several stories that I've heard of that an actor is well-trained and they auditioned well, because they've been taught to do that. Then they get to set and they have no idea what to do. The blocking, they don't know. The lighting, they don't know. The conversation, they don't know. So, I would say, background acting can be very, very useful, both if you want to be an actor, and if you just want to figure out what you want to be, or just if you don't even want to be in the industry and it's supplemental income, so.
Tanya Musgrave (19:09):
I know that a lot of my friends ended up doing that too. Like, "Hey, well, we're not doing anything this week. Let's go down to Central Casting."
Jennifer Bender (19:16):
Yeah, yeah, it's easy money.
Tanya Musgrave (19:17):
Yeah. Does anyone keep working in background longterm, or do most people just do it for a few months or years?
Jennifer Bender (19:25):
There's a lot of people that have been doing it for decades, actually.
Tanya Musgrave (19:28):
Jennifer Bender (19:29):
Yeah. Yeah. The Screen Actors Guild, which is now SAG-AFTRA, does have a membership with the background actors. So, many people will get their qualification to be in the union and make a career of it and do a pretty decent job, because then they have their benefits, they get a pension. It works out very well for them.
Tanya Musgrave (19:52):
Wow, I had no idea that you could get in SAG doing background. That's fantastic.
Jennifer Bender (20:00):
Yeah. Yeah. So, SAG doesn't govern the entire country theatrically, for background actors. They do commercially, but for theatrically, which means film and television and streaming, of course, there's only certain jurisdictions that you can qualify. LA, New York are the big ones, Hawaii, Las Vegas, San Francisco. So, there's a few key places that, yeah, you can qualify to join the union and actually have it be a really decent career if you really... You've got to be in a city that has a lot of work, and have a general enough look to work a lot, to be very versatile.
Tanya Musgrave (20:40):
Yeah. Yeah. Casting role you're most proud of.
Jennifer Bender (20:43):
Oh, man, there's so many interesting ones. I would say... No, you guys are probably too young to know this, but you probably might've learned it in film school. The film, Memoirs of a Geisha.
Tanya Musgrave (20:56):
Oh, my word, yes.
Jennifer Bender (20:58):
Good? Okay, good. So, I did the background casting on that.
Tanya Musgrave (21:03):
Jennifer Bender (21:03):
And so, all of those scenes in Japan are actually here in the valley of Los Angeles.
Tanya Musgrave (21:09):
Jennifer Bender (21:10):
Tanya Musgrave (21:11):
Jennifer Bender (21:12):
Yeah. So, we created a whole village, in the round, like a real working, with the river and everything.
Tanya Musgrave (21:20):
Oh, my word. I would've, yeah, I would've had no idea.
Jennifer Bender (21:23):
Yeah. Well, thank you. I just pulled it off.
Tanya Musgrave (21:27):
So, you work with a lot of different studios. Is there some nuance in the differences between the studios, like how they work or is it all pretty much the same? Is it just kind of dependent on the person that you're working with?
Jennifer Bender (21:39):
Different studios have different genres. So, you'll have... Disney has very specific brand, in what they put out. Then there's Paramount and Sony and Warner Brothers and Netflix. And there's this baseline where everybody does things a certain way, and then there's what their brand does, which is very interesting. So, I think there's differences amongst them. They're subtle, but pretty much, we're all kind of going through the same thing.
Tanya Musgrave (22:09):
Yeah. Yeah. Cool. Do you actually need people to come out or are you inundated as is? As an Angeleno, I stopped myself from getting involved because I figured that you already had enough, is that accurate?
Jennifer Bender (22:23):
That's not accurate. When the office was open, we take on people every week, all week, so, and you never know what productions and what the creative minds are going to create. So, we always need new people, to have those resources, to be able to fill those calls. Because we have no idea what's going to come at us.
Tanya Musgrave (22:44):
Yeah. How often do extras from Central Casting get pulled into speaking roles?
Jennifer Bender (22:50):
Often, actually. Quite, quite often. They plan the whole scene and they set that up and then oftentimes, the director will be like, "Okay, something's weird here. This person should be saying something," and they'll throw a line or two at people. That happens, actually quite often, more often than you think. I would say weekly. It's very often.
Tanya Musgrave (23:14):
Jennifer Bender (23:14):
Yeah. Yeah. If people get more familiar with you, because there's a lot of people that work on all the shows and they get friendly, and they're like, "Oh, there's this one role that I know they're casting for. Are you in the union?" And if you are, go audition for it. So, you're sort of in-the-know there as well. So, it can lead oftentimes to a speaking role.
Tanya Musgrave (23:34):
Wow, that's really fantastic. Is being an extra worth the money?
Jennifer Bender (23:40):
Isn't that a relative question? When it comes to money, the value of money is different for people, everybody. That's hard to say. That's a personal question. It depends on what, if some people need it, then it's very valuable.
Tanya Musgrave (23:54):
And honestly, if they have aims to get on set, period, and to get educated, that's like, you're getting paid to learn. So, I mean-
Jennifer Bender (24:04):
Tanya Musgrave (24:05):
It makes sense to me. When showing up for casting, should you be your authentic self, or show the average you? While bringing photos of how you look with different clothes or hair. I'm a girl-next-door type, but I have a '50s-era appropriate garb, as well as the ability to look convincingly goth or vixen.
Jennifer Bender (24:24):
Wow. Bring that person on.
Tanya Musgrave (24:26):
She moved. That's the thing, she moved.
Jennifer Bender (24:30):
Yeah. Yeah. So, I would say, when you come in, because we do take a real photo of people, I would say, come in your most authentic self. And then, we know people can play many different roles. That's part of what we do. And if you have photos of you that look at all these different ways, add those to your profile, so not just the one photo that we're looking at. You can add more photos to all of these different looks that you have. But I would come your most authentic self. And then, we always know to look through all the photos, to see what all the different looks they have.
Tanya Musgrave (25:06):
What kind and color of car should you buy if you want to work in background?
Jennifer Bender (25:11):
That is a very insider question, by the way. Wow. So, that person's worked in background. Most sets don't want cars that are red, white, or black.
Tanya Musgrave (25:26):
Jennifer Bender (25:26):
But if you have a red, white, or black car, you should probably, and you want to use it, avoid red, white, or black. Everybody gets silver. We've got a million silver. Go for some other, green or blue or something like that. That's a real specific question.
Tanya Musgrave (25:43):
Yeah, I would have never guessed. I would have never, ever guessed to ask that specific question. That's pretty cool. So, what question should I have asked you?
Jennifer Bender (25:54):
That's a very good question. That's a question you shouldn't have asked me. No. I would say, and I think you're going for like what, additional information, right? So, if you're somebody wanting to get into the industry, just sort of in general, relationships, relationships, relationships. And don't burn bridges, as best you can, whoever you're working for now, or whoever's working, you're working for now. It might be moving up the ladder, and you never know where everybody's journey goes. So often, there's Jason and Matt Birch, the other people that have been on this podcast, we were all just kids in the beginning, scrapping around Hollywood and our careers grew, and it's wonderful to see. So, what's important is relationships.
Jennifer Bender (26:44):
And in terms of acting specifically, it's the numbers game. So, yes, in my opinion, and I might be biased, doing background work is super, super helpful to any career in the industry, because it'll really give you the education that we spoke about, and you get paid a little bit of money to do it. And you're going to make so many contacts and connections, as long as you're doing the right thing. The old saying, it doesn't matter if you're scrubbing floors or running a company, do the very, very best you can do, get noticed and appreciated and recognized, and good things will come from that. And that's also from background work, kindness, effort, focus, relationships, all of those things are going to serve you very well in our industry.
Tanya Musgrave (27:30):
That's awesome. Well, thank you so much for your time and your insight. We really appreciated having you on here.
Jennifer Bender (27:36):
Thank you. It was a lot of fun.
Tanya Musgrave (27:38):
Thank you so much for joining us.
Tanya Musgrave (27:40):
If you enjoyed this interview, follow us right here and check out more episodes at media.colabinc.org, as well as fill out that feedback survey for a chance to win a $25 Amazon gift card. If you have comments or know someone who would be a great guest on our show, send in your suggestions to Tanya@colabinc.org. Jen, thanks so much for your time. Be well, and God bless. We'll see you next time on There to Here.