Background Actors Confess What Conversations They're Actually Having Off To The Side
Background actors are needed for plays, for film, for commercials - if you want it to look convincing, you need people in the background. Production teams normally can't just shoot with strangers in the background, tons of people don't want to be filmed while they're just trying to get some pizza or something. So what to do? Cue the background actors! But with no real direction, and (let's be honest) nothing really important to offer to the storyline, what exactly do background actors talk about all day long?
One Reddit user asked:
The answers were everything we hoped for and more, lol. Brace yourself for a lot of talking about food, because apparently that's like 90% of being an actor.
The Produce Section
Typically something like:
"Peas and carrots, peas and carrots. Peas and carrots?"
"Oh! Banana banana banana!"
"Peas and carrots. Peas and peas and carrots."
Former theater kid here. I generally stuck to small talk and used exaggerated facial expressions/gestures to make it look interesting. When I'd be talking with a friend of mine, we either complained about something that had gone wrong in the show or exchanged a little gossip, lol. Theater was fun.
Sound Editor Says:
Friendly neighborhood Sound editor and mixer here!
Their words are almost entirely mouthed. The goal on set is to get the cleanest dialogue AND ONLY the main characters' dialogue. Almost all other sound is made in post. Door creaks, footsteps, clothing noise. This includes background voices. They come from what are called loop groups. And their conversations are normally nonsense so that nothing can be picked out and listened to. There jobs are to sound like mumble without mumbling!
16 Hours Of Silence
I'm training for Stunts, so I do a lot of background/extra work in-between. I'm in Chicago, so I work on things like Chicago Fire, Chicago med, Chicago Pd, empire, the exorcist, etc. Every time I've been on set, I've had to be dead quiet. The mics are so sensitive that even flipping a page to a magazine on the other side of the room will get picked up. Throw in 20 more conversations on top of that and you've got a hot steaming pile of useless junk. It's pretty awkward having to fake a conversation, especially since you normally don't even know the name of the person you're talking to. Having to repeat the same pretend fake conversation and actions for 10 takes, rehearsals, etc, kind of sucks but at least you never have to worry about getting the line wrong. Repeat for 12-16 hours. Sometimes you will literally sit in holding for HOURS at a time where you have to be silent, too.
TLDR: nothing, sets are crazy quiet 90% of the time
Netflix and Tacos
I was in a recent Netflix film as a background actor, and was paired with another girl for the scene. We had to act excited, so we started this long conversation about how great Taco Bell was. It was hilarious!
F The Proletariat!
This might just be me but I usually make up gossip that would fit in the context of the show. For example, I was a party guest in late 19th century Russia, and I would walk up to someone and quietly say something along the lines of "Man, f the proletariat, am I right? No way that'll ever come back to bite us!"
It's All About Chemistry
Depends on your chemistry with the person you're talking to. But it is always very quiet - almost inaudible. It can be talking about where you're gonna walk to next - sometimes you need to do this if your background character has to do a lot of movement without crashing into people or the set.
A lot of times it's nice to do some joking back and forth, trying to get the other person to "break" - just to keep it interesting. Example: One show, I had to have a really close-talking, kinda angry conversation with a girl in the background, and we ended up going back and forth saying the most outlandish stuff we could think of while making really serious concerned faces.
Oooh We Have To Bleep ALL Of This lol.
I was on Game of Thrones set dressing (props) and when Jamie Lannister was getting pulled down the hill at Rob Stark's camp all the extras were just shouting:
_"C_nt f_cking bastard f_cking dckhead"
and so on lol. When the director said cut everybody was laughing even Jamie Lannister
Larry v. Barry
I work as an extra to learn about the industry (I aspire to be and actor and director) and I always try to have fun with these background conversations and really try to flesh out a ridiculous subplot between myself and the other background artists I work with. For example, when doing a TV show last year, we did a couple of days where we filled out the same market setting for different scenes throughout the series. They often hired the same actors and had us wear the same costumes, so the people I was grouped with and I decided to create an arc in which one of extras was called 'Larry', but throughout the series he was replaced by his weird evil twin 'Barry'. You can watch the show and notice our reactions to the Barry/Larry character change as the 'plot' unfolds.
Always give it 100% as an actor, folks.
Time To Learn French
When I was in a production of Les Miserables, the director instructed that all background conversation and ad-lib had to be in French. It was a really cool addition, in my opinion, once everyone learned to pronounce things properly.
Playing Wilbur in Hairspray on a cruise ship. Every show I had about a 45 second "conversation" with Little Inez. One day she says "Ohmigod! Did you hear about Phillip Seymour Hoffman?" That's how I found out he died. On with the show.
Dirty Talk And Strippers
Usually, you cannot talk... but have to mouth words.
One set I was on we turned it into a game. Mouth a sentence and when the director yells cut try and guess what the other person said. If I was in a scene with a person I knew well... it was usually PRETTY dirty...
EDIT: The most hilarious experience was on the set of a future TV show filmed in Chicago. It was a strip club scene, and the director wanted authenticity so he hired real strippers. They had to be told "tone it down" multiple times...
Tech here, one of my favorite examples from a stage show I did. Two actors had to have a background conversation upstage on set, while another scene took place. They were both huge Monty Python fans and would sit there reciting the entire dialog to various MP films. Some of the crew could hear them in the wings and had to work at not laughing, or blowing their cues. But the real problem was a young actress that was supposed to be sleeping next to them... she wasn't familiar with MP and broke several times.
So my experience was a little different than most the other ones mentioned here. I was an extra at a cattle auction and was required to yell for some of the takes. They kept telling us to get louder so by take 3 or 4 we were pretty much screaming. It was quite odd, especially since most of the time extras have to be silent.
People In Love Need To Poop, Too.
One time me and my girlfriend were extras for a film and we were in a cafe scene pretending to be in love on a date. I really needed to poop and all I was saying to her under my breath was "I need the bathroom" while looking at her in the eyes and smiling.
It cracked me up when I saw the film and you could read my lips and what I was saying.
Depends on who you're with:
Sometimes you get an older person, they over act with their face and actually pantomime (pretending to talk without actually talking). It's what we're all supposed to do but they're usually the only ones that do it.
Then there's the person with hearing problems. They try to whisper talk but end up being too loud and get everyone in trouble.
The person who doesn't have hearing problems but talks to loud anyway, everyone gets yelled at like above.
There's not really a limit or anything when it comes to the whisper conversations for backgrounders.
I usually talk about work, like "what have you been on? Have you worked with X before?" stuff like that. There's some networking as well, as some people who work as background are just getting their foot in the door for crew.
Every now and then you get a super annoying BG on set and you end up talking about them while the cameras roll, since you can watch them try and push their way in front of the camera.
I went on a couple dates with girls I've meet being randomly paired up with them. Made a lot of friends the same way as well.
Dancing To Silence
Did some background extra work. One scene was meant to be at a festival. For each take we would have to dance to silence.
The extras on set do not talk during filming.
"Crowd talking noises" are added in post production. That way they can use different takes without an audible cut or change in the background conversation.
There are two main ways this can be done. Typically, a "loop group" will come in, a troupe of five or six voice artists, who will ad-lib background conversation, read radio/TV reports, or otherwise make noise for people in the background of the shot. They can do a full movie in a day or two.
Other times, if there's only one scene where background noise is needed, after they finish shooting the whole scene and before they wrap the set, the main actors will leave and they will record 60 seconds of the extras talking, moving plates, using silverware, etc. There are SAG rules, however, about whether or not they have to be paid extra for doing this, though, so it only happens under certain conditions.
Flirting With Beggars
A unique perspective but for many years as a kid I was an extra in large ballet productions for a pretty prominent ballet company. Non dancing rolls I'd be "village woman" "market place lady" "beggar" "Ball attendee". Our job was to make the scene come alive so the village or ball or what have you seemed bustling and lively while all the dancing happened. We were meant to react to the environment and react to the action in that airy ballet type way.
Well large ballet productions like that are anything but silent. There are all manner of little jokes going on in the back and fooling around. Especially in the production where I was a beggar. I was 16 and there were 6 of us teens paired with 6 or so 20-something men from the Company. Our job was just to go around and create mischief, beg for money. We'd harass people in the background, create alternate story lines for ourselves and try not to get caught cracking or goofing off while also trying to flirt with the beggar boys. It's always the time of my life.
I actually did background for a year or so when I first moved to LA. The conversations run a gamut. Much of the time you don't actually say anything; you're just mouthing words.
Other times you'll just say inane things like "watermelon" over and over. Rare, but it does happen.
But a lot of the time you're just talking to the other background. It doesn't matter what you're saying (as long as you keep your voices low and don't break character visually), so you're just chatting. Granted, most of these people are one-day friends from diverse, artistic backgrounds, so often your topics will get really weird, really fast.
The fact itself that you're on set leads to much of the conversational hilarity. For example, one time I was working on a big crime procedural show and we were doing a rain scene outside of a murder victim's house. So me and two other background actors are huddled off to one side of the set under these big rain machines suspended from cranes. Right before they would call action, rain on, then cut, rain off. All we have to do is stay under our umbrella and look gossipy, and we're golden.
But of course we're chatting, and to hear each other over the water we had to project a little, even standing two feet away from each other. And we're having a conversation about one of the lead actors on the show, a very famous, masculine action star, and making very racy puns about him. Because, you know, it was 3 in the morning and we're standing out in the fake rain and we were a little punch-drunk. And this is what you talk about with new actor friends.
They called cut on the latest take, and immediately the Assistant Director calls over his bullhorn: "Background, be quiet." We didn't think anything of it, they'd been saying that for a few takes no matter how low we tried to get our voices. But then he added: "The mics are pointing right at you."
We shut up immediately. If one of the parabolic mics was indeed pointed in our direction, then a lot of the crew could hear all the butthole zingers we'd been coming up with about their star. Whoopsie.
Supposed To Be Miming
I did a promo as a background actor for the mother of a girl I liked who was directing. I didn't know that I was supposed to be miming talking, not making any actual sounds. Every time she stopped and said how she could still hear me through the sensitive mics I would just talk lower but it wasn't working. I still feel bad about that.
A Never-Ending Stream Of Profanity
I'm a pianist for musical theater, not an actor, but... In the show "Breaking Up is Hard to Do", there's a scene where an actor is talking directly to the audience and then the scene "flips" to other characters talking "backstage". As the scene flips, the actor's mic fades out, he turns around to face directly at me, and continues to improvise a monologue for about a half minute or so. Every night, it got more and more ridiculous... One night, it was just a stream of never-ending profanity. Thankfully, he chose not to go with that on any actual performances; our sound crew isn't always on top of things and that would not have gone over well.
I'm in opera and yea, we say some pretty messed up s*** to each other. The benefit over musical theatre is that we're never directly mic'ed so there isn't the worry of being overheard.
Professionals try to get each other to laugh all the time.
There's an opera, La Forza del Destino, where a character finds out at a climactic moment that his best friend has been sleeping with his sister. He finds this out by finding her portrait among the friend's personal effects. It's a common prank to remove the portrait and replace it with dirty magazines.
Talking About Squash With Amber Heard
I work as an "professional" extra, meaning I do it so much I almost make a living of it and have starred in a large number of Blockbusters and international productions. The funniest incident regarding weird background talk, was when I with two other guys, were made to talk with Amber Heard during the filming of The Danish Girl. If you've seen the movie, it's during the party scene, and we basically talked about how to say squash in different languages as well as our favorite cocktails. 10/10 would do again. She is super nice and down to earth, and absolutely one of the most approachable actors I've worked with :)