Extras, Co-Stars, and Guest Stars: What’s What?

So you’re just breaking into the “business” and you’re ready to get your name out there and audition for things. Right away you’re going to hear a lot of different terms thrown around, some of which may be new and unfamiliar to you. In the world of television, two of the most common terms you’ll hear are “co-star’” and “guest star”, and are generally the sort of auditions your agent will get you. On top of those two terms, you may have heard about being an “extra”. This is another important role that you should be aware of, especially if you’re new to the acting world. Co-stars, guest stars, and extras are significantly different from one another, so it is vital that you be familiar with their key differences and how working these types of jobs can affect your career:

Extras: Being an extra can be done with or without an agent—there are plenty of people out there who reach out for this sort of opportunity to not only get their foot in the door acting-wise, but also to make some extra money, and to get a chance to see how a working television set (or feature film) functions. Being an extra is also one of the many ways to become eligible to join the acting union SAG-AFTRA. Extras are generally background fillers—people in a bleachers scene at a football game, for example, or pedestrians walking through the streets of “New York” as the series regulars have conversations on the sidewalks. Extras are generally not given billing (credit) for their work, and are usually paid a flat day rate. It’s a tiring job—it’s usually a lot of sitting, resetting, and re-doing scenes without the benefits given to the regulars, co-stars, or guest stars. Despite its less-than-glamorous reputation, sometimes being an extra can be a great opportunity: it’s not unheard of that a director will choose a random extra and ask them to recite a line or two, which automatically upgrades your billing and your money intake for the day. Working as an extra is also a good way to connect with other actors and to get a feel for different sorts of sets, and, if you’re a regular extra for a particular production, it can be a stable and quasi-lucrative income. You can get another perspective on the extra experience here.

Co-Stars: Co-stars generally have only one or two lines or one or two scenes. While it’s not guaranteed, you will likely only work one day. The plus side of booking co-star work is that, just like any job, it pays, so you’re being paid to do what you love. It’s also a great way to climb the ladder and gain opportunities to meet people. The more co-star work you get, the more casting directors will know your name, and the more likely you’ll eventually get a chance to work as a guest star. You generally get billed (credited) at the end of the production, which is also great exposure. While, like being an extra, it’s not most people’s ultimate goal, it is a great place to start. One caveat: pretty much every co-star for any scripted, network/cable show will require you to be SAG-AFTRA. TV shows often run a tight budget, and typically do not have the extra money to pay for an actor to be union, especially since co-stars only work for a single day or two.

Guest Stars: Arguably, it’s the guest actors that make a television show go ’round. Without guest stars and supporting characters propelling the leads through the narrative, everyone would be idling about with no goals. Being a guest star generally means getting to work for a full week on a production (approximately), getting billing at the beginning of the show (usually, not always) and having a few, if not many, lines and scenes. It also pays the most out of the three, and is generally the role (other than series regulars of course) that people want to land. Every year there’s also always a series of A-list stars that take the opportunity to guest in notable series in an effort to vie for the coveted “Best Guest Actor/Actress” at the Emmys. Once you start landing guest roles, you will be more and more recognizable by casting offices and directors, and when pilot season rolls around, will be more likely to be requested to read for producers, rather than pre-read just for casting. In addition, you may get an opportunity to recur on a series, which means you’d be a guest actor on two or more episodes. It’s not unheard of, either, for some recurring guest stars to become series regulars in subsequent seasons of the show if they shine enough (for example, Darren Criss on Glee). Working as a guest star really can be your launching pad into being a working actor in the television world.

In the end, all of these have their pros and cons. As you move up the ladder, of course, the perks definitely come to light, and the closer you are to working regularly in Hollywood. Sometimes people only see the big picture when it comes to television—they see the stars of their favorite television show and often forget that most of them worked their way up doing bit parts to get where they are. It’s all about hard work, giving it your all, and using your opportunities in all steps of working in television.


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tara McGrath started her career in entertainment mainly because she couldn't see a life where she wasn't surrounded and inspired by actors in some way or another. After graduating from SUNY Purchase's Conservatory of Theatre Arts and Film with a degree in Screenwriting, she worked for a year at Roundabout Theatre Company in New York. Interning under their casting department with casting directors Carrie Gardner and Jim Carnahan, she assisted in casting such productions as Spring Awakening, American Idiot and Fox's hit show, Glee. From there she moved 3,000 miles to Los Angeles and for the last year has been working for a well-known boutique talent agency in West Hollywood. She has also worked as a reader and marketing assistant for the Blue Cat Screenwriting Competition and has worked on independent features as both producer's assistant and P.A.

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