The Heidi Chronicles, Chapter 34: Breaking in as an extra
This is Heidi. Last year, she was "discovered" in the park by a pet talent agency; since then, she has embarked on a one-dog quest to break into the business. This is her Hollywood story as chronicled by Times staff writer Diane Haithman. And this is her “head shot”: That longing look was achieved by placing a biscuit just out of reach.
Some on-line bios for Brad Pitt say the actor began his career as a screen extra. Could the same route take a dog to stardom? (Hold all Pitt bull jokes, please.)
Heidi and I first started thinking about the world of screen extras -- officially known as "background actors" -- back in January, when we met Broadway trainer Bill Berloni in advance of Heidi's stage debut in "Annie" at the Kodak. Bill told us that, back in New York, he has several pet owners who make themselves available to him when he needs a background dog for a show. Bill's requirement is that the pet owner be willing to chaperone the dog during the rehearsal process and be backstage during the performance. In some cases, the pet owner must be willing to go onstage with the dog, costumed for a minor role or crowd scene, as I did -- reluctantly -- in "Annie."
Bill suggested that one way to get Heidi in front of a Hollywood camera would be to sign myself up as a non-union extra who can also provide a dog. There are several websites that allow you to list yourself as available for background roles, including Extras Access, CastingNetworks and Hollywood OS .These websites ask you to list any special abilities, costume elements or props available to you. Usually, there's a place to list "animals."
Because we wanted to know a little more about background dogs than we could get from the Web -- and because Heidi just loves buildings with fancy lobbies and elevators -- we paid a visit to the Screen Actors Guild offices to chat with Terri Ann Becherer, director of background actors for SAG. The former Screen Extras Guild (SEG) became part of SAG in 1992.
The lobby guard did not seem all that happy to see Heidi. "Is she a service dog?" she asked, raising a skeptical eyebrow. "She's an ... actor dog," I babbled as we scooted toward the elevators before the guard could change her mind.
Terri tells us that a union background actor earns a minimum of $130 for an eight-hour day. Bringing your dog adds another $23 to the minimum (and you don't get a higher fee for a bigger dog). As is the case everywhere in Hollywood, fees are negotiable. Just FYI, an extra who provides a car earns another $35; smaller props of various kinds, including a camera or binoculars, can add from $5.50 to $12.50.
Becherer said that, for those interested in extra work with a pet, the websites are a good place to start -- being sure to post a photo of the dog with your human profile. She added that there are also several casting agencies around town that specialize in background actors. Sometimes the websites list casting calls for certain movies or TV shows; Becherer said that a dog owner might keep an eye out for shows that often include outdoor scenes, such as police dramas. A dog is more likely to be needed as background in a park or street scene than in a hospital or workplace.
And, despite the Brad Pitt story, Becherer tells us that, for a dog or a human, being a background actor represents a separate career path from becoming a featured actor. "You can sign up and work as much as you want in the non-union world, but if you're doing it to get into SAG, I tell them they should take acting classes and network," she says. "Extra work is a whole different path."
We understand that becoming an extra may never make Heidi a star. But, in the name of networking, we left Heidi's headshot with Terri, just in case.
-- Diane Haithman
Photo: Terri Ann Becherer and Heidi. Credit: Diane Haithman / Los Angeles Times