Georgia’s TV, film extras adjust to industry altered by pandemic

COVID-19 precautions continue to impact the careers of background actors

When COVID-19 brought business to a grinding halt in March last year, it hit Georgia’s multibillion-dollar film and television industry hard. Sets went dark, putting a raft of actors, producers, directors, and assorted production staff on extended leave.

But while the superstars could spend the lockdown in splendid isolation, those lower down the pecking order faced a severe threat to their financial survival. And some of the most vulnerable were the extras.

Extras, or background actors, are the people placed behind the featured actors in movies and TV shows to help create the atmosphere and make a scene believable. Their pay is modest at around $150 for a 12-hour day. But with regular work, it’s still a significant stream of income for many.

Credit: Contributed by January Curry

Credit: Contributed by January Curry

January Curry is the owner and casting director at the Atlanta-based agency Destination Casting. The company has some 40,000 people in its database, from principal actors to extras. When the pandemic first hit, they were all out of work.

“In the very beginning, productions were totally shut down,” she says. “So, the opportunities weren’t there. And even when they slowly started to open, the productions were still trying to figure it out. They just didn’t know how to handle things in the changing world.”

LaNita Jo Fox was among the background actors to suffer. As a 10-year veteran of the Georgia film industry, she’s worked as an extra on countless productions. She’s also the owner of the Golden Fox agency, which helps senior citizens get into background acting. When filming shut down, she found herself working at a grocery store.

“When it first started, it was very depressing because, you know, like me and everybody else, we want to work,” she explains. “I went out and got a part-time job because I’m the type of person who’s got to keep moving.”

It was two months before Gov. Brian Kemp gave the go-ahead for filming to resume. And another month or more before most cameras began rolling again. When they did, there were voluntary restrictions in place designed to keep actors and film crews as safe as possible from the virus. It was the beginning of the new normal, and the extras have had to adapt.

ExploreHow COVID-19 is transforming the film industry

“The numbers are definitely cut as far as how many background actors they’re using,” says Curry. “But the biggest change I’ve seen is the testing. Generally, the background talent will have to test within 48 hours of their workday. So for most productions, they have to come and test onset prior to working. Some of the smaller budget productions may require them to test on their own, but most productions provide the testing on set.”

Credit: Contributed by LaNita Jo Fox

Credit: Contributed by LaNita Jo Fox

“Everybody has to be tested,” says Fox. “Sometimes you’re tested like two or three times. And one production we got tested every day. I was also sequestered for two weeks. Which means I could not leave the facility. I had to stay in the hotel. You could not have guests. And you signed disclosures saying, you know, you’ll be there.”

To help safeguard those in the industry, the Georgia Film Office encourages filmmakers to adopt a COVID-19 compliance protocol. Approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Georgia Department of Public Health, it features guidelines and procedures for everyone involved in a film or TV production. And, of course, extras have to comply, as Curry explains.

“Upon arrival, they will have to check in with the COVID compliance team to have their temperature checked. They may have to have another COVID test as well. And once they do that, some productions go ahead and give out specific masks because they want them to have a certain kind of mask on that set. When all that’s done, they can go do their regular check-ins with the PA [production assistant], and get their paperwork.”

Credit: Jennifer Brett

Credit: Jennifer Brett

“It’s restricted. I can say that,” says Fox. “Each production is different. Some of them have separate tables for you while you’re waiting, like six feet apart. And when you get on the bus [where] they take you from one place to another, you’re separated. When you’re on set, you wear a mask — and sometimes a mask and a shield — until they tell you to take them off. When you eat, you can take your mask off, but there’s only certain areas that will allow you to.”

Despite precautions, opportunities for extras have picked up considerably since the early days of the pandemic. At the end of March, the Georgia Film Office reported around 60 film and television projects were currently filming around the state. Of course, the upturn is excellent news for background actors. Or at least, for the lucky ones.

ExploreWhat’s filming in Georgia in March 2021?

“You’ll have a lot of productions that will book a core group to work the entire show,” says Curry, “because they don’t want different faces coming in. Before, we would get the number of background actors needed for a scene from an assistant director. Now, they have to get approval from the compliance team as far as how many people they can allow in one space. We’re also using green screens and different technology to multiply crowds. You know, where we need a crowd of 200, but we can only hold 20 in the space. So, we have to get creative on the technical side.”

Though more and more people are getting vaccinated, restrictions on Georgia’s film sets seem likely to stay in place for some time to come. COVID-19 still casts a long shadow, and the future for background actors and anyone else in the film industry remains unpredictable.

“I feel eventually in the movie industry they’re going to say you have to take this vaccine, and we’ve got to see your card that shows you’re vaccinated before you can work on set,” says Fox. “And that’s going to burst my bubble because I don’t want to do it.”

Mandatory vaccinations are undoubtedly a controversial topic. But that’s a debate for another day. In the meantime, it’s clear to all in the film industry that times have changed.

“With the vaccines, the stipulations may slowly start to loosen,” says Curry. “But I don’t think they’ll ever go back to how they were pre-COVID.”