1) Be in LA, New York, or New Orleans These are, at time of publishing, the ‘big 3’ cities in which most filming takes place. New York and LA are obvious choices, but New Orleans is popping right now because of tax breaks. And the fact that Central Casting is there. Let’s talk about that magical company, shall we?
2) How To Sign Up For the sake of linearity I’m only going to talk about Los Angeles here, but the process is similar wherever you are. So: do your homework.
You’re going to have to get up early on Tuesday or Wednesday morning. Set your alarm for 5am. Leave the house by 5:30am. I got to the Central Casting office in Burbank at 5:45am on a Tuesday and was the 15th person there. You can go any weekday, but mid-week you have a better chance of being near the front of the line. They only hand out about 50 passes to get in the door to apply (and they hand them out to, you guessed it, the first 50 people in line). Be prepared to wait in line until roughly 8am, so bring a book, a camping chair, headphones, or make conversation with people around you. Some people are doing it because they have stars in their eyes but a lot of people are doing it because its a fun thing to do. Remember to bring 2 form of ID: your passport and your drivers license will suffice. I saw at least a dozen people from the front of the line not get in because they didn’t bring any ID. Remember that this is a business: you’re not going to get handed a job because you “deserve” it. So do your homework and listen closely to the seminar that Central Casting will give you about the life of a background actor and what to expect.
Also: be camera ready when you show up. This translates to: dress for the job you want. Yes, you’ll be getting up early. But make an effort and look clean (or dirty, whatever you think will get you more work because there are often background calls for scruffier people) because they will take a picture of you that will be used to cast you in background roles.
3) What To Expect Let’s assume that you don’t have a day job and can take any gig available. Central Casting has an alarmingly convenient Facebook presence where they post available background gigs, so save that page to your phone and check it throughout the day. 90% of the time you email and call them if you want a part: they’ll contact you if you fit what they’re looking for. Don’t worry if you didn’t get a part. That’s Hollywood. If you get offered a part, take it. You’re going to be in the background and not noticeable. This is money in your pocket and a fun way to spend your day. Don’t think that you’ll “make it big” just by showing up for a background gig.
If you’re very lucky, you’ll get a call without applying for a job. I got a call to play a bartender in a Netflix show. I couldn’t take it because I have a fucking day job. Such is life. One day my Wikipedia page will be looked at in awe of how many time my genius has fallen through the hands of time like sand from the hourglass.
Anyway. A friend of mine, whom I met in line at Central Casting and keep in touch with, applies for parts that even remotely resemble him. He’s a 30 year old guy who could play a hard 25, athletic, and handsome enough to be the dad in one of those photographs that comes with the frame when you buy a photograph frame. He works 3 to 5 days a week and has even gotten to say a line in a show, which thereby gets him in the Screen Actors Guild, aka “The Union.”