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Los Angeles Times

A comedian explains why life as a lowly background actor is still worth the struggle

By Jen Murphy,


Next time you sit down to gaze into any screen big or small for your entertainment, take a few moments to view it from a different, less glamorous lens. Naturally an audience’s main focus is always going to gravitate toward the stars of the show or film they paid to see, whether that hero is playing out an intense scene at a restaurant, walking down a busy street, or perhaps just meandering on a crowded bus or airplane. Now, just divert your eyes just an inch to the left or right and notice the seemingly unrecognizable, common person sitting behind them. That’s me! Or one of another of the thousands of performers in L.A. who do “background” work.

It's not considered a glamorous job in L.A., although for some who just arrived in Hollywood, standing next to Jennifer Aniston or Bryan Cranston on a set is as close as they’re likely to get to stardom. We are the backdrop to their Emmy-winning dialogue.

Even the job title insinuates that we are not people, but literal background—like a painting or flowerpot that is placed on a table to make the walls look less bare. But in those tiny moments when the camera is rolling, we do feel a sense of worth and importance. That quickly goes away when we are sent to pee in a port-a-potty while the main actor resides in their personal trailer.

On several occasions, I've left a 15-hour day of background work completely dehydrated from refusing water just to avoid having to step foot in a port-a-potty that’s been continuously used by 65 other extras in the past 12 hours. But hey, let’s not focus on the negative. It is a way that actors in L.A. get to work without booking an actual acting job. Don‘t get me wrong — there is acting involved. It’s not easy to have a full conversation with another background actor, typically a stranger you just met on set that day, without verbally being able to talk. Everything is done in silence so as not to disturb the voice of the stars. We are skilled mimes without the painted face. It’s a weird gig for someone used to telling jokes onstage for a living.

I was making pretty good money as a comedian for a while. I began doing extra work after being fired from a cruise ship because I got COVID and spent the whole trip locked in the basement and then wrote about my nauseating, nautical voyage through quarantine hell for The Times. Carnival Cruise Line was obviously not happy with my decision to exploit the details of my experience. It is not easy to make a living as a stand-up comedian and pay $1,700 a month for a studio apartment in Los Angeles. The cruise ships pay very well. I wish I could say I regret burning that bridge, but I don’t. My article being published in The Times was a true highlight of my life.

Suddenly finding myself in a fear-stricken panic of how I was going to keep this convenient, but quite expensive little studio roof over my head, I had to quickly find an alternative job I was skilled to do. I’m a stand-up comedian and writer, so my choices were limited basically to manual labor or becoming your next delivery person. I followed my first instinct and went online to request an interview to be an Amazon driver. But the night before my interview, riddled with a fear of becoming complacent in a 9-to-5 job, I knew I couldn’t fold just quite yet. I had to at least make an attempt to stay somewhat close to the field of my passion.

For the majority of background jobs we arrive before the sun comes up. Most often to a large studio parking lot or enclosed garage that is called the “holding area” filled with folding chairs and long picnic tables. Those metal chairs became our home base for the day. We eat, sleep, contemplate our life decisions — and on some lucky days, forge new friendships with our fellow comrades devoted to this relentless lifestyle.

Whereas most people in this line of work are aspiring actors, I am first and foremost a stand-up comedian. But we are all cargo on the same ship just trying to get to our destination.

Despite appearing calm and cool on the surface, it is quite a thrill at times to be inches away from some of the biggest stars in the world. I once worked on “The Morning Show,” an Apple TV+ production starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, in which I was instructed to walk just a few feet behind Aniston as she did a very long dramatic exit. We were filming outside in downtown L.A. on a very sunny day and I got yelled at after one of the takes for wearing large sunglasses. Apparently, my large glasses may have been distracting an audience member’s focus from the star of the show. I felt sad and embarrassed for a moment, but as the tears formed in my 48-year-old eyes, I thought, “Well at least it wasn’t Aniston herself yelling at me. Because I saw what happened to Ross after they were ‘On a break!'"

I once spent 16 hours in pantyhose watching guys play basketball for the HBO show “Winning Time” and received $267 and a yeast infection.

Humor is my savior. I look for it everywhere. I need to. I’m a 48-year-old background actor. Did I mention that?

One of my favorite actresses over the years is Rose Byrne. If you don’t know her name, you’d definitely know her face if you saw it. A brilliant dramatic and comedic actor, she is currently starring in the hit show “Physical.”

I recently booked a three-day background job on that show. I was so excited! It was three days of work, on an awesome show, and the chance to admire Byrne, one of my idols.

On the last of the three days, after being there for 15 hours, we had just one shot left to film. It was a dramatic scene where Byrne’s character had to cry. I was sitting just a few feet from her. If you aren’t familiar with television and moviemaking, a typical scene is usually shot four to six times before it is deemed worthy for the final cut, which means Byrne had to get those tears for every take.

During almost every take, right before the camera rolled, she seemed to look over at me. Call me narcissist, but I swear she glared right into my eyes. I at first thought I must look like someone she knows, then it quickly dawned on me: Maybe her motivation to cry is looking at an almost 50-year-old woman still doing background work.

I have been doing background acting for a year now, and being someone very prone to depression, I have learned to constantly search for the positive in a situation. It’s not always easy to do when my peers that I started doing stand-up comedy with 17 years ago are now the stars of a few of the shows that I am doing background work on. I used to hide, hoping they wouldn’t see me. The shame and discomfort I felt was overwhelming and at times, paralyzing. Fortunately, I have been blessed with enough introspective resources to realize the strength of ego. I now walk up, semi-confidently, to my successful peers and say hello. I am at times met with a look of pity and/or confusion. One of them actually asked me “what happened?” because I “had so much potential.” I just smile and say, “I’m still alive!” The older I get the more I realize, that actually may be the greatest success in L.A.

This article is not meant as a way to complain about my position in life. No matter what mediocre job or lifestyle I find myself in, I know I am still living in a fashion that is better than probably 90% of other human beings on this earth.

But I know now that it doesn’t necessarily matter what degree of career success we may have at the moment, it can all change tomorrow. What matters is a continued belief in myself. I know how talented I am. If that talent gets hindered by bad networking skills or a physically paralyzing panic, so be it. I’ll continue to work through it and try my hardest to rise above the fear.

But until then, I’ll enjoy the amazing L.A. days working on television and movie sets at awesome locations like Warner Bros. and Sony Studios, being side-by-side with actors I have looked up to for years, and making the most of this beautiful life I have even if at this moment I am just quietly living my life in the background.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times .

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