What Is It Like on a Film Set When You Book A Co-Star Role on TV?
A few days ago was a bunch of years anniversary since I worked on my first prime time TV show in one of those coveted co-star roles. Working these roles can be challenging. Getting these roles can be challenging. I have learned so much since the first time I worked one. When I was younger I used to think a co-star meant you were starring in the thing with someone else and this title was a big deal. Years later I learned that the co-star role is really a smaller role on TV. On a film set it would be called a day player role and in the soap world these were usually called “under 5s.” These roles are not always five lines and under anymore, and sometimes blur lines with what is considered a guest star, but in general these are the little guys.
For as small as these roles are they’re actually really hard to get. Often they are simple roles that are not supposed to stand out very much and build up the authenticity of the world and be a vehicle for the actual star to help move the plot along. You have to be really natural and not pull too much focus (unless you are the butt of a joke) but believable enough to not pull focus either. They’re often lines best delivered simply. (You don’t need to create a full backstory for most of these).
Often these roles can be nondescript. At auditions you’ll usually see a smattering of actors of various ethnicities, ages, and genders so the casting director can have a swatch to show the director. In talking to some casting director friends I’ve learned that these roles usually have around 5,000 people submitted to them, and this is only among actors who have agents who can submit to these calls fast enough as there is usually a quick turn around time. From that 5,000 usually between 10 and 20 get an audition. This means getting the audition alone is a win and you are doing something right. I’m lucky to be in this pool often.
The first one I ever booked was a really simple customer role on a new, now popular TV comedy that was for cable and has since been syndicated also on Netflix. It was a casting director I had done a few workshops with over the years (they work!), the fifth time reading for that office, and the second time I had read for that show. This was the second episode and I also had auditioned for the pilot. The whole thing was proof that building relationships takes time and in the end works. It’s never about the thing you’re auditioning for, but always about what is down the line.
When you book a co-star role depending on the show, sometimes you have an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) and cannot talk about it. In general it’s a good idea to share a vague booking but not really talk about it till the thing actually comes out. So much can happen in between, and it's not uncommon for these roles to get cut from the final edit. It's happened to me, and happens all the time.
Once they set the date, you have an appointment with wardrobe. This part is fun. You send your measurements ahead of time, and meet with the wardrobe department or costume designer in their studio. They have a bunch of options picked out and you basically play dress up for an hour or so. You try on all the combinations of the outfit they want, including shoes and accessories, and they take pictures to send to the director. You usually don’t know till day of what exactly you’ll be wearing. Someone told me once that if you have an opinion, share it with them or smile in that particular picture. This has never helped my choices get picked!
The day of your shoot plan for a really long day. Film days are long days and you never know where in the schedule your scene actually is, so you could be waiting around for a long time. Bring things to do. Books, extra batteries for your phone, knitting, are all good choices.
When you get to set a production assistant, who is your handler for the day, greets you. This is your go to person, and you should always have their cellphone in case you need anything. They whisk you away to your dressing room (if you are shooting in a studio) or your trailer (if you are on location). A trailer may seem fancy, but at this stage of the game it is a small metal box. Dressing rooms usually have comfy couches. Hanging up is your wardrobe for the day, (Tada! What did they pick?) On a table sits a small-stapled document of your call sheet, and a micro version of the scenes being filmed that day. If any of these are in a different color, this means changes were made to your script, possibly your lines, and it’s important to learn what that is. Next to it sits a mammoth of a document full of tabs requiring your signature. This is your contract.
Usually call times can be very early in the morning. Nine AM would be considered sleeping in. The second you sign your contract you are ushered over to hair and makeup. If you have any interest in eating breakfast from catering or going to the breakfast truck (yes they feed you!) arrive to set half hour before your call time so you can do that. Once you’re at go, things tend to move quickly.
Inside hair and makeup they do their magic for the day. If you’re a curly girl like me, communicating before hand how to prep your hair or what products to bring can be really helpful. Not everyone knows how to handle curly hair. Sometimes guys get haircuts or shaves. If they want to cut your hair, they need to discuss it with your agent first and usually pay you for it. They cannot spring it on you on set. Don’t feel pressured! I usually like to bring my own setting spray. I have very oily skin and am a big fan of DeSlick by Urban Decay, I usually bring. Always tell your makeup artist first, but they are often really into you having it and using it, knowing your skin. This can come in handy if you are being set in the morning and you aren’t shooting till night. There’s only so much a touch up can do.
At this point you may go back to your room. At one point you will be called to rehearsal. This is exactly that. When you rehearse the scene. It depends on how small the set is if you will be communicating with the Director or Assistant Director. Learn people’s names, be ready, keep your ears open and stay out of the way. Time is money on a film set and there are a lot of moving parts. Someone having to tell you something twice wastes their time. Crew loves actors who hit their marks, don’t mess up and make their lives easy. Anything helps that can help people go home faster. If it’s a big set the director is usually off in Video Village, an area they can look at the cameras. The Assistant Director works with you on set that the director communicates to them on walkie-talkie. Since you are the co-star, the scene isn’t really about you, so sometimes you wont get much direction.
After rehearsal is set and everyone knows where they are moving and where the camera is moving, the first team (you) go off to the side or back to your room, and the second team (your stand in) comes in so the crew can set the lights for the scene. Some actors might see this as a time to hang out in crafty, but don’t. Carbs and candy make you tired and you want to be ready and on you’re A game. It’s the best time to go over your script for the day.
When I did my first co-star it was incredibly frustrating. The lead of the show was an improviser, and changed a lot of the lines in between takes. His lines were my cue lines and I never knew exactly what he was going to say or how much he was going to say. I also was supposed to walk and hit a specific mark for camera when I said my line. I never knew exactly when to start walking. While walking and chewing gum has never been a hard task for me, for some reason this was incredibly complicated. It was very stressful. I remember getting so in my head about it and feeling like a complete failure. I definitely messed up, but I kept going. People always think being on set is like magic, but in this situation it was really frustrating work.
I remember going back to my dressing room feeling terrible, second-guessing myself, and what I was even doing in this industry. I had worked so hard to get to this point and I was sure I was screwing it all up. My manager had a text for me when I got back to my room. It said, “Call me.” I was sure I was being fired. I remember crying there on that leather couch thinking this was it. I calmed down and called him back. He wasn’t telling me I was fired at all, but that I had booked my second co-star on another prime time show that I had auditioned for earlier that week.
I wiped my tears and the production assistant knocked on my door and told me they were ready for me. They didn’t take a break to find a replacement for me. They were just turning the camera around.
Getting cast on and working co-star roles on TV shows can be really challenging. What I’ve learned over the years is every set is different. One can be stressful, and the next can be a dream (and in the case of my first two, the second one really was!). There is so much going on behind the scenes that has nothing to do with you. Just show up early, be open, ready to play and roll with the punches and it’ll get easier and easier the more you do it. If you haven’t gotten that coveted co-star role yet, but are auditioning for them, remember you are one of about 20 out of 5,000 and that is a win in and of it’s self. Enjoy the ride.
Awesome Things to Bring to Your Trailer/Dressing Room on a Film or TV Set:
Some Co-star/Dayplayer Roles I Worked That I Really Enjoyed:
Awesome Things that Help Prepare You to Work a Co-Star/Dayplayer Role:
This is me hanging outside my trailer on a TV show I had booked.
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