A bit actor is still an actor. For some, just the opportunity to be on a professional set stage provides a thrill whether they speak one line, two lines or no lines at all. Depending on the medium and number of lines assigned, bit actors can also be known as day players, extras, background actors, atmosphere, "under-fives" or walk-ons.
Bit Player Defined
In film and TV, the lowest level of bit actors, those who speak no lines, are called extras. They might appear as part of a crowd, in a restaurant scene, or walking down a street. They can be seen in rear view, partial view or might be Indistinguishable as part of a stadium audience, for example. Those who are shot in closeup and required to express significant emotion, are called featured extras. On a union film or TV set, the next step up is an "under-five," an actor who speaks five lines or less. In theater, a walk-on role is equivalent to a film extra. Though the walk-on may be done solo, the actor still speaks no lines. Bit players have a few lines.
First-run feature films are typically shot under Screen Actors Guild contracts. SAG is vigilant about tiered pay rates as well as wardrobe and prop pay, rest periods and meal breaks. As of July 2010, the SAG day rate for a film extra is $139. Extras who have special skills, such as horseback riding or gymnastics, receive $144 per day. Additional pay increments exist for such factors as working in water, working in smoke and furnishing your own wardrobe. For example, an actor who is called upon to bring a pet to the set receives an additional $23 for the day. The first two hours of overtime are paid at 1-1/2 times the regular hourly rate. After 10 hours, the rate doubles. An actor who speaks any number of lines in a film is classified by SAG as a day performer and is paid $809 per day.
TV shows might be produced under SAG or American Federation of Television and Radio Artists contracts. On SAG sets, background actors receive the same daily pay as for film -- $139. The overtime structure is also identical. AFTRA rates depend on the length of the program and the size of the role. As of June 2011, an actor who speaks five lines or less in a 30-minute dramatic program earns $416. In an hourlong program, the rate would be $537. For soap operas, the rate for a 60-minute show is $315. Overtime is paid at $37.50 per hour. An AFTRA extra on a half-hour show earns $138 per day; for an hourlong program, the rate is $153. Daytime soap extras earn $113 for a half-hour show and $147 for a 60-minute program. Prop, wardrobe and special ability incrementals are in place. Background actors in AFTRA commercials are paid $143 per day.
Actor's Equity Association is the union that governs professional theater across the United States. The union negotiates separate rates for Broadway, off-Broadway and regional theater. An actor in a Broadway show is guaranteed a minimum of $1,653 per week. For off-Broadway productions, actor pay is tied to the number of seats in the house. An off-Broadway show contract player in a 300-seat theater brings in $853 each week. A League of Resident Theater contract actor earns between $453 and $882 weekly, based on a formula tied to the theater's three-past-years weekly box office gross.