No Small Parts: The Importance of Background Players in Soap Opera

Oakdale ConfidentialWould you rather listen to Kate Martineau Adams than read about her?
Hear Full (23 minutes) Interview: Kate Martineau Adams with Susan Dansby

In this interview, Kate Martineau Adams compares the potential for moving up in acting ranks from background (extra) player to principal roles in soaps and feature films. She explains why you might want to get a job as an extra in one form, and definitely not in another.

Susan Dansby: You cast the background players primarily. [Note: Background players don't speak at all. An 'under-five' is a part where the character has one-to-five lines of dialogue. A 'day player' character has more than five lines and may be used once or many times (recurring). A 'contract role' is one where the actor is contracted to appear a certain number of times each week.] How did those people come to your attention? Because being a background player, or an extra, is sometimes in actor’s first experience on film or on tape.

Kate Martineau Adams: Well, because As the World Turns was such an institution in New York, there were a lot of people when I got there who had been steady background actors on the show for many years who I continued to use.

And then, there were people I have met either through — they would just directly send their headshot to me, and I would call them in for general meeting; or people that I met through seminars that were green, who had never been on a set before, but had the right look.

The Man from OakdaleBasically, for background actors, we’re looking for people who are dependable, professional, and can take direction well. A lot of people tend to mock background acting; but it is a skill. You need to be able to take direction well — especially in daytime when things move so quickly and there are so few background actors.

This isn’t Spiderman, where you’re in Times Square, and there are a thousand people, and we’re never going to see one particular person or know what that person is doing. This will be in the police station, and there might be one cop as a background actor. That cop needs to be able to listen and take direction well from the stage managers, needs to be confident in what they’re doing, needs to have an awareness of all three cameras.

Trent Dawson (Henry, ATWT)

Trent Dawson (Henry, ATWT) Trent start on As the World Turns as a day player, and was so popular with fans, he was offered a contract.

I mean, we get people who come in who think they’re ready to go straight on-camera, who don’t know upstage from downstage. Who don’t know that they can’t cross between the principal actor and the camera.

So, we need people who are quick learners and are very professional and dependable. Because, again, this isn’t Spiderman with a thousand extras. If my one extra does not show up, then I’m screwed. I don’t have anybody in the police station. So, I need people who realize that this is an important job as well.

It especially was noticeable to me during the last few weeks of production on As the World Turns, because I tried to use people who had been very good employees for me over the past eight years. And I had so many people — from the stage managers to wardrobe to the principal actors on the set — thank me for using these specific people, because they had been part of their experience as well, and that they knew what they were doing. “It was nice to be in Lakeview with Peter and Lynn.” Like they were part of the community as well.

And in daytime specifically, background acting does not limit you from being considered for anything else. In prime time and features, they really do warn actors not to do too much of it; because you can get pigeonholed into “just a background actor.” In daytime, it’s the same casting office that’s hiring background actors as is hiring principal actors.

A lot of casting is relationships. You can’t live and die with each audition. You’re creating relationships with the casting director. So, if your relationship is solely with the background casting office, then that’s not going to help you book that principal role.

But in daytime, when it’s the same casting office, it does help you; because we’re a collaborative unit. There would be times when Mary Clay or Lamont [Lamont Craig, Associate Casting Director, As the World Turns] would come to me and ask if I had anybody who I thought might be right for this certain role.

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A lot of my background actors booked under-fives. Some of my background actors booked day player roles. One of my background actors screen tested for a contract role. So, in daytime, it’s a different world than in prime time or film for background actors

About Susan Dansby

Susan Dansby has received four Emmy® Awards and two Writers Guild Awards for her work on the soap opera, AS THE WORLD TURNS. She is the author of HOW DID YOU GET THAT JOB? MY DREAM JOBS AND HOW THEY CAME TRUE.
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