Most actors dream of starring on the silver screen but for Doris Debellis and her daughter Alexandra, staying in the background is perfectly fine — and fun.
The mother and daughter team do background performance work playing short, unheralded roles that nevertheless appear on-camera. They are booked onto film and television sets, sometimes together, through the Background Players and Morgan Rickman talent agencies and Doris says that unlike the fantasy of hobnobbing with movie stars all day, background performing involves a lot of waiting and patience.
“Finding things to keep you busy on-set is important. You take little short naps or you read a book, you bring your laptop to pass the time. There’s a lot of sitting and waiting,” Doris said.
Sometimes referred to as movie extras, background performers generally appear in non-speaking roles, often in the literal background of a scene.
Contrary to naïve hopes that one might get “discovered” on-set, real background performers are simply there to do a job and realize the gig isn’t going to get their foot in any Hollywood doors.
Most consider getting paid to hang around movie sets a pretty sweet gig, even if the paycheque isn’t huge.
For non-unionized extras, the pay usually comes in at about $8.50 per hour of background work, minus an agency commission. As members of the actors’ union, ACTRA, Doris and Alexandra command closer to $21.50 per hour.
Doris, 48, was a professional dancer and singer before she started doing background work about 16 years ago to pass the time and bring in some income after having a baby. Her first role was in the film RoboCop 3 and since then she has gone on to do roles in movies, television and commercials.
Alexandra, 19, had her first gig in the 1995 Antonio Banderas and Rebecca De Mornay film Never Talk to Strangers when she was five years old. She briefly appeared as Banderas’ daughter and by some stroke of luck, Banderas also picked Doris for a background role in the film despite having no idea they were mother and daughter.
For Doris, one of her best moments was getting to meet her idol, Bette Midler, on the set of the 1997 film That Old Feeling. She chatted with Midler about motherhood and performing and says Midler was extremely down-to-earth and charming.
She also ran into a flirty Colin Farrell on one set — but had no idea who he was at the time.
“I didn’t really know who he was because I had never seen him before. Two weeks later I saw him on the cover of Vanity Fair,” she joked.
Doris’ other three teenage children have also gotten in on the act doing background performing, which makes her happy because each time she travels with them to a set (or gets booked together) it means more quality time she can spend with them.
“I tell my kids to embrace the work,” she said.