Behind the Scenes of Being a Period Background Actor

Story and Photos by Katie Licata

Could you imagine exploring The Fontainebleau lobby in 1960, or walking down the street in 1950’s Atlanta? I had the immense privilege to do that for a couple of days in 2019 as a background actor on two period television shows; The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Lovecraft Country. I enjoy living in the current time period, but it’s amazing to see a vintage world come alive with candy colored cars and clothes that dreams are made of.

Costume from Lovecraft Country (2020)

Calling All Old Souls

The first step in becoming an extra on a tv show or movie is to apply to the casting agency. I have found casting agencies nearby with a quick Google search, and then I either follow them on social media or sign up for emails. After that it’s a matter of waiting until you find something you’re interested in. For Mrs. Maisel specifically, I saw a lot of ads for the show that were looking for background actors in Miami and decided to give it a shot. Typically for period shows they ask for your measurements, if you have any tattoos, and in the case of Mrs. Maisel, if you are willing to cut your hair. After being hired there is a fitting; sometimes they determine which costume you will wear and sometimes alterations will be made as well. When I had my fitting for Mrs. Maisel I was hired as a hotel greeter and my costume was predetermined. It was a gorgeous yellow dress with beading and a full circle skirt. I couldn’t have asked for a better costume! During my time on Lovecraft Country I was a neighborhood resident and had a beautiful pink suit with a matching belt and shirt.

Costume for Lovecraft Country

Arriving On Set

It can be interesting showing up in my own vintage clothes because people will assume I’ve already been to wardrobe, or while signing out for the day they ask if I’ve returned my costume.The people working on the show and other background actors usually think it’s neat that I wear vintage in my regular life and westet my hair. Most people don’t know that wearing vintage or reproduction in your everyday life is a possibility, so they have questions about where my clothes come from and how I started dressing this way.

Costuming is one of my favorite parts of being a background actor. I am a huge fan of Donna Zakowska’s work on Mrs. Maisel, so meeting her and seeing her team at work felt like such a privilege. Each person was dressed like a star, matching jewelry, purses, painted nails, and show-stopping hats. I was put in a red wig for the show which meant it took less time to get ready and I had more time to have a cup of coffee and watch everyone transform into their 1960’s look.

Truly Like a Time Machine

The sets are impeccable and each detail is thoughtfully taken care of. I remember pulling up to The Fontainebleau in the bus full of extras and seeing at least a dozen colorful cars out front with the palm trees and pretend bellhops. Anything too modern is covered or modified like fire alarms or signs. On Lovecraft County we were in a neighborhood appropriate for the time period which was decorated with vintage cars as well. Occasionally a curious neighbor would pop out to ask what we were filming or to say they liked our costumes. We walked up and down the street behind the action of the scene. I like to compare us to the corps de ballet in a ballet company.

Transported back into 1960’s Miami at The Fountainbleu

My first day at The Fountainbleu for Mrs. Maisel we filmed Midge arriving at the hotel. It was one long shot, which meant everything had to go perfectly or we’d have to go back to the beginning. It is magical to be there with the soundtrack of Bobby Darin and to be a part of everything as it happened. Seeing Midge show up in that dress with a floaty cape, while cranes, and then a cameraman, orchestrated the scene directed by Amy Sherman- Palladino was incredible. Each person was so talented at their job and you could see how proud they were of the work they were doing.

Agency Stills from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

The Real Work on Being in the Background

The job of being a background actor is not for everyone since it often means walking back and forth for long hours, sometimes in less than ideal weather, and in heels. For me, that is a small price to pay and it is more than worth it. It is such a special experience to be there and have a very small part in something special. Anytime there is a period show or film I’ll gladly don my girdle, heels, and petticoat to be a part of that magic.

Catch a glimpse of Katie on set with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, season 3 now available on Prime Video, and Lovecraft Country, Sunday nights at 6PM PST or online at HBO Max

Katie Licata is a preschool teacher and vintage enthusiast. Follow her looks and inspirations on her Instagram @katieemilyl!

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