8:00am PT by Katie Kilkenny
Yes, There's Now a Hollywood Award for "Best Extra"
Though mainstream films involve the teamwork of dozens and even hundreds of individuals, high-profile entertainment awards ceremonies typically celebrate only those with top billing. A new awards franchise, however, is cheekily overturning that precedent by lauding one of the least glamorous roles on set: that of background actors.
In 2020 Stanley PMI, a company that produces steel vacuum bottles and other food containers, launched The Stanleys, a set of awards for extras, actors who are hired to fake dialogue, execute scene-setting actions and otherwise keep the background of entertainment looking lively and realistic. The Stanleys join the Union Background Actors Awards (with ceremonies in L.A., Chicago and Louisiana) in celebrating this population; L.A.'s Union Background Actor Awards, begun in 2020, is restricted to SAG-AFTRA members. While a clear publicity ploy for the Seattle-based container company, with The Stanleys drawing a comparison between the company's low-key mugs and hardworking extras who clock long set days, its two prizes — a lifetime achievement award and rising star award — uniquely shine a light on the hardworking and often long-suffering, ego-sublimating employees making star creators and talent look good.
The winner of the first-ever lifetime achievement Stanley, actor Tommy Bechtold, 36, has appeared in over 15 movies, 30 TV shows, 50 commercials and hundreds of online sketches, working on titles including How I Met Your Mother, House, Medium and CSI. Bechtold first learned about the competition when he visited Stanley's Twitter account while seeking Christmas deals for his dad (who brings Stanley mugs ice fishing). When he was plucked out of over 1,500 applicants to win the prize, Bechtold almost didn't open the email from Stanley alerting him to his achievement. "Normally, the only emails that say 'congratulations' are like from Best Buy — 'congratulations, you can get a laptop for $200,'" he explains. Luckily, he realized the email was from a real person and opened it: He had won $5,000, a $10,000 donation to The Actors Fund, a full-page ad in The Hollywood Reporter, insulated Stanley products for long days on set and a golden Stanley mug-shaped statuette. (There is no Stanleys awards ceremony, at present.)
"As tongue-in-cheek as it might be, I think it's a cool thing to raise awareness," he says of his award. "If you're out here and if the thing you're contributing right now to the entertainment industry is showing up to be a background actor or an extra, I just hope that people remember that that's important and that matters."
The Rochester, New York, native, who is over 6 feet tall, 250 pounds and looks young for his age, first began his background career while working as a production assistant on a film shooting in his hometown. The director asked him to say a few lines in the film, which offered Bechtold entry into the Screen Actors Guild. Later, when he moved out to Los Angeles to begin acting full-time, he followed the advice of acquaintances to sign up as a background actor at Central Casting. Bechtold embraced the role as a chance to go to film school without tuition: "When the actors are dormant, that's when the rest of the crew is alive and lighting the set and getting everything ready and, if you're paying attention, you can really learn a lot," he says.
During his subsequent career as an extra, "I carried a coffin on House, I had a burrito thrown at my face on a Disney show, I did a hot dog-eating contest with Adam Sandler," he says. During Bechtold's latter performance, in the film Funny People, Sandler noticed that the hot dogs his scene partner was receiving were a few hours old and so began sneaking him fresh Nathan's from his plate: "As ridiculous as it seems, when you have good days like that, you're like, 'I'm going to keep going, I'm going to keep trying,'" Bechtold says.
Bechtold learned skills of the trade such as mouthing "watermelon elephants" during scenes in which he needed to pretend to speak (viewers have a hard time lip-reading the phrase, he explains) and bringing a book to set, in case he needs to wait eight or nine hours and his background character wasn't needed that day. To make end's meet, Bechtold, who received a fee between $130 and $300 per day for his background work, worked additionally as a bartender, waiter, substitute teacher, flower-deliverer, Lyft driver, house painter, Fox assistant for Family Guy and American Dad, and construction worker.
After years of background work, Bechtold was cast as a principal on ABC comedy The Middle for five seasons starting in 2013, appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! a few times and just finished a series for Facebook Watch called Take It Outside. Will the Stanley help his career now that he's transitioned to principal acting? "Absolutely," he says. "The amount of attention it brings is a reminder that you're out here working and that's never bad, especially in our industry, where there are so many people trying to break in or break out."
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
March 3, 2:52 p.m. Updated with details about the Union Background Actors Awards.