Understanding TV/film casting lingo

Lead, Co-lead, Principal, featured, background, supporting, U-5. These are the titles of some of the various roles in any given film/TV casting. But understanding what all these mean can be tricky and if you are unfamiliar with the lingo it can dampen your experience on set – especially if you mistake a featured role for a principal, or a principal for a lead.

When I first landed in New York I worked for a couple of casting directors. It was one of the most informative jobs I’ve had as far as acting goes, primarily because it taught me what happens on the other side of a casting breakdown. I recently got to experience it all over again when I cast my own project last month. Specifically when I ran into some minor difficulties with an actor who was unfamiliar with the above lingo. So, in an effort to help actors stay ahead of the game in the field I thought it only fair that I do my best to communicate here what the different titles are so that you can avoid disappointment or confusion.

Extra/Background:

Extra and background roles are exactly the same thing. An extra role will usually be a role played by an actor literally in the background – for example, in one scene I was casting we needed to overrun a store with shoppers. Most of those roles were extra/background roles. They did not have any lines and in some cases were barely on camera for a split second, all to enable a sense of chaos needed to make the scene work. All of those roles are absolutely vital to the scene but they involved little more than walking from point A to point B.

Featured:

A featured role is an extra who plays a little more of a “featured” part. For example, in the store scene there is a woman struggling to get a dress on and in attempting to do so knocks over the lead character triggering a fantasy sequence. For this the actor will be “featured” more than the other extras. There are still no lines but the role and the actor are given a little more screen time than a simple extra role and sometimes a featured role can be pivotal to the story-line in so far as it helps move the scene ahead. It is still technically an extra/background role, but the way they are “featured” is significantly different from the background roles. You will generally be able to point them out when you watch the show/movie. But they are still an extra and there is no pay/union difference.

U-5 (or Under 5):

Literally a role with “under 5 lines.” These are actors who play small bit parts. In the store scene there are two women who harass the lead character for help. They both had between one and five lines and they were strongly featured. They were a step “up” from the featured lady struggling to get her dress on and there was a pay or union status difference. This is also a principal role.

Principal:

Any role with lines or with significant importance to the story-line. Principal makes it sound a lot more fancy or important than it is but it is just a way to categorize actors for the unions. Even if you only say one word as scripted (extras talking in the background don’t apply here) you are a principal. U5 all the way up to lead roles are all billed as a principal.

Supporting:

A supporting role is basically a character who is there to support the main/lead character/s. For all you Star Wars fans Obi Wan Kanobe is a supporting character. Judi Dench won an Oscar for her 5-minute supporting appearance as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in love. Haymitch Abernathy (played by Woody Harrelson in the Hunger Games) is another example of a supporting role). But they aren’t necessarily only “small” parts either – just look at the list of supporting actors at the academy awards – and sometimes they can be co-lead’s.

Co-Lead:

This is what it sounds like. A Co-lead role is a character who is equally important to the storyline of a given project. Luke, Han, and Leia are all co-leads in Star Wars. I’d say Peeta and Katniss are Co-leads in the Hunger Games but Peeta could also be considered a supporting role. So it depends on the script and on the story-line overall. Same as supporting roles in the sense that they are listed as principals with the union. But every once in a while you will see a co-lead billed as a supporting character when it comes to awards season, which just symbolizes that none of this beyond extra and principal roles really means anything on paper.

Lead:

Self-explanatory. The role an entire story pivots around. Katniss, Liz Lemon, Bella Swan, etc.

By the way, you don’t technically need to have lines to be a Principal. In my project one of the supporting characters is silent. That doesn’t mean that she was billed as an extra. She is still a principal player and as far as the awards system goes she would be listed as a supporting actor.

So there you have it. I hope that clarifies things.

Some other listing titles you may see:

Stand-In:

Literally someone who stands in for a principal while the crew set up a shot. It helps keep a shoot moving forward when a principal actor is in make-up, wardrobe, or simply taking a break from being on set. It can be quite a challenging job because you have to make sure you’ve marked down all the movement and choreography of a scene so that the camera dept can work on focus and lighting. Sometimes a stand-in is needed to resemble the actor they’re standing in for, even down to the color of their wardrobe, but not always.

Other:

It depends on the production but it can be a number of things from featured background to principal player.

Special:

Again, very loose parameters here. Can be a guest role, a funny one-liner, or a very featured background role.

Guest star:

Usually reserved for stunt-casting where a celebrity or well-known actor plays a secondary lead role. Sometimes the roles are larger but they can even be simple walk-ons. For example, in the movie Hot Fuzz Cate Blanchett plays a guest role as Simon Pegg’s girlfriend. You wouldn’t know it’s her unless you watched the special features because her head and face are obscured by forensics gear, and I believe she is uncredited. Sometimes celebrities will take such roles for fun choosing not to have a credit to save the production money.

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About The NYC Actor

Angela Dee is a professional actress working in Film, Theatre, TV, Commercials and Voiceovers. She currently lives in New York. www.angeladee.com

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