From young to old, edgy to conservative, a boutique casting agency answers the growing call for background extras
Photo: Elle Bernardo, casting director and head of talent relations at CDN Film Agency
ON A RAINY evening in mid-June, about 30 Londoners sat quietly on charcoal-coloured chairs in the Innovation Works building on King Street, sipping coffee and listening attentively as the city’s only film talent agency outlined the business of background acting.
Elle Bernardo, casting director and head of talent relations at CDN Film Agency, spoke softly as she provided the bulk of the details in an hour-long presentation. Her business partner, Jerry Ziler, watched from the audience and interjected occasionally, to elaborate and explain.
“London’s very new to film,” says Bernardo during an interview after the event, hosted by Film London — an arm of the London Economic Development Corporation devoted to growing the city’s film industry.
“We needed [a talent agency] that was focusing on film, commercials, TV shows and even music videos — whatever [the industry] needs,” adds Ziler.
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CDN Film Agency formed in the summer of 2022 when Bernardo and Ziler — both seasoned background actors — took the plunge on a business idea they incubated on the sets of locally shot productions.
They met while filming the Apple TV+ series See, a Jason Momoa vehicle that includes scenes in St. Thomas. Then, they reconnected after the much-hyped BlackBerry movie filmed scenes at London International Airport.
“I was a background actor on that,” notes Bernardo, referring to the BlackBerry shoot, “and I was booked through an agent in Hamilton. Seeing all the people that drove, but then also all the London people that were there, we needed to get something set up here.”
After a nudge from other stakeholders, they started the company and began recruiting locals to appear in London film shoots through casting calls on Facebook.
Word spread quickly, and soon CDN Film Agency was fielding requests from multiple film producers looking for background actors — also known as “extras” — who play non-speaking roles in crowd scenes.
At the time of the Film London event in June, Bernardo says the company was juggling three films, two TV series and one music video — all shot in London. In addition, eight locally shot video ads had also recently finished in St. Thomas.
“For the most part, we’re only booking London locals,” says Bernardo. “Our main focus is London right now and building this film community.”
Though background actors form the bulk of its business, CDN Film Agency also represents actors for speaking roles, which pay considerably more.
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Non-union background actors in Ontario make minimum wage for filming days that typically stretch over 10 or more hours. If an actor completes 15 workdays on film productions within one year, they can apply to join a trade union, the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA).
ACTRA background actors make roughly double the non-union rate, plus time-and-a-half overtime pay and other benefits. The pay scale for non-speaking actors increases when the role requires a special skill — like holding a gun licence or playing a sport or musical instrument.
CDN Film Agency collects a commission on the sub-total gross earnings of each actor, ranging from eight per cent to 12 per cent. They also handle the logistics of ensuring producers get the types of actors they need, based on their physical appearance.
Then, they coax successful applicants to meet their crew call — the start time on their days of shooting — and serve as a liaison between actors and the film producers.
All this is a necessary step toward creating a thriving film industry in London.
Film producers prefer to work with local background actors, because it saves money — local actors don’t require per diems or travel expenses. If they can consistently find the local talent they need, they might be inclined to return.
“We’re trying to draw that industry into Southwestern Ontario,” says Andrew Dodd, manager of Film London, speaking at the June event. “We think London could be a hub for that.”
While Toronto has long been the epicentre of Ontario’s $3.15 billion film industry, cities like Cambridge and Brantford — where parts of The Handmaid’s Tale were filmed — are also active.
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Smaller centres like Stratford and St. Marys have also served as film locations for movies and TV series like Stephen King’s In the Tall Grass and CBC’s Murdoch Mysteries.
CDN Film Agency doesn’t reveal the names of the productions it works with, but one key example is You Gotta Believe, a baseball movie filming this summer at Labatt Park.
“We’re poising ourselves to be ready for when this industry wants to move here,” says Dodd.