As a recurring character on a network television show and an acting coach, I get a lot of emails from people asking what they can expect from their first day on set for an episodic.
I remember my first day on a network TV set, as “EMT #1” on Chicago Fire. I was excited, but mostly nervous. It was a hot Saturday in July. Most people I knew were at Lollapalooza and I was on 290 in an ambulance.
At lunch, I was eating alone and my background EMT partner sat at another table alone. I called him over. He told me he wasn’t allowed to talk to “1st team”, which is why he didn’t automatically sit by me. It wasn’t my first time on set ever, but it felt like it and I could have used some company. I hope I can shed some light for you here on a day in the life on set, so you can be less nervous than I was on day one.
The night before, you’ll get a call time from the Key 2nd AD (assistant director). Don’t ask your agent about your call time. They won’t know. This is because your call time depends on when the crew is wrapping for the evening before your shoot. They need 9-12 hours of turnaround time from one day to another (depending on actors and crew turnaround times.)
When you get on set, find the 2nd AD and get their name. They’ll sign you in and get you to your trailer/honeywagon. There you’ll read, sign and take a picture of your contract. Make sure your rate, your name and everything is correct. If not, reach out to your agent or SAG-AFTRA.
If your name is incorrect, that’s how it will show up in the credits of the show. If your rate is scale, check and see that there’s a + 10% for your agent. If not, your agent can’t take money out of your scale pay. Look out for them, too. If it’s above scale, they’ll take the 10% out of your pay, or have your agent negotiate 10% on top of your above scale pay.
Always take a picture of your contract and keep it for future reference! Don’t feel rushed. You’ll have time.
Get dressed in your trailer. They’ll call you to hair and makeup so you’ll be ready to head to set for rehearsals. First you might have a private rehearsal for the actors, director, DP (director of photography), script supervisor, and writer. There will definitely be a marking rehearsal for the crew. After that you’ll get wired (your mic) and sit around to wait until the crew sets up the shot.
You’ll be on 1st team, and they’ll use a 2nd team (stand-ins) to get lighting and shots set up.
On set, the director and the 1st AD will be running the show and giving you direction. The script supervisor will let you know if you’re getting your lines wrong. Make sure you’re matching up where you say your lines on each shot. This will help in the editing room.
There will be a lot of “hurry up and wait”. You’ll film your scene from multiple angles and shots with lots of set up in between for the crew. We get paid to sit around and wait!
SAG-AFTRA actor, Ilyssa Fradin, is often asked how long an actor will be on set for the day. She says to expect 8-12 hours. Just come prepared. Bring your chargers for your electronics, some work and reading materials. Fradin recommends bringing your own food in case you can’t get to Craft Services or have specific nutritional needs or food allergies.
My advice to you is to know your lines and your mark, and LISTEN!
Have a good attitude. Have fun and be yourself, but read the room. Know when to talk and when to stay quiet. Take direction and listen to everything being said to you and around you. When the director yells cut, go closer (but not too close!) to the conversations if you can.
Nicole McGovern, 2nd 2nd AD (no, that’s not a typo) on Chicago Med says, “Observe what’s happening. Be self-aware, but not in the way.” McGovern also says to be prepared for anything. Scenes get changed and moved to different days. “If you’re working multiple days, we may add another scene if we are ahead of schedule. A set may not be ready or an emergency may come up.”
When someone tells you their name, listen, say it out loud back to them, and write it down so you remember it next time you see them. Get a call sheet and study the names of the crew. They are making you look and sound good. They are awesome. Be friends with them. Thank them for their hard work!
Be aware of where the cameras are at all times, but of course don’t look into them.
Be prepared, but flexible.
Be willing to fail, and be willing to succeed.
Know that one mistake will not get you fired. Let it go, take a deep breath, and fix it in the next take. I can’t tell you how many times I thought I’d never be called in again, and four years later, I’m still there!
Don’t stop acting until someone yells cut, even if you think you’ve messed up and you want to start over. Keep going unless you’re told differently. They might be getting someone else’s coverage, and don’t need your lines to be right in that take. Keep going!
Never leave set without telling anyone. Find a PA (production assistant) or a 2nd AD and let them know where you’re going (ie: your trailer, the bathroom, to makeup etc). If you’re going to the bathroom, just ask, “Can I 10-1?” They’ll know what you mean.
If you’re like me, you’re probably worried you don’t know what you’re doing. No one really does his or her first day on set. Just pay attention to the veterans and learn on the job.
Sean Bradley, SAG-AFTRA actor and owner of The Green Room Studio says, “You don’t need to know everything. Feel free to ask questions.”
McGovern agrees, “You can ask the AD’s or PA’s questions. You might think it’s a stupid question, but it’s probably not.” (Fear not, there are a ton of PAs whose job it is to take care of you like you are a baby.)
Bradley adds, “Stay away from the dessert table. It’s a dangerous drug that will make you very sleepy for the rest of the day.”
Speaking of energy for the day, I always meditate beforehand. It helps me stay calm when action is yelled. I’m more focused and relaxed, and I find it helps me be best self in a stressful time. Need a guided meditation? Reach out to me and I’ll send one!
Finally, one of the stars on Med gave some great advice to a day player the other day. She was telling him there was food available for the cast and crew. She told him to go get a container and put it in his trailer before the food was gone. Then she yelled as he was leaving, “Act like you belong!” The first few times you are on set, you might not feel like you belong. You do. Act like it. Don’t be a jerk, but act confidently. You’re worthy of being there. Like the old saying goes, “Fake it ‘til you make it”!
And at the end of the day, find your 2nd AD who signed you in and sign out properly!
You got this!!
Courtney Rioux, The Whole Artist coaches actors and other creative talent who feel stuck in their career and want more out of life. She's here to help you shift your mindset from stuck and unhappy to empowered and joyful — all while making it feel fun and easy. It’s like therapy without the therapy.