Sunday, July 7, 2013

Acting Tips: Defining acting roles on your résumé

What am I?

I just posted a new television credit to my résumé, which again raised the issue of billing and how to officially define a role. Résumé credit terminology can be dizzying shades of gray and for years the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) had different terms for similar roles.

There are clues.  If you’re working a union television contract, your billing should be spelled out specifically in your contract.  If you have no contract or deal memo for your work, you can check the original breakdown for the project, as the billing for the role is often listed after the character description. You can also check with your agent or someone in production.

This is what I came up with, broken down by genre:


Lead (Star): The actor appears in most scenes in a role that is central to the story and without which the film would not exist.  His/her name is often in the on-screen credits at the beginning of the film, in addition to appearing in the complete end credits.

Principal: In film, this term refers to a speaking role, without getting too specific about how central the actor’s character is to the story. It has also been used to denote non-contract players who have five or more lines.

Supporting: The actor fills a principal role and appears in one or more scenes.  Although important to the storyline, the role is not a lead character.

Featured: The actor has one scene with one or more lines; not big enough to be a supporting role and easily cut from the final version of the film. If the role stays in, the actor’s name appears in the end credits.

Cameo: A term that designates an established star in a stunt-cast role.

Background: The actor fills a non-speaking role with no on-screen credit given. Sometimes you will see the term "Featured Background," which means you're not in a crowd scene but clearly recognizable, i.e. standing next to the star. Either way, Background should not appear on an acting résumé.


Series Regular: The actor is under exclusive contract with the show to appear (or be paid regardless of appearing) every week.

Recurring: The actor returns as the same character over multiple episodes, either on a standing contract or contracted periodically, with payment based on the terms negotiated and the number of appearances.

Guest Star: The actor appears as a one-episode guest whose character's storyline is central to that particular episode. The actor works at the standard union weekly rate, even if filming takes place over only a day or two.

Co-star: The actor appears as a one-episode guest whose character may or may not be central to that episode’s storyline.  Co-star billing is typically negotiated and is unrelated to the size of the role.

Contract Role: This is an AFTRA contract term for a series regular or recurring character on a daytime soap opera.

Under 5: This is an AFTRA contract term for a role with between one and five lines.  You could also use the term “Featured,” but it is so often applied to a role as an Extra, where you appear prominently in a scene but without lines, that it may be misleading if you have lines.

Cameo: A term that designates an established star in a stunt-cast role, i.e. Brad Pitt appearing in an episode of Friends.

Extra: A non-speaking role with no on-screen credit. This billing should not appear on an acting résumé.


Theatre credits on a résumé typically include only the character name, as the role size is generally known. If the production is an original work or a recent play, however, an actor may note "lead" or "supporting" after the character name. Also noteworthy is whether the actor originated the role, especially if the play later becomes well known.

Understudy:  A stage term for an actor who will only appear in a principal role if the primary actor cast in that role (and for whom the actor is understudying) cannot perform.  It should be noted however that some theatres guarantee a certain number of performances for understudies.


  1. Dear Ms. Browning, ACT Like A Child Magazine is always looking for quality, trustworthy, industry driven content for our readers, in exchange for advertising in our magazine! We would love to have permission to reprint this article (and/or any other article you would like to share) and then promote your site or any other project you would like to promote? We are offered as a fun magazine but we are actually a guide and resource for parents of children, teens and twenty-somethings who are considering or are currently involved in the entertainment field. Please let us know if this is a possibility. We are released bi-monthly currently, and are on our 12th issue. If you would like to check us out, please visit: We would love to send you a complimentary digital copy for your review if you could please contact us via email: Thank you for sharing your talents and wisdom!

  2. Thank you for the kind words. I'm happy to have you reprint this article in your magazine for young actors. I look forward to seeing the issue when it comes out. All the best.

  3. Thank you for these helpful tips Kay! I also wanna share this additional tips here Definitive Guide to Making a Professional Résumé for Your Acting Jobs cause I think both are very relevant. I hope you'll take time to read that one and I would gladly appreciate if you share some opinion regarding with the article. Thank you Kay!

    1. Thanks, Lillian! This added some important non-speaking roles. Also, as an actor gets more experience, he/she can add (partial list) after the section head and pare each section down to the most recent/most important. You have to hold it to one page. All the best.

  4. Thank you for taking the time to post this. I have been looking for a list like this for a long time.

  5. Thank you for the very detail explanations.

  6. Thank you. This was very helpful in helping my son with his resume.

  7. Goodday!

    May I ask,
    In terms of both film roles and television roles, are some types of roles seen as more important or better than others? Why?

  8. That's a very good question, but important to whom? For casting directors, time spent on camera is a kind of gauge, so guest star, supporting, and series regular are certainly a notch up from day player. They also look for progressively stronger roles on an actor's resume. For an actor, however, important roles are those that allow you to develop a character and stand out from the crowd. Look for those in small films, even student films if you sense a talented director. The hardest thing about this business is that we train for starring roles, but our first professional lines on camera are things like, "Do you want ketchup and pickles with that?" Go for the starring roles, regardless of the size of the film.