There are no small roles, only small actors.
– Constantin Stanislawski
In our house, every Saturday night is family movie night. Yesterday, we watched the 2002 version of Spider-Man, starring Tobey Maguire and Kirstin Dunst, introducing the kids to one of my favorite superhero movies. I had totally forgotten that he was in the movie, but about half-an-hour in, as Peter Parker used his new powers to beat up some high school bullies, there he was, in the corner of the screen just behind Mary Jane Watson: the World’s Greatest Extra, Jesse Heiman.
Jesse Heiman has made minuscule appearances in dozens of movies and television shows. He’s been called the “most ubiquitous actor in Hollywood.” Most of his “roles” aren’t even roles, having neither lines or names. He’s essentially playing human scenery. His are small roles, notably only for the sheer number of them. Still, he must enjoy this path he’s chosen, since he’s been following it for more than a decade.
Are there really no small roles? Anyone could do what Heiman did in Spider-Man. If we’re judging the importance of a role – whether in a movie or in life – purely on the amount of attention it receives, or the amount of influence it wields, then we must distinguish between large roles and small ones.
Playing Small Roles Well
Any yet — now that I know who Jesse Heiman is, I recognized him immediately. Out of all of the extras in that scene, Heiman drew my attention, to the point that he distracted my attention away from Kirstin Dunst. In that moment, because he has become so well-known for playing such minor characters, Heiman failed to fulfill his role. The audience is supposed to be focused on Peter Parker fighting Flash Thompson, not on a random high school in the background. The failure wasn’t really Heiman’s fault, of course. He did fine at blending into the background; his subsequent notoriety has made him, ironically in retrospect, too noticeable to play an extra.
Now, when Heiman lands a role, it’s often with a wink-and-a-nudge to his status as the world’s most recognizable unknown. When actors make it big, their earlier roles often seem too small for their larger-than-life persona. On another movie night, we were watching Raiders of the Lost Ark. Seeing movie star Alfred Molina in the small role of Indiana Jones’s traitorous jungle guide Sapito lent a surreal quality to those scenes, even though Molina did a fine job in playing his role.
Before he made it big, Harrison Ford was criticized for playing small roles too well. In his first film, he played a bellhop who delivered a telegram to one of the leading men, but a studio executive complained that he didn’t have “star quality.” The exec called Ford into his office and complained about his underwhelming performance.
He said the first time Tony Curtis was ever in a movie, he delivered a bag of groceries. You took one look at that guy and you said that’s a movie star. And I leaned across his desk and I said, I thought you were supposed to think that that was a grocery delivery boy! – Harrison Ford
Of course, as we know, Ford went on to become one of the biggest movie stars of all time. But what if he hadn’t? What if he had never landed the role of Han Solo? Would have been wrong to have played small roles so well that no one noticed him? His job would still have been to play that bellhop role as well as he could – which would have meant being a bellhop, not taking over the scene like a ham.
While driving home from church today, our 8-year-old daughter told us about winning the bronze medal in her school’s piano competition. We were celebrating with her and praising her for her effort, when her older sister changed the subject – to her first place award in a poster contest a couple of years earlier. This was a pretty blatant attempt to draw the attention away from her sister to herself. Not cool.
If Ford had done something similar in his bellhop role, what would that have said about his character and his respect for his colleagues? While the studio executive was pushing Ford to draw attention to himself, I’m willing to bet that the director and stars of the movie weren’t interested in a scene-chewing bellhop.
We don’t know ahead of time what role we’re going to be cast in – leading man, sidekick, or even the World’s Greatest Extra. Whatever the role, though, we have to be prepared to play it well. As Jesus once said,
Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. – Luke 16:10
Can you be trusted with very little? Can you be trusted to play a small role and support those with larger roles? Could you be the world’s greatest extra?
Photo: Meta-extras dressing up like fans dressing up like extras for the movie Paul, by Port of San Diego via Flickr