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. Continue reading Could You Be the World’s Greatest Extra?→
It’s a famous phrase in theatre, and we know its truth. In a stageplay, television show, or movie, roles that are small in terms of lines or screen time can be integral to the plot. Or they can provide an opportunity for an unknown rising star to steal the scene. Or allow an all-time great to remind us all why they are considered great.
Boba Fett speaks only a few lines in the original Star Wars trilogy, yet became one of best-loved characters of the films. In Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins needed only 16 minutes (out of a 2-hour-long movie) to win Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance. With the right actor, in the right role, a few minutes, a handful of words, are all that’s needed for magic to happen.
The saying is often spoken to actors disappointed with their role, and it’s meant to encourage them to invest in what they have been given. Having only a few lines doesn’t give you an excuse to slack off. When I was ten or eleven, I was cast in a church youth group’s production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. I had a very small role, with only two lines in the entire show. During one of our performances, another kid sat in my seat by mistake during a scene. While I was arguing with him under my breath, trying to get him to move, my cue came and went. An older kid covered for me, supplying my line at the right moment, and I spent the rest of the show in red-faced silence. This wasn’t Olivier flubbing a Shakespearean soliloquey, but it was a pretty good indication why I wasn’t given a larger role.