Last week, a dramatically edited YouTube video introduced us to Jesse Heiman, better known as “The World’s Greatest Extra,” a background actor who pops up as “that guy” (or often “that nerd”) in an astonishing number of movies and TV shows. Some quick facts about Jesse: He’s been working for eleven years, he’s been a regular extra on Glee and Chuck, and until yesterday, he’d never seen the Ricky Gervais show Extras. When Vulture learned this last fact, we got in touch with Jesse to see if he’d be willing to watch a few episodes and report back with his thoughts, as an expert on the extra experience. He graciously agreed.
So you had never seen Extras before. What did you think? Did you enjoy it?
I enjoyed it a lot. I see a lot of similarities between the way that they talk on set on the show and the way that I talk on set with the people that I work with on shows. We do all sit in circles and talk about things going on in our lives, and we always have these TMIs — too much information — where we talk about personal stuff. It’s just something you do to help you pass time while you’re just sitting there waiting for the next thing to happen.
Do you have “extra” friends, like Ricky Gervais does? People that you work with regularly?
Definitely, yes. I work regularly on two TV shows right now — Chuck and Glee — to the point that I know most of the other extras that come in. I don’t hang out with everybody, but there are a couple that I text with or have hung out with, gone to get a drink together.
In the Ben Stiller episode, they all go to a party together, the producers and the extras and everyone. That’s realistic?
Yeah. There’s usually a wrap party at the end of the season — that’s where we’d hang out with the producers and the directors. We’d go to one of the actors or cast-members’ birthday party, maybe, if we get invited. The extras don’t always get invited to that. Chuck has a regular bowling party that we all go to.
Are you a good bowler?
I’m not the greatest, but it’s not really about that.
Who’s the best bowler on the Chuck cast?
Of the cast members, I’d say Zachary Levi is pretty good. He usually bowls in the two-hundreds.
Yeah! You know, for actors that aren’t extras like me, there’s a lot of downtime, so they go bowling and they have Wii bowling. They practice on their Wiis.
So going back to Extras, throughout the series, Ricky Gervais is always begging anyone for a line, barging into trailers and stuff. Have you ever done that?
I’ve never really done that. Just through experiences, you’re not supposed to do that. You’re just happy if you’re given things — if they like you enough, eventually they’ll give you a line. But it’s rare — it’s something that happens after the show’s been on for a while, and you’ve been loyal to the show. You can’t buy yourself a line, you can’t give them Starbucks certificates and they’ll give you a line just because of that. Also with that episode, I’ve experienced the director saying “oh, this person’s here because this is their story” and I’ve seen people get kicked off sets, but not as aggressively as they did on that show.
So what would get you kicked off set?
Before I was a union actor, I was a non-union actor, and I used to work a lot on Gilmore Girls. One of the stars of Gilmore Girls … be careful because I don’t want to get this wrong, but I remember them saying something to us in background holding as we were getting ready to go on set. They said “Don’t stare at the actors … she’s thrown people off the show before.”
It was the daughter Lorelei.
Yeah. But I never saw it happen. [ Ed note: A source close to that show says that Heiman was either misinformed or misremembering, and it was actually a different actor on the show who had that rule. And to make you feel better, it wasn’t Lauren Graham.]
Have you seen people get kicked off set?
On Glee, they’ll kick people off or not invite people back if they have their cell phones on set, or if they’re caught tweeting or Facebooking any information about the show. If you get out plot information, you’re gonna get yourself banned for a long time — not just from the shows, but from the studio lots.
There are a bunch of scenes in Extras where the celebrities do crazy things: Kate Winslet gives advice on talking dirty, Patrick Stewart has a really lewd screenplay …
Right, I think that’s great. I’ve seen candid talk among big-time actors on set all the time. When I was working on Old School, I was hanging out with Vince Vaughn and Luke Wilson and all those guys, and they were always bantering back and forth, but they’d talk about whatever, you know? They’d talk about how their gardening’s going. Nothing too crazy, they didn’t talk about their sex lives on set.
In several of the episodes, Ricky Gervais and the other extras all try to one-up each other, talking about how many movies they’ve been in and how many lines they’ve had. Does that happen?
Yes. I hear it on set. There are cliques of movie extras when you’re on certain shows, because if you’re regular on the show, all the regulars sit together and talk about what’s going on in their lives. There’s a hierarchy among all the extras in the world, yeah.
So does the video put you at the top of the hierarchy?
I don’t want to say that. I’m a face among the crowd. I know that I’ve been made the “Face of the Extra World,” with the World’s Greatest Extra stuff, and I appreciate it, but I’m also an actor, I’ve had over fifteen speaking roles, and I’ve been in movies and commercials. We all are just actors trying to make money and trying to move on in our careers.
Has then been extra interest to book you, since the video?
I’m finding more people wanting to talk to me about improving my acting career, transitioning from extra world into acting, taking some comedy classes, getting ready to move on with my career.
And you want to do that?
Yeah! A couple years ago I watched The Secret, and when I watched The Secret, I said “I want to make 3 million dollars.” And I said, “You know what? It’s on its way.” And now it’s getting even closer.