Whether you know it or not, you’ve seen Jesse Heiman in something.
Since the early 2000s, the 43-year-old actor has appeared in over 100 projects as a background actor, including hits like Spider-Man, Catch Me If You Can, and How I Met Your Mother. You were never meant to notice him but, in 2011, he suddenly became an internet sensation through a viral video titled “World’s Greatest Extra,” which compiled his appearances in TV shows and movies. Then, in 2013, he was met with even more media attention after appearing in a Super Bowl commercial, in which he locked lips with supermodel Bar Refaeli.
Witnessing glimpses of celebrity status throughout his 20-year career, Heiman has experienced the highs and lows of Hollywood like few others have.
VICE spoke to one of Hollywood’s most recognizable background actors about what it takes to earn such a title.
VICE: Hey Jesse, so how did your career in acting come about?
Jesse Heiman: When I moved out to Los Angeles, my first roommate, who was also my landlord, had done a lot of work as a stand-in for actors they look like. I had a job working at a video duplication company. It was very boring and tedious, but I learned a lot. However, I lost that job. I came back home the day that I got fired, and I said, “I don't know what I'm going to do,” and my landlord said, “Jesse, why don’t you sign up to be an extra?”
So I went down to a casting agency the very next day and signed up. I ended up working that very night. My first gig was in a movie called Rat Race and I got to work all night long. I started working pretty steadily after that. I worked on TV shows, movies, commercials, music videos… just all sorts of things. I would say yes to just about anything interesting that came my way. I got to work with amazing people, I was able to gather a following, and people started getting interested in me. I did background work for around a decade before I really started hitting things big. It just really opened the door to Hollywood for me.
Why do you think you get cast in so many movies and TV shows?
I think it’s because I’m very relatable. I look like your next-door neighbor; I look like the kid down the street; I look like the nerdy guy in class who everyone picks on; I look like the guy who has been a virgin since high school and all the way through college, then interns at some company. I look very down-to-earth and, for the most part, I am.
Also, I’m very professional on set. I’m there to do the job. There are many people who are doing it just for the money or to pay the bills. I’m not in it for that. This is my career. This is what I’ve chosen to do. I want to do it to the best of my ability. I keep working with several of the same people on different shows, like producers or assistant directors. If they like you, they’ll keep bringing you back. That’s very rewarding for me, that I keep receiving these amazing opportunities just from being professional on set. Just for showing up on time and not running out of the door when they say, “OK, you’re wrapped.” I’m the one who lingers behind, wanting to say thank you to everyone who hired me.
Who are some of these people that have kept offering you work?
I worked on the very first Transformers movie with Michael Bay. There was a scene involving a helicopter landing that I don’t think made the final cut. They had to do reshoots, but when they requested me to do the reshoot, I was unavailable because I had just booked my very first national commercial. So I had to turn down Michael Bay. I thought he’d hate me after this but according to the people casting, he requested me for the second Transformers movie, but I wasn’t available for it either. Then he requested for me again for the third Transformers, and successfully booked me for seven days in a row. There’s a scene where John Malkovich is interviewing Shia LaBeouf for a job and you can see me walk past and look right at the camera, as directed by Michael.
“World’s Greatest Extra” almost seems like an oxymoron, but for you, is it a badge of honor?
It is. At first, I wasn’t sure if it was an honorable thing or if people were making fun of me. But it turned out to be a great thing because it led to so many other bigger things. I was actually working as a background actor on the show Glee the day the “World’s Greatest Extra” video came out. My phone went crazy, and I started getting requests from Reddit to do an Ask Me Anything. After that, I got request after request to do interviews about it, which is crazy. Even though I love my job, I don’t expect to have fans as a background actor. A month later, I appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno because of that video. When I first came to Los Angeles, I set a couple of personal goals that I wanted to achieve to show that I’ve been successful. One of those was going on The Tonight Show as a guest. This video helped me achieve that.
How did that video impact your career?
I was still able to do background work, but not as much. It started making me too recognizable. It was a defining moment, not just for me, but for everyone who does background acting. We go through all the fuss of getting ready, going to work at six in the morning, and staying there until past midnight. Now, it’s worth all that time and energy we put into it because you can become just as famous as the main stars. You don’t have to be the main star to have success. I’m happy to be someone who could show people that they can still achieve their dreams in Hollywood without being an A-lister.
Do you find it frustrating to be so close, and yet so far, from Hollywood stardom?
I don’t find it bad. Everyone deals with ups and downs in this town, it’s just rolling with the flow. It’s very cliche, but it’s just the way things go here. Some years will be up and you’ll be booking everything you’re auditioning for, and in the other years, there’s a lot of struggle. I’ve been doing this for so many years that I know how to deal with the struggle. I’ve got people to help me out and I don’t even consider it a struggle anymore. It’s just a quiet time.
After the Super Bowl commercial, did you feel like you were getting typecast?
I didn’t mind it because I got typecast as the nerdy guy who gets to kiss people. But what I really wanted the commercial to do was get me into romantic comedies, to be the guy who has been pining for some girl since high school, but is unlikely to actually get her. One of those movies where the nerd wins.
I auditioned twice for We’re the Millers. That would have been a perfect thing for me to do right after the commercial. But for some reason, my agent or my manager wasn’t able to negotiate me into those roles. I don’t know if it’s my auditions or if it’s something else. They just don’t see me in those roles. But I’m very appreciative of everything that I have achieved and would be OK if the commercial was the pinnacle of my career. But I don’t think it will be. I think I’ll do other things that will be just as amazing.
Do you ever get recognized in public?
Sometimes I get recognized on the street, at a shopping mall, or a movie theater. Sometimes I work for Lyft as a side gig, and people are like, “Hey, aren't you that guy from that thing?” I don’t mind being recognized; I’m very appreciative.
Do you enjoy working as a Lyft driver or is it just a way to make ends meet?
I enjoy it very much. I was making good secondary income from it before the pandemic hit, just something to help me stay afloat and continue to pursue my acting, taking classes and stuff. I like doing jobs in the service industry because I get to meet people, study their characters, and study the way they do things. If someone gets in my car and they have an accent, I study that accent for a few minutes and then try to do it myself. I’ve taken some classes but I like learning things hands-on. It’s also good because, unfortunately for me, I’ve been unlucky in love. I’m single at 42 and I live in an apartment by myself. Doing those types of jobs, I get companionship throughout the day and meet new people.
What do you feel you’ve learned about making it in Hollywood?
What I’ve learned the most is that patience is a virtue. It takes time to make it. But you have to stay committed to your vision and stay focused on what you want to achieve, because you can achieve anything as long as you put as much hard work as you can into it. Things happen for a reason. Sometimes they happen in weird ways and sometimes they happen as you plan them. In Hollywood, you have hundreds of people competing for the same opportunities and you have to put in as much effort or even more effort than them. Once you become more recognizable, they expect you to bring your A-game every time. And if you don’t, they’ll see it and you won’t get that opportunity, and you’ll go back into the pile with everybody else.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.