News Column

Actors work hard to build film careers in Pittsburgh

September 15, 2013


Sept. 15--Since July, Joe Fishel has worked as a police officer, a soldier, a hunter and a college employee.

Over the years, he also has done stints as a college-football official, a prison guard and a member of a SWAT team.

It's not because he can't keep a job. Fishel, who lives in Butler, has spent the past 10 years teaching social studies at Kittanning Senior High School.

He's also a part-time film actor who fills roles as an extra on locally shot films such as "Jack Reacher," "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Other Side," a low-budget zombie movie that completed filming here in August.

Extras are the cops, pedestrians or wedding guests who help to create the reality of a movie's world.

They're the folks in the background of the action, filling the stands and cheering on cue as a high-school football fan or more in small roles with or without lines, such as the bartender who mixes a Cosmopolitan for the heroine or an unnamed second thug from the left accompanying the star who plays the villain.

Getting film work requires constant focus and effort, says Point Breeze resident Patrick Jordan. Most know him from his work on area stages or as the artistic director for barebones productions, but he also has a film resume with 19 roles.

"It's a full-time job. You can't plan vacations, I've missed weddings, had to leave funerals to go to rehearsal. But I'm not complaining. I'm constantly hustling to see what's next." Jordan says.

He has had moments on screen as a murder witness in "The Next Three Days" and an angry bowler in "She's Out of My League" and shared scenes with name actors such as Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman. He played a special forces officer in "The Dark Knight Rises."

"You do what you have to do," Fishel says. "For some film work, I basically just sat there. ... In other roles, I just walked across the street. Other times, I have been around major Hollywood stars. It's more interesting to be in a scene with someone everyone in the world knows ... but it's not like I gaze at them the whole time. I have to worry about what I'm doing because I have my own job to do."

In "Promised Land," Fishel had a scene where he and his film wife and daughter crossed an intersection while lead actors were working in the foreground. He was so focused on his own part that it wasn't until the scene was completed that he realized he had been in a scene with Matt Damon.

"You can't be there and be star struck," says James Quinn, a union boilermaker who lives in Bethel Park and supplements his income working on movies that include roles as a zombie in "The Other Side" and "Pro Wrestlers vs. Zombies" and a prisoner in "Out of the Furnace," due out in December starring Christian Bale.

Quinn does consider working with or near lead performers a bonus, though.

"Those guys help me. ... They are a perk because you learn by watching them," says Quinn, whose current ambition is to move up to speaking roles.

But money is not what motivates Quinn.

"I love to get the money but it's not about that. What I really enjoy is that it's a place to go and be anybody I want to be," he says.

"It's not the celebrities. It's not the pay. It's just being able to do what I love -- bring a character to life," says North Hills resident Shannon Hart, who recently had a role as Rockabilly Biker in "The Other Side" and has had parts in six other films including as a dancer in "The American Side," which stars Matthew Broderick and was filmed in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

While pay for extra roles can vary from zero to minimum wage, larger non-starring roles covered by the Screen Actors Guild can pay between $800 and $900 a day, says Katie Shenot, casting director for Nancy Mosser Casting, who has arranged casting for speaking and extra roles for more than 30 films in the past 10 years.

But those roles are not easy to come by, Shenot says. Aspiring actors may have to audition for 10 films for every role they get.

"You have to not take it personally. You have to have metal skin," Shenot says.

It can be equally frustrating when job offers come in overlapping waves.

"I'm happy when any job comes along," says Saxonburg resident David Whalen, who has done three movies this year, including a supporting role in the independent film "The Legion" that was shot recently in Morgantown, W.Va.

The film crew worked around Whalen's rehearsal and performance schedule for Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre's "Don Juan Comes Back From the War" in which he had the title role. "It was nice to have them to say they wouldn't do it without me," Whalen says.

He is now doing a principal role in "The Fault in Our Stars," a film based on the popular John Green book that is filming in Pittsburgh. He plays the father of one of the lead characters, Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort). The movie stars Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern and Willem Dafoe.

"I'm excited. ... For me, it's about having an opportunity to grow and get a job learning a whole different game," Whalen says.

But the downside was he had to drop out of The Rep's production of "A Soldier's Heart" to do the movie.

"I could not say no to this job. But it hurt because I like Tammy (Ryan, who wrote 'Soldier's Heart')," he says.

But even when you've been cast and done the scene, there's no guarantee your work will be seen, Jordan says.

"My work with Russell Crowe in 'The Next Three Days' mostly got cut. In 'Smart People,' you could hear me talking (but I was not on camera)," he says.

But he adds: "I love what I do. It's great work when you can get it."

Acting in film also has one advantage over stage productions, Jordan says.

"Movies you can watch a million times. Theater just lives on in your head. Movies live forever."

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or


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