Some people are born knowing that their only dream in this life is to be on camera, and pursue that dream with razor-sharp focus. Others are born into the acting profession, or are otherwise fortunate enough that they don’t have to get a day job to pay the bills during those lean years. And then there are those who ping-pong around for a while, trying to figure out what they’re going to do—and how they’re going to pay rent—until their big break comes along.
It’s fairly common for directors to take circuitous routes to fame—Ava DuVernay was a successful film publicist before she directed her first movie, for example—but actors working behind the scenes as they await the opportunity that’s going to change their lives forever is less routine. These nine did it, though, proving that you should always be nice to the person bringing you coffee, lest they make fun of you on Conan someday.
Hollywood’s most outspoken ex-PA is Bill Hader, who’s gotten a lot of comedic mileage out of his miserable early years as an Oklahoma transplant struggling to stay afloat in L.A. He talked his way onto the set of a Paul Thomas Anderson music video, worked as Fred Armisen’s driver for a few days—something he had to remind Armisen when they eventually became friends—and served as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s personal assistant on set in Mexico during the filming of Collateral Damage (2002). (He still does a great Arnold impression.) But the film that broke his spirit was the 2002 Dwayne Johnson vehicle The Scorpion King, about which he told Grantland, “I’d been up for like 20 hours [and] I couldn’t find the hotel. And I was so bleary-eyed and tired, and I just pulled my car over and I sat there for a while, and I thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’ And that was it. I finished that movie a week later, and I never PAed again.” It would still be a few years before SNL came calling, however—and yes, he did pick up a few assistant editor gigs in the meantime. [Katie Rife]
Before breaking out as ladies’ man Don Draper on Mad Men, Jon Hamm had a different sort of experience with onscreen seduction. Hamm worked as a set dresser for what he’s jokingly referred to as “Skinemax movies” early on in his career, sourcing and arranging the couches, futons, and four-poster beds where other struggling actors would mimic intercourse in softcore porn flicks produced for the cable channel. Hamm was also in charge of continuity for these movies, a job he rather dismissively referred to as “mov[ing] ashtrays around” in a 2010 interview with The Guardian. (To be fair, being the only one who pays attention to the props in a sex scene is probably a pretty thankless job.) Hamm isn’t ashamed of this period of his life, and talks about it quite frequently. That being said, he’s also been very clear that it wasn’t a good experience, alternately referring to the job as “bleak,” “soul crushing,” and “horribly depressing.” [Katie Rife]
Jack Nicholson is one of those actors whose stardom took time to develop, and he kicked around for much of the ’60s, doing odd jobs and playing supporting roles in B-movies, before landing his breakout role as alcoholic attorney George Hanson in Easy Rider (1969). But there’s an alternate timeline where Nicholson’s iconic roles in movies like The Shining, Chinatown, and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest were all played by someone else. He’d still be a part of Hollywood history in this version of the story, but a minor footnote at best: Nicholson worked as an office assistant for The Flintstones and The Jetsons creators Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera when he first arrived in Los Angeles, and was offered a job as a staff animator for MGM based on the strength of his drawings. He respectfully declined, his bosses got him a gig apprenticing at a theater company as a goodwill gesture, and, well, you know the rest. [Katie Rife]
Sissy Spacek had already had her big break in Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) when she got a gig as a set dresser on Brian De Palma’s wonderfully weird rock musical Phantom Of The Paradise (1974). So why did she take the job? Turns out it was a favor to Spacek’s husband, Jack Fisk, whom she met on the set of Badlands. Phantom was Fisk’s first real gig as a production designer, and Spacek—who had auditioned for the lead role, but lost out to Jessica Harper—was eager to help her new husband out. However, as she told The A.V. Club, “I was really over my head in the set-decorating department… I ruined a day of shooting, and that was also a low-budget film.” Neither De Palma nor Fisk held it against her, however: Spacek was later nominated for an Oscar for her starring role in De Palma’s 1976 film Carrie, and she and Fisk remain married to this day. [Katie Rife]
When entering the cutthroat, anonymizing environment of an audition, it must’ve been comforting to have Chris Gethard to bounce your lines off of. Few actors embody the ensemble-comedy virtue of support quite like Gethard, whether it’s elevating his collaborators’ and fans’ wackiest ideas on his eponymous variety show or handing his platform over to them entirely in his latest public-access project, Chris Gethard Presents. When he was still best known as a performer and instructor at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade original New York outpost, Gethard was occasionally drafted by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s Gary Sanchez Productions to read opposite other actors during their auditions. It wound up being a bit of a tryout for him, too, with Gethard’s first two major onscreen credits coming from two 2010 Ferrell-McKay productions: a bit part in the action-comedy The Other Guys and the starring role in the short-lived sitcom Big Lake. [Erik Adams]
6. Anthony Jeselnik, accounting clerk for Deadwood season two
Given the artfully profane and precision-tooled contents of the average Anthony Jeselnik set, it makes sense that he’d have a history with the television drama responsible for a line like “God rest the souls of that poor family—and pussy’s half price for the next 15 minutes.” The stand-up comedian and Good Talk host wasn’t a denizen of Deadwood proper: He worked in the HBO series’ accounting department, as a clerk for the show’s second season, though his hand in tracking the show’s reported $4.5 million per-episode budget has been mistaken for an on-camera role. “I have meetings all the time where people look at my IMDB page and see that I played the part of ‘Accounting Clerk’ on Deadwood,” he said in a 2010 interview . Jeselnik wasn’t on staff for the show’s third and final season—by the time it aired in 2006, he’d climbed enough rungs of the stand-up ladder to land a spot on Comedy Central’s Premium Blend—and when Deadwood: The Movie was announced, he greeted the news with the type of dry, faux-arrogant misdirection he’d perfected in the ensuing decade and a half. “While I am glad Deadwood is coming back for a movie,” he tweeted, “I will not be returning as Accounting Clerk due to scheduling issues.” [Erik Adams]
The self-proclaimed daughter of a “very practical” family, Hollywood seemed impossibly far away to young Alabamian Octavia Spencer. So, even though she secretly dreamed of becoming an actress, she took whatever crew gigs she could find instead, recruiting extras for Alabama-set productions like Tom And Huck (1995) and The Grass Harp (1996). Then the John Grisham adaptation A Time To Kill (1996) came to Birmingham, and Spencer got a job on set as a PA. That film changed Spencer’s life in two ways: First, it gave her her first on-camera role, after she persuaded director Joel Schumacher to let her audition. “I wanted to play the woman who starts the riot,” she says, “but Joel told me I was too sweet-looking and should read for the part of Sandy’s nurse instead.” Second, it introduced her to Tate Taylor, who was also working as a PA on the film. The two became friends, moved out to Los Angeles to pursue their dreams together, and eventually shared Oscar glory when their film The Help was nominated for four Academy Awards. Spencer won hers, launching her career to a level she could only dream of after wrangling extras on the set of a Jonathan Taylor Thomas movie. [Katie Rife]
Ben Stiller is the product of a showbiz family, and while his parents, comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, didn’t push him into the entertainment business, they didn’t keep him away from it, either. Stiller was raised in New York City, but he moved out to L.A. in 1983 to attend UCLA—and then dropped out less than a year later. It must have been during this time when Stiller worked as a production assistant on Walter Hill’s 1984 cult classic Streets Of Fire; Stiller didn’t elaborate on the timeline when he shared this bit of trivia on Twitter, instead choosing to emphasize how nice Rick Moranis was to him on set. [Katie Rife]
9. Allison Williams, production assistant on Baby Mama and A Prairie Home Companion
Like Ben Stiller, Allison Williams didn’t need to work as a production assistant to make rent. But her father, NBC News anchor Brian Williams, sent her to work anyway, using his NBC connections to get his then-college-aged daughter a job as Tina Fey’s second assistant on the set of Fey’s 2008 movie Baby Mama. Williams would later tell the Los Angeles Times that it was such a great experience, she hesitated to take another movie gig for fear it wouldn’t live up. (Before that, Williams’ short-lived career behind the camera also included a gig as an on-set intern for Robert Altman’s last film, A Prairie Home Companion.) But her coffee-fetching days didn’t last long, as she was cast as the privileged Marnie Michaels on HBO’s Girls just a few months after graduating from college. [Katie Rife]