Richard Thomas doesn’t mind being considered an extra.
He’s been one for 20 years, starting in Astoria at John Jacob Astor Elementary School, where Arnold Schwarzenegger shot Kindergarten Cop. Since then, Thomas has appeared in 24 films, creating background panache for everyone from Mel Gibson to Madonna.
Thomas, a 60-year-old Portlander who shares the same name as the TV and film actor but is no relation, recently finished five days of shooting (a lot for an extra) as a senior scientist on the new disease drama Crowley, filming in Portland, with Harrison Ford.
With no formal acting training aside from the requisite extra crash courses, Thomas works as an electrical engineer when he’s not jumping at minimum-wage work for Extras Only, the casting company owned by local entrepreneur Danny Stoltz.
Thomas, who bears a slight resemblance to Academy Award-nominated actor Richard Jenkins, took time out to talk about the excitement and the sacrifice of filling out the spaces behind the stars in an industry state officials say is a real boost to Oregon’s economy.
WW: Describe the life of an extra.
Richard Thomas: Most days start at 6 am and go 12 to 14 hours. Sometimes you’ll sit around for two-thirds of the day before they ever use you. I don’t like those days because I go to see moviemaking, and I’d rather sit on the set not being used than be in a holding room somewhere where I can’t see anything.
Is there any skill at all to the job?
The term I use is “set etiquette.” You kind of understand the way things work on a movie set, and as long as you understand that and work well with that, then people are happy with you…I’m proudly an extra. I’ll be one of those guys probably till the day I die.
Have you ever ticked off anybody famous on the set?
Word of those antics gets back to the casting company and one usually isn’t called again, so I try to avoid getting negatively noticed.
Would you ever do this full-time?
It’s a fun part of my life. By day I’m an electrical engineer, and this gets me out from behind the computer and doing something that’s totally different. But it’s something that if my boss said, “You gotta give this up,” I’d probably say, “See ya.”
How often are you in a movie and you don’t appear in the final cut?
About 80 to 85 percent of what they shoot doesn’t get used. From four days of Kindergarten Cop filming, I never made it on the screen. My last movie was one fun day on Twilight as a doctor, but I didn’t end up in the movie.
How much interaction do you usually have with the big-name actors?
I worked a TV series called Nowhere Man that starred Bruce Greenwood. They filmed all the episodes in Portland. I got to know him fairly well ’cause I worked on seven or eight different episodes. But you don’t usually meet the stars or get to know them very well.
What’s your best “brush with greatness” story?
Arnold almost hit me full speed on his bike as he rode to the set [of Kindergarten Cop], but probably when I ate breakfast one morning across the table from Harrison Ford on Crowley. He and the director were discussing the day’s shooting schedule. I pretended like I wasn’t there, head down, but listened keenly to every word.
What’s your dream role as an extra?
I would love to work for Steven Spielberg. If he ever came to Portland, I would trade my child to get onto one of his movie sets.
What’s been your worst experience on a set?
They shot a movie in Portland called Body of Evidence, starring Madonna. That was in the Madonna days when she was just a terror, and everybody cowered on the set. Because of that—nobody wanted to upset her—they ruled us with an iron fist. So it was just no fun. I only worked on that movie one day and it was one day too many. I said, “No, thanks. This isn’t fun.”
Deep down, you harbor secret ambitions of being “discovered”?
Hell, no! It’s embarrassing enough the folks at my local Blockbuster know I worked as an extra on Twilight. And I’m not even in the movie. I like my simple life with simple dreams. You got to be a little crazy to want fame.