Cape Cod actor Jody O’Neil walked into a communal work bathroom about a year ago and found Leonardo DiCaprio rehearsing a key movie speech in the mirror.
O’Neill said he started to leave, but the Oscar-winning star told him to stay, giving O’Neil the opportunity to tell one of his favorite actors how much he was enjoying working with him on a scene in the Netflix movie “Don’t Look Up.”
And then DiCaprio surprised O’Neil by thanking him for the work they were doing together. O’Neil said DiCaprio’s graciousness stuck with him through a full year of working as a background actor and other small roles in a dozen film and TV projects around Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Uvariopsis dicaprio:Leonardo DiCaprio inspired London scientists to name an endangered tree after him
Jody O’Neil plays a TV stage manager in ‘Don’t Look Up’
“The reason why that resonated with me … is not because a movie star gave me the time of day. It’s because it was two actors who worked on a short scene for six or seven hours and got the job done together,” said O’Neil, who in “Don’t Look Up” plays a stage manager readying astronomers (DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) for a TV appearance. “It really did give me such a great outlook for the rest of the year. … I would feel like I was contributing.”
The Massachusetts film and TV industry has heated up in recent years, in large part because of film tax credits — some of the most generous in the country — that lawmakers made permanent in July. With 75 big- and small-screen projects here in the past three years, even with the pandemic, according to the Massachusetts Film Office, people who live or perform on the Cape have been among the many actors featured in “background” or small speaking roles.
“Don’t Look Up” is the most high-profile example yet: The socio-political satire about people not believing warnings that a comet is about to destroy Earth hit a record high for Netflix of more than 152 million hours of viewership in the final week of 2021.
Cape actors Lewis Wheeler, Alison Weller and Anne Stott
Besides O’Neil, Lewis Wheeler and Alison Weller – both regularly at Cape Rep Theatre in Brewster – are part of the cast, with Wheeler playing a small but key role and Weller part of the presidential cabinet. Provincetown singer-actress Anne Stott, who also produces a regular “Reel Takes” YouTube show about movies, also worked on “Don’t Look Up” in an uncredited role.
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All are fans of the final product. “It’s such a kind of powerful film,” Wheeler said. “It’s very funny, but it’s so depressing, too, because it’s so close to reality in terms of (what it has to say about) politics, media, pop culture, denying science — which works for climate change or for COVID — that I feel like it really kind of hits you right in the heart.”
In recent years, Weller has also acted opposite Sigourney Weaver in the not-yet-released “Good House” as well as in “Hocus Pocus 2” in Rhode Island. Stott worked last summer as a government agent and then a stand-in on the sci-fi adventure “The Mothership” starring Halle Berry, and also filmed scenes for a horror-ish family film called “Crookedfinger.”
Wheeler last week was submitting one of multiple auditions — self-taping auditions has become a pandemic mainstay — for possible roles in the current “The Holdovers” with Paul Giamatti. He was also part of the cast of “A Cape Cod Christmas” that debuted last month on the AMC+ streaming service after being filmed in Falmouth.
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And O’Neil — who can be seen next month in Eventide Theatre Company’s “Our Town” in Dennis and whose Sailor Beware theater company is working with Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater — had roles in 12 movie and TV projects in the 12 months of 2021.
Those included being Yale professors with Cape actress Priscilla Sample in the George Clooney-directed “The Tender Bar,” released last week on Amazon Prime (Clooney “is a really fun, really sweet guy,” O’Neil says), and the TV series “The Gilded Age” with Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon that debuts Jan. 24 on HBOMax.
O’Neil was also part of a scene filmed on the Provincetown ferry with Cape actress Jane Macdonald for the just-finished second season of the Starz cable series “Hightown”; filmed small roles in the TV series “Dexter” and “Fletch”; reacted to mayhem for the December Cape filming of “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” movie; played a 1960s mailman in the “Boston Strangler” movie; and was a father in Showtime’s Boston-set crime series “City on a Hill.” O’Neil was also a “laugher” — literally providing distinctive laughs with a group of others while watching filming on a monitor — for AMC’s “Kevin can F**k Himself.”
“There’s a lot of meaning to (being a background actor) and they are a really crucial part of any scene,” O’Neil said. “They’ve sort of been knocked around a bit and I think it’s been overlooked (in the past) how key they can be.”
The actors, who are SAG-AFTRA union members and work through casting agencies, said they are grateful for the work as well as the unusual opportunities of being close to the A-list of Hollywood creating movie magic. The jobs have meant a lot of driving off-Cape to the Boston area and elsewhere, a lot of pandemic restrictions and some unusual encounters.
But all hope the increased number of jobs for local actors continues in the state and are hopeful that will happen after last year’s legislation also upped from 50% to 75% the required amount of either budget or filming days that must be spent in Massachusetts.
“I hope we can start to see more of our (union) members filling out the ranks of these principal roles, as opposed to importing our brethren from New York and LA to fulfill those duties,” O’Neil said. “We’re all here and we’re all capable and we’re all ready to work.”
Before the pandemic, Weller was preparing to rent in New York City to be more available for auditions and filming. With the self-taped auditions and the increased work in Massachusetts, she said, the need to live in a major city has changed, and that new geographic location can be a help to far more than just actors.
“I will always go back and forth (to New York) a bit, but I don’t feel as compelled or like it’s as necessary to have the kind of presence as before the pandemic,” she said. “It’s huge that they made (the tax credits) permanent. I think it was really smart. So many people are employed on a huge film like ‘Don’t Look Up’ or ‘Spirited’ and all those people need to eat and sleep somewhere. …
“So I think it’s great for the Massachusetts economy,” she said. And for actors, “it’s totally game-changing.”
Here are some of the four local actors’ stories about making “Don’t Look Up” and other filming projects they’ve worked on (though they are contractually not allowed to say too much about those that have not yet premiered):
‘Don’t Look Up’
The “Don’t Look Up” satire directed by Adam McKay (“The Big Short,” “Vice”) is an allegory for people ignoring the climate change crisis and includes the astronomers trying to convince a president (Meryl Streep) too focused on image, a billionaire consumed with profits (Mark Rylance), and a public more interested in celebrity romances than a meteor that spells the planet’s doom.
If you watch, O’Neil can be seen as a stage manager backstage on a fun-focused TV talk show featuring Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry as DiCaprio and Lawrence’s astronomers ready to tell their story. Stott is easy to miss, but in the background of those scenes as a script supervisor. Wheeler can be seen and has several lines as a Mission Control leader of a plan to send rockets to destroy the meteor. Weller sits as the U.S. Secretary of Education in a cabinet meeting to hear Rylance’s alternate comet-destroying plan.
“It would be amazing to have ended up on a set with any one of the people in the room,” Weller said about her one day of filming a year ago with multiple Oscar winners, “but in that scene were Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Rylance. … To be with all these people that you never imagined you’d be in a room with at the same time – it was just very bizarre. … It was just amazing to be in there watching them work.”
Stott had a similar impressed reaction to three days of shooting all the TV newsroom scenes. DiCaprio “breaks down on camera. He had to do it like 10 times” for the filming, Stott said. Citing a Streep quote about the difference between theater and movies, Stott added, “There’s nothing in theater that asks you to break down 10 times in a row over the course of six hours.”
Weller had seen Rylance multiple times when he was performing on stage at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge as well as in London, and had a chance to tell him that when he sat down next to her during some improvisational time McKay asked the “Don’t Look Up” cast to do. In a later improv, Rylance added in the (not in the movie) line “I want to hear what the Secretary of Education thinks!” to one of his speeches, Weller remembered with a laugh, “which just cracked me up. It was very kind.”
Wheeler, a Boston-based theater actor who has been part of TV and film projects for about 15 years, didn’t interact with stars, but plays a mission coordinator on ground control when rockets are being launched into space.
“So I got a nice scene and I’m visible and have some fun stuff to do,” Wheeler said. When McKay asked for improv in that scene “he’d say ‘Say something like this’ or ‘Say something like that’ and they would keep the cameras rolling. And I would just throw out different stuff, and that makes it fun and more like a collaborative endeavor instead of just you do your lines and then you’re done.”
At one point, Wheeler said, he had another job on “Don’t Look Up”: doubling for DiCaprio. Originally, the star was going to play both the astronomer and the billionaire role that went to Rylance, Wheeler said, and he went through costume, beard and wig fittings to act as DiCaprio’s stand-in and switch roles for multiple scenes that the two characters were in together.
“It was going to be this amazing challenge,” he said, and laughed. “I’ll never be a leading man, but I was sort of going to get to play a leading man. You’d see my shoulder or you’d see my hair, but at least I’d be acting the scene.”
But “for whatever reason, I still don’t know to this day,” he said, 10 days before he was supposed to go into quarantine, the plan changed and DiCaprio stayed with the astronomer role and Rylance was added to the cast so Wheeler wasn’t needed. “So I unfortunately lost on that, but that’s the way things go,” he said.
A chief memory for the other actors was having to quarantine for eight days in a hotel in January 2021, pre-COVID-19 vaccine – including being riveted to the news coverage of the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol for some, to news of President Biden’s inauguration for others – before being allowed to go on set with the stars. The length of quarantine and amount of testing lessened as the year’s projects went on, the actors said, though masks and shields and other precautionary measures were always present, even for costume fittings.
‘The Gilded Age’
O’Neil was part of a core group of actors who played aristocrats in the background of scenes in “The Gilded Age” that were filmed at mansions in Newport, Rhode Island. The new series, is written by Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”) and is about a woman (Louisa Jacobson) who in 1882 goes to live with eccentric aunts (Baranski and Nixon) and becomes enmeshed in a social war.
Jacobson is Streep’s daughter, and O’Neil said Jacobson “is just extraordinary. It’s really beguiling to be on set with her because she has a lot of her mother’s mannerisms. We did a lot of the big scenes around the Breakers, the Vanderbilt mansion, and with the whole costume thing, it was just truly magical and amazing.”
“Spirited” stars Ryan Reynolds, Will Ferrell and Octavia Spencer in what is reportedly a musical version of “A Christmas Carol,” with Reynolds playing a miserly man who is visited by ghosts aiming to change his ways. The movie, which both O’Neil and Weller worked on, is due to be released at the end of this year.
O’Neil was pleased to work again on a project that included songwriter Mark Sonnenblick, who wrote “Midnight at the Never Get” that played in Provincetown a few years ago before bowing off-Broadway. All O’Neil could say about the rest of “Spirited” is that he did “a bar brawl stunt” and “I got to do a little bit of singing in the 1800s and we did three days of ice-skating.” O’Neil had included his ability to skate on his resume, but said the shoot got a little complicated when he hadn’t realized there was a difference in using hockey and figure skates.
“It was a great show and a really great spirit,” he said of making “Spirited.” “Maybe it’s a New England thing … and probably it also was because of COVID, but (the film crew) was extra diligent about making sure there was a safe and friendly environment and people felt safe and welcome.”
Weller said she couldn’t reveal much, but laughed at the memories of the film shoot and added “All I can say is I was in it and it was fun — yes, it was fun.”
“The Mothership” is what Stott called a “family-friendly alien movie,” tentatively due to debut sometime this year. Stott plays the non-speaking role of a member of a group of government extraterrestrial experts. She has short platinum-blonde hair, so said that’s an easy way to find her in whatever part she plays.
“I know I’m going to be on camera because I know I’m in the background of key plot scenes,” she said.
Viewers won’t see the results of her additional seven weeks of work on that film last summer, though, because that behind-the-scenes job was as a stand-in.
“That was my first time being that involved and kind of watching the whole process unfold and the arc of how things get shot,” she said. “As background (acting) or a small part, you come in for a day or you come in for three days … and you get to kind of experience the arc of that part of the story. But to be on set — like I was there the last day, the day ‘Mothership’ wrapped — it was a great experience.”
When asked about the stars, Stott said character actor Paul Guilfoyle, who plays the lead government agent and joked with her about a heavy piece of equipment she had to carry, “is the funniest guy ever, between every take he’s making a joke, cracking you up, he’s so funny.”
And Berry, Stott said, was beloved by the crew. “I didn’t have any personal interactions with her, but Halle Berry is a class act. She’s unassuming, she shows up early. She’s a pro. There’s no fuss, there’s no drama, she’s nice to everyone she encounters,” Stott said, noting Berry, also a producer, gave everyone champagne and T-shirts when filming was done. “It’s fascinating to watch — she’s super quiet when she’s not on camera. … She just comes and sits in her chair and waits, but then she turns it on for the camera. It was really impressive to watch. She was a great example of what you would want a lead actor to be in terms of handling the pressure of the situation seemingly effortlessly.”
The HBOMax series “Julia, about famed chef Julia Child, filmed a scene in an art gallery in Dorchester that was supposed to be in 1960s San Francisco, according to O’Neil. He was there with stars Sarah Lancashire and David Hyde Pierce as part of a group that had to eat food Lancashire, as Child, had actually cooked.
He and other actors were reluctant to be seen eating at first, he said, but were told they needed to be filmed enjoying the food. “This is Julia Child food, so that’s all I needed to know” before digging in, O’Neil said.
‘The Good House’
“The Good House,” which premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival but has not yet been widely released, stars Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline in a version of Anne Leary’s 2013 novel about a presumably recovering alcoholic who moves back to her New England hometown. In 2019, Weller played landscaper Linda Barlow in a scene with Weaver.
“That was mind-boggling to me,” she said, and references Weaver’s famous character in “Alien.” “I was like, ‘I’m talking to Ripley! This is so weird.’”