NEW YORK CITY — Jesse Vetters hadn’t been told much about the project, just that it was called “Nor’Easter.”
The Greenfield native and 80 other New York-area extras had been hired to play reporters, runners and secretaries in a 1970s-era newsroom. The set was expertly detailed: typewriters on desks, ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts, vintage phone books and filing cabinets all over the place.
As Vetters, decked out in polyester and sitting at one of the desks, awaited further instruction, a familiar voice bellowed out hellos, a voice brimming with confidence and positivity. And Vetters turned and was surprised to see Tom Hanks sharing his well-wishes with his fellow actors for a good first day of shooting “Nor’Easter” — the project code name for what would eventually be “The Post.”
Vetters, 28, has been living and working in New York City since 2012. He caught the theater bug early, participating as a boy in local programs Hancock County Children’s Theatre and KidsPlay. As a teen, he was a mainstay in the Greenfield-Central High School drama department before moving on to Ball State University, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting.
In the past six years, Vetters has played minor roles in more than 50 films including “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and most recently, Golden Globe giants “The Greatest Showman” (a waiter in a party scene) and “The Post,” starring Hanks, Meryl Streep and Bob Odenkirk.
Vetters’ most recent film appearance opened in December. Playing a runner or an intern, he spent eight days on the set of “The Post.” An actor’s working day can last anywhere from three to 17 hours, he said, but director Steven Spielberg kept a pretty tight schedule, letting most everyone head home after a 12-hour day.
The film details the true story of the Washington Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon papers, documents revealing government misrepresentation about the Vietnam War. Hanks plays Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee; Streep plays the recently widowed owner of the Post, Katharine Graham.
Vetters recalls Tom Hanks and the other A-list actors as “very nice, friendly and professional.”
But Hanks, he was different. He recognized that it takes more than Hollywood’s top talent to bring a film together.
“He was the only one who went out of his way to greet background (actors),” Vetters said.
And it was that start to the shoot that made the difference, Vetters said.
“First days can be hard,” Vetters said. “Nobody is really sure what exactly is going on, and it’s a bit like herding cats. We could all feel the sheer joy in making a movie coming from Tom Hanks.”
The biggest stars of the show often set the tone for the production — if they’re frustrated, everyone’s frustrated. And when they’re kind and appreciative, everyone remembers.
Some celebrities go out of their way to reach out to the crew and background actors. Vetters recently worked on “The Greatest Showman” starring Hugh Jackman. On the last day of shooting, Vetters recounted, Jackman came in with a huge stack of scratch-off lottery tickets and passed them out to the more than 150 crew members, greeting almost all of them by name.
As a background actor, Vetters doesn’t often come in contact with the A-list stars, but when he does, he always comes away with a story.
A few years ago, he’d been cast as an extra and made up to look like an AIDS victim — puffy eyes and lesions, silicon and goop — for an HBO movie called “The Normal Heart,” about a gay activist trying to raise awareness of AIDS in the 1980s.
As he looked at himself in the mirror, someone came into the makeup trailer, chatting as he entered. As a fan of superhero movies, Vetters recognized the voice immediately.
“I thought, ‘That sounds like Bruce Banner,’” Vetters said. And it was — in a sense. Actor Mark Ruffalo, who plays the Bruce Banner/the Incredible Hulk in Marvel’s Avenger movies, starred in the film as AIDS activist Ned Weeks.
He’d come in to get his hair cut.
“If there was a movie shot in NYC in the last five years, I’ve worked on it.”
— Jesse Vetters
But manners came first. The first thing he did was greet all the hair and makeup folks — and Vetters, who happened to be sitting in the chair.
“He doesn’t know me from Adam, but he’s telling me about his kids, them being in school. It was just so genial and so normal,” Vetters said. “It was wonderful.”
In the world of the background actor, not every interaction is a positive one. Once, Vetters overheard a fellow background actor jokingly call out the star by his character name from a previous movie.
And a lack of professionalism like that doesn’t fly in a city where actors are a dime a dozen.
“He was immediately ejected from the set,” Vetters said. “It’s rude, and it distracts from whatever scene or moment they’ve been preparing for.”
Vetters honors the anonymity of less-affable celebrities. Not every A-lister is so charming, but Vetters knows better than to speak ill of the people who help him pay the bills.
Vetters might have rubbed elbows with celebrities from time to time, but it takes years to make it in the film industry, and as an extra — however frequently appearing — he said he knows his place.
“I am the definition of expendable,” he said. “I do my job, I do it consistently, and I do it well. So when I see someone ruin his own opportunity, the actor has only himself to blame.”
Vetters lands most of his gigs from “Casting Networks,” a website that lists acting opportunities for background actors and extras. With parameters set for “18- to 30-year-old Caucasian male,” he receives an average of 50 emails a day and usually responds to about 10.
“Some are looking for police uniforms or cars, neither of which I have,” Vetters said. “Anything with the word, ‘student,’ in it is my bread and butter, because I still look youthful.”
A visit to castingnet works.com shows an overwhelming number of jobs available with varying requirements: men and women to portray featured junkies; a stand-in for a 5-foot-9-inch balding male to portray a security guard — must own cargo pants, among the latest posts.
It takes a sharp eye and lightning reflexes on the pause button, but those who know him best have caught Vetters in a number of popular television shows and feature films.
Vetters’ father, Kurt Vetters, refers to them as “Jesse sightings.”
“Someone will call and tell me they saw him,” Kurt Vetters said, “and I’ll DVR it and post it on Facebook.”
“I’m very proud of him,” the elder Vetters said. “It’s not an easy life. You hardly make any money, you have no job security and every day, you are looking for work.”
Former Greenfield-Central classmate Frankie Bolda, herself a working actress in Indianapolis, remembers binge-watching “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” on Netflix when she thought she saw someone she knew — her old classmate, Jesse Vetters.
“I had to pause and rewind and watch it a couple of times,” Bolda said. “I screamed, I was so excited for him. I did a screen shot and sent it to his Facebook page saying, ‘Either someone has stolen your profile or you were on this show!’”
Bolda can attest to the rigors of living an actor’s life. After high school graduation, she attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City.
Most of her friends from the academy have moved on to other ventures.
So they’re all rooting for Vetters.
New York takes a certain combination of chutzpah, luck and just plain hard work, she said.
Vetters hasn’t seen “The Post” yet, but he is excited by the film’s Oscar nomination for Best Picture.
Not that he’s surprised.
“This was the first time I’ve worked on a movie that I knew by the end of Day One was going to be an awards contender.”