Photo: Pictured above, local film star Wes Weems smiles with his Oscar in Theater 14 at Gadsden Premiere Cinemas.
By Katie Bohannon, Staff Writer
Wes Weems fell in love with movies on the back of a firetruck.
In 1980, Interplanetary Productions and Osmond Communications joined with director James Goldstone to film Mayday, Kent State, a made-for-television movie based on the true story of student protests turned violent at Kent State University in Ohio. Weems’ father, a Gadsden firefighter, was stationed at Gadsden State Community College where Mayday, Kent State filmed several scenes. Weems accompanied his father on set, sitting on the back of the firetruck and watching the film develop before his eyes. While Weems was too young to act in the movie, that moment sparked his interest in film for decades to come.
Though Weems enjoyed movies and grew up watching films like Rocky and Smokey and the Bandit and television shows like Andy Griffith and The Beverly Hillbillies, the Glencoe Middle School teacher and coach never considered being an actor until the 1990s. When director Ron Shelton’s Cobb, which details Detroit Tigers center fielder Ty Cobb’s life, filmed at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Weems auditioned for a baseball player in Cobb, but never received a call back. Years later, he decided to try again.
In 2012, Weems found a request online for background actors to create a crowd of people clustered in the bleachers for a scene in 42, a film about baseball legend Jackie Robinson who broke the color barrier when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Weems applied to work as an audience member in the stands, and this time, he was accepted. When Weems arrived on set at Fort McPherson in Atlanta, the production assistant discovered he was an actual baseball coach. The man who was once overlooked to play a baseball player, almost 20 years later, was promoted from bystander to baseball coach and dressed in a sweltering 1946 wool uniform, proving that time had a better role for him to play.
In the scene, the first baseman had to field a bunt by Jackie Robinson, turn and throw the ball to a player covering first. The actor kept messing up the scene, and the crew asked Weems to take him in the outfield and work with him. For his first film, Weems worked in an environment that felt natural, as if he were coaching Glencoe players on a hot day back home in Alabama. Standing on the old baseball field in June, Weems did not have to act. He just played himself.
“[Coaching is] what I do for a living,” Weems said. “I wasn’t having to act, but it was fun to actually get to coach up one of the real actors that day.”
In 42, when Jackie Robinson rounds third and runs over to the catcher, he is safe at home plate. But in the scene, a sheriff who opposes Robinson’s position on the team as a black player attempts to remove him from the field. Weems, who was in the dugout, had to run out onto the field and react to the play. He joked that while he was pretty good at getting on the umpire, his first experience in film was genuinely fun, because during scenes the actors relaxed and threw a football to each other in the outfield. Chadwick Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in 42 and later became Marvel’s Black Panther, joined Weems and the other actors in between filming, chatting and passing the football back and forth.
“There are lots of times when actors are cool, and there are times when they think they’re a little bit better, they don’t want to talk to you,” said Weems. “But most of the time, they’re just regular folks.”
Weems’ experience in 42 created a ripple effect that spans to present day. From film to television to commercials, Weems’ acting career is substantial and it has only just begun. Generally, Weems applies for acting jobs after finding openings online, either through websites or Facebook posts. In the beginning, he searched for these roles. Now, after developing relationships with casting companies who are familiar with Weems’ work and trust his commitment, his phone dings two or three times per week (sometimes, per day) with text messages offering him roles.
Once Weems finds a role that interests him, he emails the address posted on the job description his measurements, including photographs of himself for casting purposes. The film or television series then contacts Weems, confirming him for the job and gives him a call time, set address and directions on what to wear. When Weems arrives on set, the first thing he does is complete paperwork for payment before heading to the wardrobe department, where he is dressed in appropriate clothing. On occasions, background actors are required to bring their own clothing for films, but for certain productions, the wardrobe department designates costumes for actors to wear. The wardrobe department will repeatedly check Weems’ clothing and photograph him to ensure that each detail is accurate and precise.
Following wardrobe, Weems visits the hair and makeup department, who alter Weems’ hair and apply makeup that coordinates with the film’s era or setting. For Weems, makeup typically consists of an anti-shine product on his face or applied injuries (blood, scratches, etc.) if his character is wounded. After hair and makeup, Weems eats breakfast, which he describes as the first meal of the day, regardless what the time reads on the clock. Chefs are present on set, continuously cooking delicious food for actors and crew members. Following breakfast, Weems must endure one of the few less-glamorous realities of the film world: waiting.
“Sometimes I wait 30 minutes, sometimes I haven’t even finished breakfast and sometimes I’ve waited 15 hours [to shoot a scene],” said Weems. “For the movie Rampage, I went over there and sat for 15 hours. I read a whole book. At the end of the day, [the crew] said they didn’t get to that scene, so I went back the next day and I wasn’t there that long.”
For Weems, waiting is not something to complain about, but just another aspect of the filming process that surprised him at first. Often shooting in Atlanta, Weems might stay overnight at a hotel if filming runs over or drive back home to Gadsden, depending on what time he is needed on set. Depending on the director, the atmosphere on set changes, along with the speed of filming. Weems shared that with Clint Eastwood, filming is almost a perfect world and waiting is nonexistent.
“I’ve been in three Clint Eastwood movies,” said Weems. “[Eastwood] has you on set within 30 minutes after you get through eating, and he has every scene set up. You shoot the scene and you’re gone. He doesn’t have those very long days; he gets in and he gets out. Something cool about him, [usually] directors and production assistants will holler ‘rolling, rolling, sound, sound, action,’ but Clint Eastwood doesn’t do that. In his movies, all he does is wiggle his finger when it’s time to start rolling. He’ll just look at you and go, ‘okay, start,’ real quiet. At the end of it, instead of hollering ‘cut,’ he’ll go, ‘that’s good.’”
Working as a background actor quickly taught Weems the intricacies of the film industry and the effort required to create quality productions. Long hour days consist of actors performing scenes multiple times, repeating dialogue over and over and crew members setting up shots. Weems watched in awe of the equipment necessary for filming, amazed at how many people are essential to the completion of one movie. Compared to the handful of people who worked behind the scenes on Mayday, Kent State, the number of people vital to finishing a film has expanded, growing to a tremendous group of talented professionals working toward the same goal.
Actors are not the only individuals who play an important role in ensuring that a film is created. From delivering unforgettable lines to driving stunt cars, from adjusting lighting to applying lipstick, from writing scripts to transforming a warehouse into the White House, each department and person must work together to mold ideas into heartfelt productions that fill theaters with laughter, tears and wonder.
Weems witnessed firsthand the dedication filmmakers pour into their productions on the set of First Man, a drama that depicts Neil Armstrong’s 1969 journey to the moon. In one scene, Weems, playing a launch controller, stands behind Ryan Gosling (who portrayed Armstrong) as they watch from a window the Apollo 8 spacecraft leave Earth. Weems described that the actors were opposite a massive HD 65 feet tall television that projected an actual rocket taking off. Because the reflection of the rocket in the window kept covering Gosling’s face, they had to shoot that same scene 26 times. During the 26 takes at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, the room vibrated and ceiling tiles dropped on the actors’ heads, creating the impression that they were standing too close to an actual rocket launching into space.
For an ardent NASA fan, First Man is a film that flew Weems over the moon. Out of the 26 films he booked, First Man remains one of Weems’ favorites. He loves historical films, because despite the recreations, the adaptations transport viewers to a different era or a different world. For Weems as a background actor surrounded with the clothing and set design and atmosphere, the experience was unforgettable.
“I love history,” Weems said. “Being able to be at the Apollo 11 press conference with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, even though we’re making a movie…it’s like I went back in time.”
National Geographic Channel’s Killing Reagan shared First Man’s historical drama and earned Weems’ intrigue. Acting as a member of the White House press corps, Weems stood a few feet from Tim Matheson, who played President Ronald Reagan. Experiencing scenes like Alexander Haig announcing he was in charge of the White House after President Reagan’s assassination attempt were chilling for Weems, who remembers watching the real events unfold on the news years ago.
“[Filming historical dramas are] cool too, because now I can see a picture on the news from inside the White House or Oval Office and think, ‘Hey, I’ve been there! Wait. No, I haven’t!’” Weems joked.
Perhaps what Weems enjoys most about background acting is the curiosity that comes with each new role. While Weems understands who he is playing and a general plot of each movie, what he does in the film is often a mystery until he arrives on set. In the film American Made, Weems knew he would play an Arkansas State Trooper. However, acting as stunt driver was an unexpected but welcome surprise.
“I didn’t apply for [stunt driving],” said Weems. “They put me in an SUV and drove me about a mile away from where we were [filming earlier]. There’s a 1984 police car and they just stuck me in it. They gave me a walkie talkie and told me what to do. [They said] ‘Turn your lights on, speed up, slide. Wes, do this.’ We shot the same scene for about three hours at different angles; it was a lot of fun. I was covered in sweat when I got done [because the car] had no air. To this day, they have not asked me if I have a driver’s license!”
While stunt driving, Weems received no initial direction on how to interact with his scene partner. The first time he slid the police car, Weems exited the vehicle slowly and approached the other actor as if he were helping him. Immediately, the director called cut and clarified that Weems’ character was angry and he should confront the man, so the next take Weems altered his performance.
Weems explained that directors, assistant directors or production assistants will often describe the scene’s premise, where they need background actors to position themselves and how they expect background actors to react. Background actors like Weems then absorb that information to create believability in films, transforming sparse movie sets into bustling city streets, concerts crowded with adoring fans or college campuses overflowing with students hurrying to class or picnicking on the quad.
Unlike principal actors, who often establish major fanbases or accept awards for their contributions to film, background actors rarely receive any recognition at all. Yet, without background actors, the film industry would lose its secret to creating authentic, lifelike productions that connect with audiences and deliver situations that men and women find relatable and convincing. Without background actors, films would appear unnatural and static, empty and lifeless. Background actors like Weems master the art of blending in so that films can stand out.
“Some people think background actors are not real actors, they’re just human props,” said Weems. “Sometimes, that’s true. But [directors] tell us how to react and act to something, and we have to get it right. So, I would say, yeah, it’s real acting. We just don’t get to talk.”
Weems shared that some background actors are taking the leap from extra to lead, signing with agents and attending acting classes. Once background actors audition with agents (who determine whether or not they are prepared to ascend to the next level), agents work with casting companies to book speaking roles. Though Weems considered pursuing further acting work and participating in acting classes (like the courses currently offered in Huntsville), between coaching football and teaching science to eighth graders, he does not have the time to audition. When he retires, however, he might change his mind.
Meanwhile, Weems gets frequent lessons from seasoned actors. Through witnessing actors perform, Weems experiences firsthand how professionals manipulate their emotions to perfect a scene. On his first MacGyver episode, Weems filmed a scene where Jack Dalton (played by George Eads) attended his ex-girlfriend’s wedding. In the scene, Weems observed how some actors flip a switch to become their characters.
“I’m sitting next to MacGyver and Jack as he’s watching this fake wedding, and the way the camera angle is going, there is no one on the podium,” said Weems. “[Eads] is having to react to nothing. But he got to squalling, he was shook up. His eyes were red. The director yelled cut and [Eads] had to walk off and calm down. They had to put makeup on him, then [Eads] had to do it all over again. He had to cry all day. At one point, [Eads] turned to me and said, ‘Thanks for not making fun of me or making me cry.’ I’ve seen actors who can just turn it on or turn it off—like him, joking around, then the next minute he’s crying.”
While filming HBO’s Confirmation, Weems shared that actor Greg Kinnear (who plays former Vice President Joe Biden in the film) laughed with everyone on set prior to a few minutes before the scene began. In the scene, Kinnear had to express anger. Kinnear stopped joking, walked out into the hall away from everyone and made himself furious. When Kinnear returned to set, Weems said he was a different person.
“Some [actors] can just turn it on and turn it off,” said Weems. “Some have to kind of work up to it.”
Believability is essential in acting and actors go to great lengths to dedicate themselves to their performances. For Weems, certain roles just come naturally, like coaching or acting as law enforcement. Weems credits his years as an educator with helping him understand discipline and learn how to become a policeman, a role he played on multiple occasions.
“Every time I’ve been a cop in a movie, everyone around me said ‘You actually look like the real deal,’” said Weems. “In the movie Baby Driver, we were shooting a scene in front of a building on the streets of Atlanta. I’m dressed as an Atlanta police officer, and in between scenes, regular people (citizens) were coming up to me asking for directions. One little old lady came up, gave me a hug and told me ‘Thank you for your service to the city.’ I said, ‘You’re welcome, thank you very much.’ I wasn’t going to tell her I wasn’t real.”
Weems’ most recent film is The Last Full Measure, which details the remarkable true story of U.S. Air Force Pararescue medic William H. Pitsenbarger, whose heroic bravery and unwavering dedication to his fellow soldiers slept hidden for 32 years after his service in the Vietnam War. The Last Full Measure follows a Congressional Medal of Honor request for Pitsenbarger, who when offered the chance to escape during the bloodiest battle of Vietnam, chose not to abandon the soldiers on the ground, but stayed courageously by their side. Pitsenbarger defended his brothers with boldness and selflessly saved over 60 men from death, regarding the lives of others more precious than his own and sacrificing himself to ensure that others would live.
“I was glad to be a part of [The Last Full Measure] because it was honoring the soldiers of the Vietnam War,” said Weems. “[The Last Full Measure] was not political or anything negative toward the soldiers, [the film] honored them—what they did in the war, their lives after the war and what they had to deal with mentally for the rest of their lives.”
Weems shared that out of all the filmmakers he has interacted with, The Last Full Measure director and writer Todd Robinson remains one of the kindest. Usually, background actors do not converse with directors too often, but Weems described that Robinson was different. Robinson made a point to thank each person working on The Last Full Measure, shake his or her hand and express his appreciation for every individual who contributed to the film.
“This is something that I tell my students,” Weems said. “No matter if you’re the boss or you get to be a big superstar, you need to let people around you know how much you appreciate them, and not have that attitude ‘I’m so much better than you.’ I tell my students when an actor or director comes up to you and you’re just the background actor, shakes your hand and tells you how much he appreciates your hard work and thanks you for being there, that they couldn’t do it without you—that takes about 30 seconds, but it lasts a long time.”
The Last Full Measure stands as a grand contrast to previous productions, where Weems confessed that he worked two feet from a principal actor who only nodded at him once. Weems recognized the environment The Last Full Measure cast and crew manifested through their humble nature, thoughtful efforts and consideration of others. The respect soldiers receive in the film mirrors the respect The Last Full Measure cast and crew demonstrated throughout the film’s creation, resulting in a tribute to those courageous individuals who gave their lives for the safety of others and an ode to the people who committed themselves to a story of substance, merit and honor that deserves to be told.
Part of The Last Full Measure’s peaceful set rests with actor Sebastian Stan, who shares Robinson’s kindness and Weems’ regard for respect. Of all the actors Weems worked with, Weems described Stan as the nicest. In The Last Full Measure, Stan plays Pentagon attorney Scott Huffman, who puts his own career in jeopardy to obtain justice for Pitsenbarger. Weems shared his first scene with Stan, who immediately walked up to Weems and introduced himself, starting a conversation. During the scene, Weems plays a Pentagon security guard who sends Stan back through the metal detector on his way to his office, before using the hand-held metal detector to check Stan.
Though Stan’s line in rehearsal was “C’mon man, you know me,” during the scene Stan said, “C’mon Wes, you know me!” Weems later thanked Stan for adding his name to the scene, and in one of the takes Stan accidentally punched Weems in the head. As soon as the scene ended, Stan hugged Weems and apologized repeatedly for the accident. Weems did not mind; he just views the experience as an opportunity to get hit (and hugged) by the Winter Soldier.
“We’d been there forever, it was one of those long days on a Saturday,” Weems said. “At the end of the day, [Stan] made sure to come over and thank me, tell me how much he appreciated everything. Fifteen hours later, he still called me by name, which makes me a big fan, because [Stan and TLFM crew] showed respect to the soldiers in the movie and respect to me as a person. It doesn’t hurt to be nice to people.”
Weems is more than just a background actor filling space on movie sets. As an educator, he implements the knowledge he gains from working in film and television into his classroom at Glencoe Middle School, where he directs GMS News. GMS News is written, directed and edited by Weems and his students, who each morning recite The Pledge of Allegiance, thought of the day, moment of silence, lunch menu and birthdays for their peers at Glencoe Middle. Following the news, Weems’ students feature a three to four minute movie that they filmed the day before to promote campaigns like anti-drug abuse, anti-bullying and internet safety. Weems takes his students on field trips to actual studios at TV24 News and Jacksonville State University and in 2019, the GMS News won an award from the Alabama Beverage Commission for a video they produced on underage drinking.
One of Weems’ favorite actors, John Wayne said “Tomorrow hopes we have learned something from yesterday.” Through recycling what he learns yesterday, Weems establishes characteristics like gratitude and respect in his students and fosters creativity and professionalism in future generations of film-lovers. Weems encourages that same interest and appreciation for filmmakers’ efforts in others, recognizing the determination filmmakers possess to create unforgettable productions that entertain and influence hearts worldwide. As Weems nurtures that wonder he discovered on the back of a firetruck 40 years ago, he proves to the young man who was once deemed unfit for film that life has greater roles for him to play.
The Last Full Measure is in theaters now.