MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Joss Whedon cast one of the leads in his film Much Ado About Nothing based on a single scene in The Avengers in which she was an extra.
There are many stories of famous actors who got their start in the film industry working as a background extra: Sylvester Stallone, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Renee Zellweger, Clint Eastwood and Channing Tatum all worked as extras before landing larger roles. However, to say that working as extras led to their careers as actors is usually a bit of a stretch. After all, many famous actors also waited tables, but you wouldn't say their work there contributed to their careers as actors.
Being an extra is typically a gig you take while trying to become a featured actor. It's fine work for what it is, but it rarely has a direct connection to an acting career. A notable exception I've featured was how an extra knowing how to make a cappuccino eventually got him a recurring role on Friends. Another example is an extra on Marvel’s The Avengers whose one scene eventually led to her land a lead role in director Joss Whedon’s next film!
It’s likely the impressive tale of Jillian Morgese's change in fortune wouldn’t have occurred if it weren’t for the peculiar way in which Whedon went about adapting William Shakespeare's play Much Ado About Nothing. Whedon shot the entire film over 12 days in October 2011 at his home in Santa Monica while taking a vacation between the end of filming of The Avengers and the beginning of editing. The cast was made up almost entirely of actors Whedon knew from his television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Dollhouse. The film was also kept secret by those involved. So in such a loose atmosphere, Whedon had a great deal more freedom in casting than he would in a typical film.
How he came to cast Morgese in the role of Hero (one-half one of the two couples that make up the bulk of the story's narrative) is the stuff of an extra's dream: She had been working as an extra in a number of New York City-based television dramas, like Law and Order and Blue Bloods. She had also done a little commercial work. In her Avengers scene, she was to play a waitress in a diner during the alien invasion; actress Ashley Johnson (best known for her work as a child actor on the TV series Growing Pains as the youngest Seaver) portrayed a fellow waitress who was saved by Captain America. The two would flirt and the whole thing would be set up for Johnson to possibly return as a love interest for Captain America. However, the interactions between Johnson and Captain America were cut from the final film.
Whedon, however, was impressed with how well Morgese was able to convey her character's fear about the alien invasion. During breaks in filming, he also had a few conversations with her. Obviously she made quite an impression in her two days on set because, two weeks later, he called her up and asked if she’d be willing to audition for Much Ado About Nothing. He had her choose a Shakespeare monologue, and she auditioned for him over Skype. He cast her on the spot and told her she had to be ready in two weeks.
Time will tell whether Morgese's acting career goes much beyond just her work in Much Ado About Nothing, but her ability to get even that far from a single scene in a film where she didn't even have lines is inspiring.
The legend is ...
Thanks to Jordan Zakarin for his interviews with Morgese to learn her tale.
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com.
Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!