When the Chattanooga businessman heard an announcement on the radio that there would be an open call for extras for the movie “42” about groundbreaking Hall of Fame baseball star Jackie Robinson, he decided to try his luck with the crowds.
“I thought it would be great to sit in the stands to see how a movie was made, and it was even more appealing since it was a baseball movie,” Miller said. “What more fun could it be to sit in the crowd with hundreds of extras?”
Miller was soon standing in line at Eastgate Mall dressed in retro attire that he thought fit the 1940s era of the movie with a crowd of other hopeful extras. He filled out paperwork, had headshots and full-body shots taken and went home to tell his wife about his adventure that day. She insisted he email the extras casting director to add that he had real umpiring experience and had done some acting in high school. That email became the start of a much larger adventure.
Miller soon received an email requesting that he send additional photos of himself, preferably as an umpire. Not long after, casting director Rose Locke asked him to attend a casting interview in Atlanta with director Brian Helgeland. Miller was one of 16 men interviewed that day. Because his interview only lasted seven minutes, he assumed his movies story was over. Two days later, however, he received an email stating he’d be playing an umpire in the scenes filmed in Chattanooga.
“Before the audition, I went on YouTube and I looked at videos of World Series games from the late ’40s,” Miller said. “I guess the fact that I’d done my homework made a difference.”
Miller was not the only Chattanoogan to be called back to play an umpire role. Wayne Hickey II, also from Chattanooga, was chosen as an umpire as well. Miller and Hickey then helped Locke find the rest of the umpires needed for the game footage filmed at Engel Stadium recreating nine games. In total, six men from the area worked on the field as umpires during the 14 days of filming: Miller, Hickey, Andy Mullins, Jim Reynolds, Dennis Spears and Larry Mangum. Miller is a retired umpire and the others are current high school TSSAA umpires.
The men were also chosen because of their “natural” looks, Miller said, mentioning that the director wanted the umpires to be true to those in the late 1940s, and the group received a lot of comments about how they looked like the Norman Rockwell painting of umpires.
“Brian [Helgeland] said he was proud when he looked out on the field and saw the umpires standing together in a group because we did have the look he wanted,” Miller said.
Even though Miller had not been on a baseball field since he had umpired for Cleveland’s Babe Ruth league before moving to Chattanooga, he said it only took one day to remember everything.
Because of their real-life experience as umpires, the team was given the freedom to position themselves as accurately as possible.
“We rotated accurately just like we were a traveling crew. We had a lot of responsibility for helping with continuity,” Miller said. “Except for a couple of scenes where we were repositioned for the cameraman to get the shot, we did our best to accurately position ourselves to call the plays.”
Miller’s favorite scene, however, did not include making calls or sliding into bases; it was the filming of opening day at Ebbets Field. Both teams were lined up on the field with the umpires as the national anthem was sung.
“The pageantry of that will come across well on screen,” Miller said. “[It was] one of the top 10 events of my life.”
The group of umpires got an extra surprise on the fifth day of filming when they were invited to join the cast and crew for lunch for the remaining days of the shoot. Previously, they had eaten the box lunches provided to all the extras, but Miller said the access to a cooked lunch as well as snacks and coolers of drinks made working on the field better.
“Having ‘real’ food for lunch, physically, made the long afternoons and evenings a lot easier,” Miller said. “The food was exceptional.”
Miller had the opportunity to meet and talk with most of the actors and crew, including Harrison Ford while he was in the city to film his scenes. He and the umpires also had a chance to work indirectly with Ford when they re-enacted a scene off-screen so that the director could get a few takes of Ford’s character reacting to the scene.
Although working with Ford was “amazing,” Miller said the most amazing part was that his wife, Sharee, and youngest daughter, Rachel, were able to work as paid extras in the stands and watch him in the scenes with Ford.
“I was more excited about having them in the stands watching me in the Harrison Ford scene, sharing the moment, than actually being in the scene itself,” Miller said, adding his one regret was that his oldest daughter, Sara Cross, and granddaughter Daisy could not be there.
“The background talent extras worked long, hot days, too, moving from place to place in the stadium to be positioned for different scenes,” Miller said. “It was interesting watching them get direction for their reactions and in some scenes pantomiming their clapping and yelling when there was dialogue filmed between the actors.”
Miller was also upgraded from “extra” to “actor” status during this time because he made a few of the calls that could possibly be used in the film, so he signed a contract and became a member of the Screen Actors Guild.
After 14 days of filming, the Chattanooga portion of “42” wrapped, and the long wait for the release of trailers and eventually the film itself began.
“All my scenes could easily end up on the cutting room floor, and if that happens I’ll still think I’m the luckiest guy in the world, being blessed with such an incredibly unexpected opportunity,” Miller said.
Miller did not expect another call from the casting director of “42,” but she soon called him to ask if he’d be an extra in another movie filming in Atlanta in October because she needed someone tall and skinny.
“You know the phrase “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know?” Well, it’s true,” Miller said.
He accepted the role of an extra in the District 12 scenes in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” the second movie in the “Hunger Games” trilogy. In October, he traveled to Atlanta for five days of filming on three different sets and played the role of a black market vendor.
Once on the set of the first scene (“the reaping”), he saw another familiar face; the assistant director for “42” was also working on “Catching Fire” and recognized Miller in the crowd of extras.
“He took me up to the front and put me in a better position,” Miller said.
Along with being in the scenes for the reaping and the black market in District 12, Miller’s character was also chosen to be transformed into a 3D image that could be recreated to fill other scenes.
“There’s a possibility I might be in scenes I wasn’t actually in,” Miller said. “[But] I don’t have any expectations of screen time.”
Miller said the scene at the black market was “pretty cool,” as real flamethrowers were used to burn down parts of the scenery.
“While ‘The Hunger Games’ was fun, it didn’t compare to the total experience of working on ‘42,’” Miller said.
Though Miller doubts he’ll be called on to be an extra again, he says he would do so if he had the time. He did have to turn down an extra’s role in December for the film “Last Vegas.” Miller said that it would have been fun, but he did not have the ability to leave work again.
At the end of March, Miller noticed that Delta Skymiles was hosting an online auction for a chance to fly to the April 9 world premiere of “42” at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, Calif. Miller won the auction using his Skymiles, so he and his wife, Sharee, will be able to walk the red carpet on April 9 and watch the premiere of the movie.
“We have been contacted by the gentleman who will be our escort for the event. His company does this sort of special event thing for Delta and other companies,” Miller said. “He said this was very cool because it will be the first time they’ll have someone on the red carpet who was actually in the premiering movie.”
When Miller found out that they would be at the premiere and on the red carpet, he emailed the director and writer of “42,” Brian Helgeland, to ask if there was a chance they could get a photo with him, though he did not really expect a response.
“Lo and behold, a couple of hours after my email to him, he responded with a “yes” about the photo,” Miller said, adding that Helgeland went on to say Miller did well on the film and he thinks Miller will be proud.
Miller’s family and friends are hoping to catch a glimpse of the couple as they walk the red carpet with the celebrities on the night they finally get to see how the whole thing came together.
Miller and Sharee will also be attending the private screening by Legendary Pictures for the “42” cast and crew on Thursday, April 11, in Atlanta.
In spite of all his experiences, Miller said he is “humbled by this whole amazing journey” that led to his participation in “42.”
“One morning I got to the set early. I sat there for 20 minutes just enjoying the morning and realizing how lucky I was,” Miller said. “Even though I was an extra, it’s something that so few people have an opportunity to do.”
“42” hits movie theaters nationwide on April 12. “Catching Fire” is set to premiere Nov. 22.