Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” has been earning raves — and racking up nominations — for portraying the housing bubble collapse in a film that mixes high comedy and deep tragedy. Much attention has been paid to the film’s starry cast, which includes Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling. The ensemble has been nominated for both SAG and Critics Choice Awards, and was just tapped to receive the ensemble performance award at this weekend’s Palm Springs International Film Festival.
But it’s not just the impressive marquee names that stand out in the film; the movie is a true definition of ensemble by utilizing great thespians for every role, from character actors like Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong (no stranger to great ensembles, he was also in “Lincoln,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Selma”) to up-and-comers like Finn Wittrock and John Magaro, who play young investors looking to make a name for themselves. Then there are the unknown actors who make a big impact in a minimum amount of screen time, such as Oscar Gale, who plays a renter about to lose his home.
Another such actor is Jeffry Griffin, who landed the plum assignment of playing Chris, the struggling assistant to Gosling’s arrogant, fast-talking investor Jared Vennett. It’s a relationship that McKay has singled out as one of his favorite parts of the film, noting “all of that comedy, that entire relationship, was created by those two actors.” Griffin has been an actor for years, his first time on a set was an extra on 1999’s football drama “Varsity Blues.” If you look closely, he says, “you can see me for three seconds in slow motion jumping up and down on the field after we won the big game. It was so cool to me and I was hooked.”
Raised in Houston, Griffin had recently moved to Baton Rouge, La., when he heard “The Big Short” was coming to shoot in nearby New Orleans. Griffin desperately wanted to be a part of it; in addition to the impressive cast, he used to dabble in day trading. And though he had an acting agent in Houston, he wasn’t sure how to submit himself for the film. They were looking for extras, but he wasn’t interested in doing background work, but a friend working on the film suggested he come try it out. “She said, ‘Just get on set and maybe someone will like you and they’ll throw you a line or something,’” Griffin recalls.
While it sounds far-fetched, that’s precisely what happened on his first day on set. While lined up with “about a hundred others,” a PA approached him, looked him over, and took him to a second AD. Next thing Griffin knew, they were changing his jacket; when he asked what was happening, a wardrobe person informed him he’d upgraded to principal, he was going to be Gosling’s assistant.
Griffin admits he was intimidated when he was brought to set and introduced to Gosling. “The first thing he said was, ‘Hey, buddy, you Chris?’ I said, ‘No, I’m Jeffry, nice to meet you.’ Then I realized Chris was the character,” Griffin says with a laugh. “I felt so stupid. I just met this guy and I’m already looking like an idiot. But it was perfect for our relationship.”
In the scene, Chris was giving out keys at a convention in Las Vegas; after the first take, he says Gosling offered a suggestion. “He said, ‘This time, I want you to play it as if you can’t do anything right,’” Griffin recalls. “I said, ‘That’s easy, that’s my life.’ We shot it, and it was great.”
Griffin thought that was the end of his time on the film, until he got a call two weeks later from Charlotte Gale in the casting department. She asked what he was doing the next day and he replied he was shooting a Louisiana Lotto commercial. Says Griffin, “She said, ‘Cancel it. You’ve just won the Lotto.’” She went on to say he would be needed for another week of work. “She told me, ‘I don’t know what you did, but Ryan really likes you and he wants you to come back.’”
Griffin ended up being part of a pivotal scene in which Vennett explains how the housing collapse will occur, illustrating it with Jenga blocks. During the filming of that scene, he was told they would be keeping him around to do more with Gosling. “It went from a day to a week to two weeks,” Griffin reveals.
In many ways, Griffin’s experience lends itself to the old adage “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” He notes, “I’ve spent years doing this and found myself in the right place and just went with it.” But he also crammed as much knowledge about the housing crisis as he could in a short amount of time so he would be able to speak the vernacular and improvise in scenes.
Griffin has nothing but praise for McKay and Gosling. “They were always so kind and so generous and so encouraging,” he notes. “On my last day, I went to Ryan to say thank you. And he said, ‘You totally created Chris, you created this character. You did great.’” And while he doesn’t know the name of the PA who picked him out at random, he would love to find him “and give him a big hug.”
Griffin now finds himself appearing in trailers for the film and being singled out by viewers. Though he has a Houston agent, he’s now talking to several different agencies in Los Angeles.
But perhaps the most shocking part of the story is that he waited until Dec. 23 to see himself on the big screen. Even though he had opportunities to see the film before then, he had promised his brother he would wait until they could see it together. “I know, I’m kind of a weird case,” he says with a laugh. “No agent and I’ve never seen the movie.”
Since we first spoke, that has changed, of course. And his final verdict on the film is a big thumbs up. “It was very enjoyable to watch in a packed theater that was filled with a bunch of laughs, but also some quiet times where you could just sense in the air a cloud of amazement, anger and fear,” says Griffin. “I am overly grateful to be a part of this film and I am forever in debt to Ryan and Adam for believing in me.”