As a child growing up in Ohio, Liz Bishop dreamed of the spotlight. Stage, screen, dancing, singing — she didn’t care. She just wanted to perform.
Her parents, however, had a different vision for their daughter. They wanted her to be equipped to support herself someday — a goal that did not leave room for a life in the performing arts. And so she became a teacher. “That seemed like a natural choice for a would-be actor. Teaching is pretty much like being on stage in front of a captive audience,” Bishop said.
But not every dream deferred is a dream denied. It took more than 50 years, but Bishop is finally having her moment in the sun — and on the screen. At the age of 58, the Carlisle resident has seen her film career blossom in the past few years, from a brief moment as an extra walking down a snowy sidewalk in Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” to the role of the titular character’s mother-in-law in AMC’s “Kevin Can F**k Himself.”
That long-ago teaching career, first in Europe and then in the Boston area, was Act One of her life, as Bishop tells it. Act Two was the many years in which she raised three children in Carlisle with her husband Mike, keeping busy with volunteer work at her children’s schools, in her community, and for Access America, an organization that provides athletic opportunities for people with physical and mental disabilities.
During those years, she was locally famous for hosting the town’s best Halloween haunted house, playing the parts of various ghouls and spirits herself. Occasionally she’d take on a small role in a community theater production or sew costumes for her children’s school plays. “I found theater wherever I could,” she said.
Act Three began when Bishop learned that the Sony Pictures Entertainment production of “Little Women” was going to be filmed in and around nearby Concord — and that people she knew were getting roles as extras, including one whom she describes as “a gray-haired bearded friend. I thought if they take him, they’d probably take me.” She filled out an application with the film’s casting agency.
“Next thing I know I’m wearing twenty pounds of petticoats and a corset to play the background role of a high-society theater-goer,” she said. “I was so thrilled by the opportunity to not only be acting in a period piece but to have a close-up view of Greta Gerwig as director. “The whole experience was like a master class in learning what transpires on a major Hollywood production set.”
Still, it seemed like a lucky coincidence to have a film shooting so close to home. “I thought ‘Little Women’ was one-and-done,” she said. “I was on seven shoot days and had a great time.”
Months later, Bishop was heading into a bridge tournament when she noticed film trailers parked next to the Arlington church where her bridge club meets. She knocked on a window and found out from crew members that they were filming “Defending Jacob.” “I asked who was casting extras, and it turned out to be the same casting agency as ‘Little Women.’”
Once again, Bishop filled out an application and was called to the set. Several days of filming in Salem followed; her most notable appearance in that film involves passing lead actor Chris Evans as he runs up the courthouse steps. But something more important than a few seconds on screen happened during that shoot: Bishop discovered she recognized most of her fellow extras.
“That was where I connected the dots,” she said. “It was the same people I’d met on the ‘Little Women’ set. That opened my eyes to the fact that you can actually make a decent living doing full-time background work, especially after you join the union.”
Background work — the industry term for working as an extra on set — notoriously involves endless hours of standing around waiting to be asked to do something, but Bishop put that time to good use.
“I started networking with the people on the set,” she said. “We were like co-workers sharing tips at the water cooler. I asked the more experienced extras how long they’d been doing it, how they found roles, whether I should get an agent, whether I should join the Screen Actors Guild.”
Coincidentally, she was again at a bridge club meeting when the next lucky break happened. “My phone rang. By chance, I answered it. It was the casting agency I’d registered with asking if I could be at New England Studios in Devens the next day to work as a featured extra on ‘Castle Rock.’ I said, ‘Let me check my calendar to see if I’m having tea with the queen. Oh look, no I’m not. Of course I can be there!’”
After the “Castle Rock” stint, in which she did 15 days of filming, Bishop attended an open call at a talent agency. An agent admired her natural appearance, gray hair and all, and signed her. “I asked him that day, ‘Do I have to change my hair?’” she recalled. “He said, ‘Your gray hair is part of why I signed you. You’re perfect for the cool grandma roles.’”
With an agent backing her, the opportunities started to pour in. She filmed commercials and industrial videos. She drank tea and ate petits fours in the background of a scene from “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” She got her first role with a speaking part as Kevin’s mother-in-law in AMC’s “Kevin ……” and has filmed several independent feature films. Currently she’s appearing in the role of Desiree on “Dexter: New Blood.” “That’s the role that gave me street cred with my kids, because they watched the original series,” she said.
“It’s a numbers game,” Bishop said. “There are any number of people out there who are built like me, who look like me. We’re interchangeable. What sets me apart is that I am swinging for those fences every day. Even with an agent, I’m constantly out there looking. It’s a nonstop cycle of submit the application, get the request, tape the audition, go to the callback, book the role, shoot the role, and look for the next one.”
Massachusetts’ flourishing film industry certainly helps, she said, but so does the concentration of universities with graduate programs in filmmaking: She’s recently had feature roles in thesis projects for film students at Emerson, Tufts, and Boston University. “They are young people who have to come up with concepts, execute them, and learn their craft as they go, and I’m learning right along with them,” she said.
Now an empty nester, her children all in their twenties and busy with various pursuits ranging from stand-up comedy to military training, Bishop is living her long-delayed dream — but she is quick to credit her husband for his enthusiasm with her new circumstances. “What has fallen by the wayside in all of this is the homecooked meals, clean house, and organized life that we both had for years.”
The past several months have brought work ranging from a new Spotify podcast to a TV commercial for a senior living center to a pharmaceutical ad to a lead part in an Emerson College graduate student’s senior thesis feature film. But Bishop still insists it’s more about determination than talent.
“I believe the universe responds to ‘yes,’” she said. “When you say yes to one thing, a door opens, and that door leads to other opportunities. You can’t go into this with a shred of doubt that you’re not good enough or you’re too wrinkly or too gray. You just never know what’s going to be a match. It is never too late to follow your dreams. The trick is just knowing what your dream is.”
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.