Success in the entertainment industry is rarely the overnight kind. It requires steeliness. Determination. A willingness to chase after your dreams from many directions.
Just ask Jay Thames, a Houston native who, since graduating from TCU with a film degree in 1994, has worked as an electrician, a voice-over artist, a screenwriter, a producer and an actor. Oh, and a crack addict, for a small role in an episode of 24 that aired last season.
"At the time, I had a beard and this long, scraggly-looking hair," says Thames, calling from his home in Los Angeles. "I got the part because I looked like a crack addict."
Did he do any sort of method preparation for the part?
"You search around the parking lot for a tennis ball, you get about 10 Red Bulls inside of you, and you get so sweaty and worked up and nervous, and you keep squeezing the tennis ball, so that by the time you get to the set, you are acting like a crack addict."
Despite his brush with Jack Bauer, Thames is most excited these days about another new role he's taken on: documentary filmmaker. His debut feature, Carpet Racers, about the decidedly quirky subculture of grown men who try to make a living professionally racing remote-control cars, had its world premiere last November at the Queens International Film Festival in New York.
The film will screen Wednesday in Fort Worth at the West 7th Movie Tavern, the inaugural title in the newly launched TCU Screening Series, which aims to showcase the work of the school's alumni and to bring those alumni to town to mentor students. Carpet Racers will screen the next day as part of the USA Film Festival in Dallas.
"It would have been easy -- but really stupid -- to make a documentary slamming these guys for being into this," he says. "Instead, I took a shine to these guys' passion. I identified with that, even though I had no idea what they were talking about."
Thames started working on Carpet Racers five years ago, when his former roommate Michael Rooney called him and suggested the idea. They traveled to the Snowbird Nationals, in a dumpy hotel in Orlando, Fla., where men raced small motorized cars around a carpeted track at speeds of up to 60 mph.
"I took one look into that ballroom and saw these men just going crazy about these toy cars," Thames says. "I was immediately like, 'That's something we should explore.'"
The resulting documentary falls in line with such titles as The King of Kong (about arcade-game freaks) and Okie Noodling (about barehanded fisherman) -- an affectionate study of old-school oddballs trying to keep a dying tradition alive. Thames traverses the country, making stops in Pennsylvania, Long Island, Houston and Carrollton, home of Mike's Hobby Shop, which bills itself as "the world's largest hobby shop and raceway." Along the way, he introduces viewers to a series of doggedly committed and obsessive racers, some of whom earn up to $100,000 a year in the sport.
For those who know Thames, Carpet Racers is an extension of its creator's passion and against-all-odds determination. Hollywood may be a dog-eat-dog universe, but that's hardly going to stop him.
"He has always had a game plan, a project up his sleeve," says Richard Allen, chairman of the Film, Television and Digital Media department at TCU, who taught Thames when he was a student there. "Nothing could stand in his way. At first I thought he was a bit unrealistic. Now I realize that's just Jay. He dreams big, talks big and just keeps moving forward. He would have marched onto a studio lot in the '40s the same way he must stroll in executives' offices now -- like he's meant to be there."
After its area screenings, Carpet Racers will continue to play at festivals as Thames and the producers seek a distribution deal. Meanwhile, Thames says a video-on-demand deal was just struck for a 2005 indie drama he wrote called Automatic. It's expected to be available in September via a number of cable providers.
As for his return to Fort Worth to mentor TCU students, Thames isn't entirely convinced they need his help. "They are much more knowledgeable about what they want to do," he says. "Being a film grad in 1994 entailed not really knowing the specifics of what was possible -- line producing, special effects, production design. Stuff like that wasn't in your sphere of knowledge. Now they all know about everything, and they know what they want to do."
But he's certainly jazzed to be showing Carpet Racers, especially after the success he had screening rough-cut footage to students here a few years ago.
"They thought it was the funniest thing ever," he says.