“Looking for talent in Illinois as extras for new Spike Lee film. Males/females, all ethnicities, ages 7 to 75.” So says the Facebook post from an agency called 4 Star Casting. There’s only one thing that could mean: It’s the casting call for Chiraq, Lee’s take on black-on-black South Side violence filtered, naturally, through the lens of a Greek-mythology-inspired musical comedy.
As a 40ish Irish American who grew up in the cushy, lily-white western suburbs and once pledged a Greek fraternity, I figure I’m a shoo-in.
It’s true I haven’t auditioned for anything since middle school, when I lost out to a more experienced actor for the part of a bicuspid in a dental-hygiene-themed drama. And my thespian training as an adult consists of one drop-in improv class at Second City. Undeterred, on a chilly afternoon in May, I join the droves of wannabe movie stars surrounding St. Sabina Church in Auburn Gresham, vying for a walk-on role in a Spike Lee joint.
As I take my place in line, I see a 20-something African American guy dressed in army fatigues pacing the street, trying to look tough. “This is the real Chiraq,” he shouts. But then he breaks into a huge smile and gives an enormous hug to a rotund woman in a purple jumpsuit. “Spike Lee isn’t trying to tear Chicago down, he’s trying to bring us up,” says a preppy-looking high-school-age black kid in a red polo shirt, who tells me he’s from the Austin neighborhood. In fact, not a single person I speak with shares Mayor Emanuel’s kvetching about how a movie called Chiraq could negatively affect the city.
There’s a feel-good buzz in the air. The atmosphere seems a bit like a carnival. Cute little kids arrive decked out in their church outfits. A popcorn truck sells snacks. A guy with a red bandanna who’s a dead ringer for Tupac Shakur poses for pictures. (I can’t tell whether he’s an actual Tupac impersonator or just channeling the spirit of the hip-hop casualty.) A huckster wearing head-to-toe black hoists a sound-mixing board over his head as if he were Moses with the Ten Commandments. He claims the equipment was once owned by Kanye himself and says he’ll sell it to the highest bidder. (No one bites.)
After an hour, the line has barely budged. I look at my brand-new glossy headshots—an assortment of beguiling portraits taken the day before by Chicago’s art staff—and wonder if I’ll ever get my chance at celluloid glory. I begin chatting with the person next to me, a Hispanic guy in his 30s named Julio, who introduces himself as a lawyer and part-time “background artist.” He recently returned from L.A., where, he says, he worked as an extra on the HBO show The Comeback. He’s gunning for a speaking role, possibly as an attorney, which explains why he’s in a suit.
I hadn’t considered dressing for a specific part. I look down at my jeans and untucked work shirt and ask him what role he thinks I might get.
“You’d probably be able to pull off a cop.”
“How about a pimp?”
“It’s all about attitude,” he responds. “If you have the right attitude, anything’s possible.”
That might be true. But I’m sensing that a wide-brimmed hat and a bejeweled cane would have helped. (A middle-aged white guy who works with the casting agency later tells me that I have potential as a “neighborhood store owner.”)
Right then, a young black guy approaches and says he “likes my look.” Do I possess a heretofore-unknown star quality? (With my stocky, diminutive stature and follicular challenges, I’ve been mistaken for a less fit Jeremy Piven, without his hairpiece.) The guy shoves a flier in my hand: another casting call, this one for a web series titled Runnin. Supposedly, Kris D. Lofton, the actor who played the charmingly named rapper Kidd Fo-Fo (as in a .44 Mag) on Empire, is involved. All I see are three important words: “No experience needed.” Things are looking up.
Two hours after I arrive, I finally near the church entrance. I’m given a form that asks about my race and work availability and if I have any special talents, such as skateboarding (no). The casting agents also want to know if I have any combat, martial arts, or weapons training (again, no). Finally, the form asks me to rate my driving. I lie and circle “Precision,” hoping the producers don’t find out about my recent Zipcar accident.
I’m waved into the bustling hall for my big moment. At Table 2, a woman hands me a paper with a number on it. I hold it up, and a photographer snaps a picture as if he were taking a mug shot.
“I’d like to give you a couple of different looks,” I tell the photographer. I furrow my brow and try my best to pose like a badass. “This is my tough-guy look.”
He’s not interested. “OK, we’re good to go,” he says, never looking up from the camera.
The whole thing is over in about 10 seconds.
I’m ushered to a table near the exit, where a young woman takes the sheet with my number on it. I shove into her hand a stack of my headshots, which she reluctantly accepts. Realizing this is my last chance to make an impression, and remembering the advice from the aspiring attorney outside, I tell her I come from a long line of Irish law enforcement officers (I do have an uncle who was a cop) and that I’d really like to play a policeman.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way,” she says. “You’re extras. You get what you get.”
I’m still waiting for my callback.