Castin' America

(Get it? Because it sounds like Captain America?)

I've been waiting in line for an hour and fifteen minutes among timid, malnourished men and I've got to pee in the worst way.  

We are snaked around the eastern bulge of the Carnegie West Branch of the Cleveland Public Library in Ohio City, standing here in a damp pre-storm cold with our headshots and our resumes and, for the high schoolers among us, our parents. We are here to audition for Captain America 2 and to become, in due time, your favorite local movie stars.

When it comes to Hollywood superstardom, most of us auditioning today assume that our ascension is only a matter of time. We feel at once a deep solidarity and deep rivalry with those assembled here. We've all surely flirted with the fantasy that this will be our big break. And because we're in the Midwest, most of us wish that our success didn't have to come at the expense of all these other nice people.  

Three speaking parts are up for grabs today. Two of them are military personnel, an African-American "Sergeant" with combat experience in his 30s or 40s and a law-enforcement type in his 30s.

But I'm here for "Thin Guy," and so are the majority of the auditioners, looks like. I assumed I'd be well beyond the boundaries of the physical requirements, but let's just say I'm gaining confidence. The casting folks want someone between 18-22 years old, 5'7"-5'9", 34-38 inch chest, who must have, and I quote, "a very, very lean frame."

I am 25, but impish and clean-shaven. I stand a princely 6'0," but I've doctored my resume to say 5'11." My chest size isn't something on which I keep active tabs, but I can say with certainty that no one has ever been compelled to characterize my leanness with an adverb.

"You see those emo guys up near the front?" says a roaming assistant to a thicker fellow behind me who's now being dismissed for his thickness. "That's what we want. Sickly skinny."       

This assistant has been traversing the line trying to cut the fat, so to speak. After about 45 minutes of total immobility, we who remain are informed that anyone without a headshot and a resume will have to come back for the general casting call.

Behind me, a good-looking fellow in a vest tells the thin men around him that he's been to these big-budget auditions before.

"The Avengers tryout was really hot," he says. "People were sweating and it was pretty bad, and those guys would come around with little yellow slips of paper and say, 'we know it's really hot out, and we don't want you to have to stand in line, so if you fill out this sheet and mail in your headshot and resume, we'll give you the same consideration we're giving everyone today. Once we got to the front, the casting director was joking around, saying that those slips of paper were fake, just to send people away. The thinking was that if you can't stand in line for three hours, how are you gonna be able to stand on set for six?"

We breathe prayerfully, to steel ourselves for what lies ahead. We know now -- we think -- that it's patience they're after.


What they're actually after varies from project to project. But when it comes to speaking roles, local casting director Lillian Pyles says almost always, what directors want to see is someone who's been there before.

"Ninety percent of the time we're looking for extensive experience. We want to know that an actor is comfortable in front of a camera, that they've been to auditions, that they know what being on set entails. Every once in awhile, you get a natural, but experience is the most important thing."

That's all assuming you look the part.

"There's usually an age range and a race and a gender and a certain look I'm going for. And I want to be able to give a director 10 choices," she says. "Ten good choices."

Pyles is one of the premiere casting directors in the region, but she's not affiliated with Captain America 2. However, her name and home address were inadvertently listed on the website. That might be because of her work with the Russo Brothers, the Cleveland natives who are directing the Captain America movie and who also directed Welcome to Collinwood, which Pyles helped cast.

"I've been getting headshots from all over the world: Paris, Canada. This morning I got a new stack. And these are people who are all willing to pay their own way just to come to Cleveland to audition for the film."

Even when it's not a huge-budget, high-profile movie like those in the Marvel franchise, there's a significant draw. Actors from Indiana, Pennsylvania and all over Ohio regularly make the the trek.

"And the caliber of actors that we get here is always really high." Pyles says. "And people are surprised. "When we cast Antwone Fisher, Denzel Washington said that had he known Cleveland had this caliber of actors, he would have done the whole film here."

When asked to identify any key differences between the casting processes in L.A. and Cleveland, Pyles said that in Cleveland, "people have more patience."


Speaking of which, it's another 30 minutes before we're herded into a circle and then organized into three parallel lines. Those of us with light jackets or sweaters disrobe and suck in our bellies. There's something gladiatorial about these proceedings, something newly hopeless.

Some of us have tried and failed to distinguish ourselves -- with accessories, funny resumes, exotic hairstyling, chumminess -- but it's clear now that the lowest common denominator is our bodies, and we're beginning to understand that our bodies may fail us.

A woman emerges from the library's central entrance and descends the steps. She is blonde and bespectacled and vivaciously middle-aged. She's sipping at a bottled water as she appraises us in toto.

Then she begins at the far end of the first line and dispatches us one by one.

"Too thick," she says. "Too tall. Shoulders are too broad."

She asks one or two guys how tall they are. Anything over 5'8" is met with a wave of the hand.

"I've never ever been called tall before," says one guy.

"It's your frame, then. How about that?"

She sends the smallest and frailest among us to a final line, but the rest of us are done for. When she gets to me, I tell myself there's more tenderness in her eye. "I'm sorry, you're just too tall," she says.  

I don't argue. Like these other castaways I know in my heart of hearts that if I were only given the chance to read I would've been offered the part instantly. Like these other castaways, I'll now sleep soundly in the comfort of my giant brawny frame. And then I will watch a movie.

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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