Upwards of 1,000 people showed up Tuesday for an open casting call in Bridgeport for Cuba Gooding Jr.’s latest project, said to be a film about the Underground Railroad, set in 1850.
And everyone had a purpose for being there — students looking for excitement, jobless and even homeless people hoping for a paycheck, local professionals wanting in on the action, actors armed with 8-by-10 head shots, plying for a break.
Among them was Henry Timberlake, a city resident who’s looking to end up on the silver screen, for sure, but also had a deeper motivation. As editor-in-chief for the African American Historical Association of Fairfield County, Timberlake was asked to help wrangle possible extras.
And wrangle he did, with so much gusto that he helped draw a crowd that tore through the entire supply of casting sheets hours before the open call ended.
Timberlake is also talking up the real local history of the Underground Railroad with Production One Inc., the Westlake Village, Cal. company that’s making the film. He’ll show them the Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses on Main street in the South End, built by free African Americans in the 19th century.
Absolutely, he said, that was part of the house-to-house network that gave an escape route to slaves from the South.
“It’s going to be a very educational movie, a big movie,” said Timberlake, one of the few hopefuls who wore a tie and jacket to the library.
His friend Omar Jones, an unemployed Bridgeport resident who’s worked in TV production, thanked Timberlake for passing the word about this opportunity.
For this city that’s seen better days, and for a state striving for and job-creating edge, this latest Hollywood feature film is exactly that — an opportunity.
A chance for millions of dollars to filter down to the star-struck extras, restaurants, film-crew freelancers and hotels across the state.
A chance for the state itself to build its resume of big-time films, now, finally, to long for buffs to rattle off all the names. For the state as a whole, the making of movies like this one is an event with many purposes, much like the reasons that lure all these would-be extras to wait on line in the large open space of a library room that was otherwise empty for renovations.
It is backed by a hefty tax credit that gives millions of dollars — up to 30 percent of eligible expenses to movie and TV production work done in Connecticut. For these hopefuls, though, it’s about grabbing that opportunity, not developing an industry.
“It’s kind of nerve-wracking a little bit,” said Alisha Smith, coordinator in a local high school for a program aimed at getting 11th graders to strive for college. “In my youth I wanted to be an actress.”
Casting director Judy Bouley, a diminutive 50-something with a huge presence even when hunched over her laptop, hears that a lot at open calls. But Smith, wearing a crimson Harvard t-shirt, hoping to attend that university for a Ph.D., has the look, the magic.
Bouley shot Smith’s tryout photo herself as two young male photographers worked with others nearby. Against a bare wall, she caressed Smith’s baby face and neck, told her the highlights in her big hair would have to go and asked, “Have you got the spare time you would need to come and be with us?”
A quick couple of shots and it’s done, same as all the rest. “Give me a kiss,” Bouley, pronounced boo-LAY, says to Smith. “Thank you for all you do in the world.”
Bouley keeps the shoots moving and manages the crush of information, all the while making sure of one thing: Her casting call is a positive experience for everyone.
“Fantastic,” she said of the outpouring of people. “Great faces, great attitudes. Some people experienced in the movie business, some not….Brendan, take one of those pizzas to our library folks….I’m thrilled we’re shooting in Connecticut.”
As with most Hollywood films in pre-production, details are guarded closely. Asked where the shooting will take place, Bouley responds, “It’s shooting throughout Connecticut…nothing’s locked in.”
Gooding is also executive director as well as the star. And according to the web site Shadow and Act, the working title is “Something Whispered.”
“Set in 1850, the story centers on a man named Samuel (Gooding), who attempts to free his family from the brutality of institutionalized slavery, intent on escaping from the tobacco plantation they have been forced to call their home for two generations,” according to the web site, devoted to African American film culture.
For serious prospects like Smith, Bouley makes sure the mood is real. After her shoot, Smith tells me Bouley asked her to imagine she was a slave whose two children were taken from her, sold. Smith herself has a 5-year-old.
“I can’t imagine it,” she said in a low voice.
The casting call is also serious business for striving professionals, among them Montgomery Lyons, of Somers, and Grace Marczewski, who drove down to Bridgeport together. They took acting classes at John Casablancas in Rocky Hill, and have appeared in commercials — for ESPN, Mountain Dew, Six Flags and the state of Connecticut.
Here, they are hoping against hope for actual speaking parts, which are not promised.
For them, the timing of the tax credits, which started in 2007, has been good. After five years, a profession is expanding here. “There’s definitely a lot of acting in Connecticut,” says Lyons, clear-speaking with a muscular look.
Bouley persuades me to fill out a form and stand for a shooting, saying I have the right face. I fill out lucky No. 952 and stand against that bare wall.
The casting calls continue Friday at the the Bradley Playhouse in Putnam, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., with the first hour for Screen Actors Guild and other professionals, according to the Bradley Playhouse Facebook page.
Anyone unable to make the casting call may email a current photo and contact information to firstname.lastname@example.org.