Twelve minutes. That’s all the time it took: twelve minutes until the first “may the force be with you.” It came from a guy two rows in front of me and to my left, to a group of fellow wannabe actors who were walking out of a Star Wars open casting call in an Austin, Texas, hotel. That’s why I was there, too, though not because I dreamed of starring in Star Wars Episode VII: Into Fartness (I retired from acting at the top of my game, after narrating the fourth-grade production of Jack and the Beanstalk; my local newspaper called it, “Why are we reviewing this?”), but because I was waiting for a moment like this. I sat among these Future Luke Skywalkers and Princess Leias, or at least Hopeful Jar Jars, to spend time with people who see Stars Wars as a job, and not as a lifestyle.
The Stars Wars casting department recently finished a four-city tour of America. At each stop, in Austin, in Nashville, in Chicago, and in Troy, Michigan (???), they hosted “meet and greets” where men and women could drop off their headshots and say hello to someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows J.J. Abrams who’s directing the next Stars Wars movie in case you just woke up from a blissful coma. I was hoping I’d be able to audition, but unfortunately that never happened; this was simply a chance to put a name to a face. The casting call was specifically for two roles: that of Rachel and Thomas. The former requires a “young woman to play 17-18 years old. Must be beautiful, smart, and athletic. Open to all ethnicities,” while the latter has to be “handsome, smart, and athletic,” and between the ages of 19-23 years old. Here are the official character descriptions:
Rachel: Was quite young when she lost her parents. With no other family, she was forced to make her way alone in a tough, dangerous town. Now 17 she has become street smart and strong. She is able to take care of herself using humor and guts to get by. Always a survivor, never a victim, she remains hopeful that she can move away from this harsh existence to a better life. She is always thinking of what she can do to move ahead.
Thomas: Has grown up without a father’s influence. Without the model of being a man, he doesn’t have the strongest sense of himself. Despite this, he is smart, capable, and shows courage when needed. He can appreciate the absurdities in life and understands you can’t take life too seriously.
I like to think of myself as a Rachel, but everyone I assumed I was there for Thomas. THANKS OJABBA. Hey, speaking of terrible, not-at-all-forced Star Wars references: there weren’t as many as I expected. No costumes, no Yoda tattoos, no Ewoks on leashes — in fact, outside of the “may the force be with you” comment, the only other Star Wars “things” I heard or saw was someone playing a Star Wars iPhone game and an R2D2 ringtone that accidentally went off. Instead, the 1,000-plus strong crowd packed inside the huge hotel conference room was more “well, my process is…” than “here are 198 reasons why Revenge of the Sith is underrated.” The men were lightly handsome, the women cute, and nearly everyone was white and in their early- to mid-20s, with the occasional outlier of a lady who might have waited in line when The Empire Strikes Back first came out or the tired-looking dude who could’ve won an Ol’ Dirty Bastard look-alike contest.
We were seated in rows of 35, packed in as tight as Han in his carbonite tomb. In front of me was a girl with hair styled like Katniss, and two seats to the left, a guy decked out in camo. I’d later learn he’s serving a term in the military, and he had to leave early to catch a bus back to his base, his promise of doing something important in his life, like talking to a green screen muppet, unfulfilled. A lot of people left, actually; the wait was long (I was there for nearly four hours) and the payoff marginal. Casual, neighborly friendships were formed over “haha, this is taking forever,” though it seemed like a lot of people there already hung out in the same crowd. Familiar names were dropped, and groups were practicing the lines in the script. Oh yeah, about that: I did next to no research before heading to the hotel, so I didn’t know said script was online. It took all of four minutes to memorize when I looked it up on my phone. Ulysses, it ain’t.
THOMAS (kidding): Can’t you go any faster?
RACHEL: Shut up and eat your apple.
He enjoyed that, but every step is sheer agony on the leg.
RACHEL: There’s a barn a little farther up the road…You need rest.
THOMAS: Sorry. I know it’s…
RACHEL: It’s fine. I’m just not a big fan of blood.
THOMAS: You know, for such a tough girl, you’re kind of squeamish.
And so on. After sitting in the same spot for 90 minutes, my group was led into a second conference room, divided by an oversized airwall. Up front was a desk with easels arranged on both sides. They read, “OpenCastingCall2013.com,” and two women manned the desks with piles of folders in front of them. The folders were filled with resumes and headshots, none of which were flattering. Look, there were some very attractive people at the casting call that day, both men and women, wearing their finest button down shirts and flattering dresses, but the headshots that I sneaked a glance at looked awful, because all headshots look awful. I don’t know what it is about actors that makes them think glossy photos that look like taken for a JCPenney’s catalogue from 1992 are flattering; they’re not. A far more accurate representation of a person’s attractiveness — and let’s face it, their beauty, or lack there of, is what’s going to win or lose them the roles of Thomas and Rachel — can be found online, through a video submission on the aforementioned OpenCastingCall2013.com. That was the real purpose of the meet and greet: not to audition, but to meet the person who’d eventually judge your video. (Yes, we waited in line to be told to visit a website; yes, these casting calls are essentially free publicity; yes, we’re idiots.) Well, that, and trying WAY too hard to impress.
You know how on the first day of work, you’re a little too polite to your boss, that your handshake is A LOT more aggressive than usual? Imagine an entire room half full of this kind of person. False earnestness is exhausting, and it was everywhere. It wasn’t as nearly openly cutthroat as I presumed; rather, the disdain was passive-aggressively buried deep down, so far into the recesses of THE SOUL that it was truly an award-winning performance. GIVE EVERYONE THE ROLES. The friendly so-and-so near me who shook everyone’s hands, began phony conversations with his acting rivals, and broke into songs from Wicked was either the greatest actor ever, or actually that nice. Both are horrifying.
Not everyone was like that, though. Most were normal people who wanted to be in a movie, and if that movie happened to be Star Wars, all the better. Like this one guy, Crash, who had the Han Solo swagger DOWN. I liked him. I liked a lot of people there. Far more than any self-proclaimed “Jedi Masters.” That group was across the street, attending Austin Comic Con. It wasn’t a coincidence both events happened the same weekend.