The casting call is scheduled for 10 AM, but people begin lining up well before then. Joan Philo welcomes them all inside. No point in making them stand around unnecessarily–there’ll be plenty of that if they’re hired. Philo, a freelance film casting director, is rounding up extras for Ali, Michael Mann’s $105-million biography of Muhammad Ali starring Will Smith as Ali, Jamie Foxx as trainer Drew “Bundini” Brown, Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X, and Jon Voight as Howard Cosell. A four-week shoot on the south side begins in late February, and by then Philo has to deliver hundreds of extras.

By 11 the banquet hall of Saint George’s, a Greek Orthodox church in Lakeview, is buzzing with wannabes. At one end of the room applicants sit in folding chairs, filling out cards with contact information, physical characteristics, clothing sizes, and any accessories they might be able to provide for the shoot–cars, pets, specialty costumes, formal wear. People were asked to bring a recent color photo; some have snapshots or Polaroids, others have eight-by-ten head shots. At the other end of the room Philo’s assistants sit at a long table reviewing applicants’ cards and photos, and Philo takes mug shots of people whose photos, for whatever reason, don’t seem accurate.

That’s really all there is to it, but for Philo this is like the Normandy landing. She bounces from one group to another, smiling, answering questions, talking a mile a minute–she’s the sort of person who races through life with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cell phone in the other. She studies each face as the person speaks. “Every single scene has a look,” she says. “And you have to get the right look or that could cost you your job. You cannot throw some model-type guy into a rural farm sort of thing. In fact, that happened in one of my films–that’s how the other person lost their job and how I came on. They sent the director all these great-looking people, but that wasn’t the scene. That’s my job–to figure out who would be great in each scene to make it right and believable.”

Philo has been casting movie extras in Chicago for over ten years, first at the agency Holzer Roche and since 1994 as a freelancer. On a typical feature she has to deliver 3,000 extras. She lined up firefighters for Ron Howard’s Backdraft, University of Chicago students for the Keanu Reeves thriller Chain Reaction, and young, hip music clubbers for last year’s High Fidelity. It’s not always easy to find the right people. For David Lynch’s The Straight Story she had to find 200 bike racers in the middle of Iowa at the height of the bike-racing season. For High Fidelity she had two days’ notice to track down skateboarders who could do complicated tricks. For Chain Reaction she had to round up a thousand people to appear in an auditorium scene for free. In the days before the Ali casting call, she and her assistants posted flyers at coffee shops, book stores, video outlets, gymnasiums, and YMCAs.

Periodically Philo takes over for her assistants and briefs applicants on what to expect if they’re hired. They’ll be paid $6.25 an hour for the first eight hours, time and a half for overtime, plus a catered lunch; the shooting day typically begins at 6 AM and can run as late as midnight, so they should bring a book to read or something else to do during all the downtime. Because the film is set between 1962 and 1974, they’ll be costumed by the wardrobe department, but they’re welcome to bring anything they think might be appropriate–and they’d be wise to bring layers of clothing if the shoot is outdoors.

She stresses that by showing up they’re making a commitment, and once they’re on set they have to stick it out to the bitter end. A scene that takes only a few minutes on-screen could take all day to film, and if an extra disappears an entire day’s work can be ruined. “They’ll be like, ‘Oh my gosh, where’s the blond girl? She was right by the actor.’ When they turn the camera around, that girl really needs to be there–even if it’s 15 hours later.” No-shows are a fact of life for Philo, and she always overbooks her extras by 10 percent, more if the weather’s bad or the location’s dicey. The possibility of brushing up against Will Smith tends to lose its allure when your alarm clock rings at 4:30 AM and it’s ten below zero.

Philo knows the life of an extra, having worked as one in the mid-80s. She grew up in Marin County, California, and earned an undergraduate degree in fashion design at San Diego State University. “A lot of beaches, a lot of fun–but there was some studying,” she jokes. (Apparently none of it included black history; addressing one multiracial group of applicants, she says she never realized Ali’s story entailed “all this political stuff.”) After college she realized that fashion merchandising wasn’t her speed and began studying theater at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Lured to Chicago by its burgeoning off-Loop scene, she spent a year studying with comic actor and director Jim Ortlieb. and landed a nonspeaking role on the short-lived TV series Jack and Mike. Eventually she decided to get into casting, and by the time Backdraft came along she’d given up acting entirely.

When a film goes into production, the stars have already been lined up, and a principal casting director casts the other speaking parts. An open call is usually the first, critical step in casting extras. “I see everybody,” Philo says. “So if someone can’t handle the open-call process, I think, Well, they wouldn’t be very great on set. ‘Cause you have to be where the [assistant directors] tell you, and you can’t leave. So this is nothing compared to how your day on the set is.” She hangs on to application cards after each film, storing them in banker boxes at her home. But on High Fidelity, for example, the filmmakers wanted fresh faces, and the weeks leading up to the film were a series of open calls like this one.

After the crew rolls into town, Philo starts working 18-hour days. She and the director go over her cards and select good prospects for each scene. “Once I get the general feel, I pretty much know what I want,” she says. “You also have to make sure you’re in sync with what the director wants. But if you do this job enough you know what the director wants.” She likes to pin on her wall sheets of paper with dates and locations for each scene so she can see the whole shoot in front of her, and from then on she and her assistants–some of them film students from Columbia College–hit the phones. They line up the required number of people, explaining everything in detail; if the film has a contemporary setting, they ask the extra to bring three sets of clothing for the wardrobe person to choose from. The extras are asked to call back the night before the shoot to get the start time.

“We tell ’em everything we can tell ’em,” Philo says. But the start time depends on how late shooting goes the previous night. “It’s really hectic, ’cause we might have a hundred people, a thousand people, or whatever. You can set all these people up going tomorrow at this time, and then at the end of the day the assistant director can call you and say, ‘No, man, we gotta push the call time.’ So then you gotta call a hundred people up and say, ‘OK, your call time’s pushed a half hour.’ It’s always something like that. When you think you’re done, you’re never done. And you’re dealing with lives, you’re dealing with people. You feel bad toward treating them like that, but you’ve gotta do it.”

Philo still bristles at the memory of a newspaper piece that referred to one of her auditions as a cattle call. “The most important thing for me is, I want to be really great to these people. They’re just making 50 bucks. It’s a long day. And they’re adding a lot. If there weren’t extras there wouldn’t be movies. And I think they’re great people. A lot of amazing people do extra work–a lot of people that have big-time jobs and like to do it just for fun, or people doing it ’cause they want to go further in this business. When they get on set there’s usually a coordinator from my office, and their one thing is to make sure the extras are OK. If it’s a boiling hot day, they better be running out there with water for them or score some snacks for them. When everyone else in the crew is running around, the last thing they’re thinking about are the extras. So we need to think about that–all the time.”

After ten years on the job, Philo wonders how much longer she can keep it up. She’d like to have a family, and though casting jobs keep coming her way, she’d like to get into film development. Last year she wrote two scripts and served as associate producer on Stray Dogs, an independent film directed by Catherine Crouch that’s on its way to the festival circuit. After each assignment she tries to give herself some downtime, but come the end of February she’ll be running on three hours’ sleep a day. “I’m a total mess,” she says. “But what are you gonna do? I don’t know how to do it differently. I haven’t done it differently yet. I’m in the office till like one or 1:30 every night. Get home. I’m up at like 5:30. It’s hard, and that’s why I think, ‘Gosh, I can’t keep doing this forever.’ Just from a physical standpoint.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.