It’s getting very late. I’m quietly leaning up against the wall of the State Street hallway of the Wisconsin State Capitol Building. Then I’m stretching…then I crouch down to take the weight off my heals; anything to keep the blood flowing and my mind off the aches and pains of a 16 hour day. Not that I am about to complain, mind you, ‘cause “they’re gonna put me in the movies.” Hollywood has finally made it to my hometown, and here I am…in the middle of it all.
Public Enemies, in case you haven’t heard, is a period piece set in the 1930’s. The film follows the pursuit and ultimate capture (murder?) of one of the most wanted men in the history of these United States, John Dillinger. Based on a novel of the same name by Brian Burrough, Public Enemies tracks Dillinger and his FBI counterpart Melvin Purvis and the formation of what would become the FBI. In the 30’s, the head of the still forming FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, assigned Purvis to the awesome task of hunting America’s most wanted, and in the film these roles are played by Billy (STILLWATER!) Crudup and Christian (BATMAN!) Bale, respectively. Now, let me tell you, these guys are great. Both are EXTREMELY talented and vastly underrated, so, needless to say, I was more than a bit excited to get to see them in action and to perhaps get a chance to work *with* them.
So…where was I? Oh yeah, at the Capitol.
I glance about the quiet hall. I see head-phoned crewmembers – “Are they ‘grips’? ‘Best boys’? What?” – working the sound. I see makeup and wardrobe and set-artist folks with tool belts full of various cosmetic paints and other implements of questionable origin and purpose. I look to my right and see extras, perhaps 15 of them; all in period dress, all tolerantly waiting. Scattered amongst them are a few extra-wranglers. These guys are fun, but they have what I’m sure is a ridiculously frustrating job. They have to show us non-showbiz folks how to walk and talk and act like we’re where we’re supposed to be. (All we gotta do is ‘act naturally’)
I lean forward and touch my toes, stretch my calves and look up. Billy Crudup is staring at me from 15 feet away. He’s crouched down resting his legs and his eyes burn with the concentration of twenty Hoovers. I quickly look away terrified. I look back and he’s moved on, but for that one moment I felt like I was watching him on the screen as he looked into the camera; not summoning the strength for one more take, but working to find a way to keep positive public opinion. He was Hoover trying to carve out a place for the FBI.
Almost three months before this I was having my wife, Elizabeth, take a photo of me against a wall in our bedroom. I had on my best suit (my only suit) and a mean, tough-guy face. The resulting image gave me enough confidence to continue with the fantasy filled with Hollywood aspirations and handshakes with the stars. I’d read about the tax incentives FINALLY being pushed through. I’d read about the BIG HOLLYWOOD movie potentially coming to Wisconsin. I’d read about the big stars in place to play the big roles. Michael Mann to direct! Johnny Depp as Dillinger! Christian Bale!!! Etc, etc, etc…
It was All Aboard! for the Wisniewski’s.
Having been big fans of the HBO series “Extras”, Lizz and I thought it’d be a blast to try out for this production that was about to land directly into our laps, and on February 16th, we got our shot. Along with her sister Zan, Lizz and I traveled down to the Monona Terrace to not only throw our hats into the ring, but to also just be there; to see what that sort of thing would be like. As it turned out, it was about what we expected. A long line slinking along the wall peppered with fedoras and trench coats and the occasional Packer jacket. I wonder what those people were thinking? Sure, local team pride and all…but come on! They were oh, so explicit in their instructions. We had to be shorter than Johnny, keep our hair long for the cutting, and dress as close to period as possible. These folks wore their Sunday best I know, but come on.
As time ticked on we busied ourselves with idle chitchat and filled out all the necessary forms. “Do you have any special talents,” read one of the questions. “Have you experience being an extra?” I listed “internetting” as a hobby and made sure to note my ear-wiggling ability. Part of me was sure they’d spend very little time pouring over those details. An enthusiastic employee of the casting agency stapled our headshots we’d brought to the applications and we were shuffled into the next room.
Here, we had a brief greeting with Joan Philo (It’s HER casting company) and were further led into even smaller lines. And the pings of panic set in. Everything so far has run smoothly. I’m cool. No problem. But here….well, here I must be singled out. It’s NOW that they will make their decisions. My ENTIRE future in Hollywood rests in this very moment. My heart races and I feel dizzy. Not too mention what surely amounts to 20 pounds of suit, overcoat and scarf I’m wearing indoors…
I stand on the mark. I smile. “Click.”
In a flash I’m out in the lobby. All three of us are as ecstatic to be done with the whole thing, as we are to have gathered the energy to go in there at all. It’s then that we quickly realize that only SOME of the folks exiting the room were asked for a second photograph. We knew that they had been asking certain handpicked folks to step aside for this shot, but had no idea why. Oh, the speculation and concern! While Zan and I had been waved on, Lizz had been asked to pose. Who had asked her to pose remained a mystery at the time, but I now know it to be none other than Colleen Attwood herself. I must confess, I didn’t know the name until research related to the film brought me to her IMDB profile. Apparently, she’s a LEGEND in the costume world. She’s won TWO Academy Awards for Best Achievement in Costume Design for “Chicago” and “Memoirs of a Geisha”. She’s also won a slew of other awards and nominations throughout her years in Hollywood. We thought this to be the “first-cut” (and discussed the hell out of it online) but were told by Terrace security guards that it was related to costume ideas. Turns out they were right.
How do I know? I didn’t get a second picture taken; yet almost a month later I get the call. I’d almost given up. I was ready to cut my hair, grow a couple inches and start wearing Packer regalia, but the call from Joan Philo’s office changed all of that. Sadly, of the three of us who’d gone to the trouble of attending that casting call…the least attractive won out. I suppose they wouldn’t want Lizz or her sister stealing the show from the background. Smart folks, ‘cause those girls
would have burned up the big screen. Instead, they choose me and I was glad to help them out. I considered it my civic responsibility; much like voting or jury duty, but with haircuts and terrible hours.
So they call me up and ask if I can work three days in March on an interior scene to be shot in Madison. I agree and schedule a date to go in for wardrobe fitting and a haircut at the Sheraton Hotel. Incredible waves of anticipation, anxiety, daydreaming, relentless pings of excitement….and this is just for this first appointment! Imagine how I would have felt if I’d only known what I was in for. In the coming months I’d learn more about the film making process than I’d ever have dreamed, I’d walk on REAL movie sets, work with some of my favorite actors and make it into THREE scenes. Oh boy, I really had no idea how cool it would be.