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In a Falls Church basement office, Carlyn Davis picks up the phone, as she does several hundred times a day. “Hi, it’s Carlyn Davis Casting. I’m calling to check your availability to be a military prisoner for the XXX: State of the Union shoot on Saturday,” she chirps, before launching into a vivid description of the scene; Ice Cube, she broadly hints, might even jump in or out of a helicopter.
“Wow, you have the entire movie committed to memory!” says Megan Kelleher, an intern sitting at a nearby phone. “Either that or you’re really good at making it up.”
Davis, 36, justifies herself without getting defensive: “I can’t call an extra and say, ‘Uh, you’re gonna make minimum wage, get yelled at, stand around in freezing rain, and not see any stars.’”
Davis’ sell works, but she still needs about 40 more military prisoners for the scene. It’s already 2 o’clock and the shoot is just two days away. Davis, D.C.’s self-proclaimed premier casting agent, turns to the nearly 500 faces that float on the walls above her head. They’re only a fraction of the 8,000 head shots stacked by race and sex around the office, representing “D.C. types” for all occasions.
The “D.C. look” has long been Davis’ bread and butter. When Hollywood directors shoot in D.C., they’re looking for a conservative and intensely political town filled with Capitol Hill suits, tourists, police and military officers, and “casual everyday people”—and it’s up to Davis to create it. Since she founded it seven years ago, Davis’ company has cast everything from television shows such as America’s Most Wanted and K Street to movies such as True Lies and Tuck Everlasting. Recently, she became the first casting director from the D.C. area to be accepted into the Casting Society of America. She is proud of her membership, believing it firmly sets her apart from the dime-a-dozen casting agencies that lurk in the area.
But being the main casting agent in town comes with a set of headaches that go beyond digging up a few “military-prisoner” types. The major Hollywood productions come to D.C. for a week or two, and during that time they make imperious demands. For Forrest Gump, she had to bring together 50 Black Panthers in a hurry and, because the costume designer didn’t want to bother with wigs, they all had to sport real Afros. “It may be a D.C. type, but not a modern-day one,” Davis says. She resorted to scoping out a Lenny Kravitz concert in order to track down her prey.
The XXX: State of the Union shoot is turning out to be another big-budget nightmare. Right now, Davis has 100 people slated to work this weekend, but she can’t tell them when they’ll start until late this evening. And she has just found out that another shoot, scheduled for the next day and involving 90 of her “gangsta” extras, has been canceled. “I have to change 90 people’s lives,” she says. “How do I say this without being offensive? These are all people who looked like they could be gangsters. They are so excited, and all of them are going to be heartbroken.”
Her fervor often leads Davis to demand more accountability from Hollywood reps than they are used to providing. “You can do whatever you want in L.A.,” she says. “This is Washington, D.C., and people have full-time jobs. These are not people who are drooling, waiting to be extras with their paws up. They have to use vacation days or whatever.”
But despite her loyalty to D.C., Davis’ appraisal of “the D.C. look” is very much in keeping with Hollywood’s stereotype: The city, she says, is still pretty conservative. Davis, a small woman with long, streaked brown hair, herself fits this bill. Except for a brief stint at 17 as an aspiring actress in Los Angeles (at the end of which she decided, “I didn’t want to be the specimen anymore. I wanted to be the doctor”), Davis has lived in and around Arlington all her life. She is comfortable with perpetual urgency; indeed, she uses it to propel her conversations with callers, which often slip in and out of intimacy. “Apparently there’s nothing wrong with me. I just can’t get pregnant,” she tells one woman. “They ask me, ‘Well, are you stressed?’ Of course I’m stressed! All right, I have you on first refusal. If you don’t hear from me, it’s off.”
Part of the stress of XXX: State of the Union is that Davis and her team are looking for a variety of types. Right now, in addition to the military prisoners, they’re also working on rounding up some Georgetown yuppies, and some “poor”-looking people for a scene that will establish Ice Cube’s gangsta persona; it’s supposed to be set in Southeast but will be filmed in Baltimore. Finding the gangsta types, Davis admits, was hard enough, especially because most D.C. actors are too “refined-looking.” “There were some ’hood scenes where we needed people who could match what you could see anywhere in Washington. Drive off the beaten path and what are you gonna see? Low-income,” she says. Additionally, the Hollywood people demanded “real bums,” but, Davis says, “I’m not getting a real homeless person—that would be a catastrophe.”
Davis and her crew usually do the actual typecasting in an instant. But Davis has a tough time explaining her instincts: “You have your D.C. people and they look like D.C. Some people in Baltimore look like D.C. But Baltimore tends to be not quite as conservative and a little more artsy, free-natured, a little more relaxed…but sometimes more uptight,” she says.
By 3:30, Davis and her team have started to pick up steam with the military prisoners. After casting a bunch of them from head shots, they’ve got it down to such an exact science that they don’t even need to look. “He sounds like a prisoner,” Kelleher says, laughing, as she transfers a caller to another assistant, Karen Davis. Kelleher explains that he has a deep, gravelly voice, as if he’s smoked a lot of cigarettes.
Within minutes, Karen has signed him up to be a military prisoner and commends him to cut his hair to military length. Like all the other military-prisoner hopefuls that Karen has talked to today, the man agrees immediately. “Wonderful! And your facial hair will be gone by then? And your tattoos and piercings that are on your face? Yes. That’s great,” she says.
A few weeks later, after the XXX:State of the Union people have left town, Davis is already busy with her next project—Paramount’s remake of The Bad News Bears. The military-prisoner scene, which did turn out to have Ice Cube jumping out of a helicopter, went smashingly: “Most people here work in cubicles, and they have nothing to talk about when they get home,” she says. “[The military prisoners] are still e-mailing me saying that it was the best time they’ve ever had—they got beat up, they were shackled, they were in handcuffs, and they’ve never had more fun.” CP