Invasion of the Extras

December 23, 2004

Jessica Taylor ’08 was there at 6:45 a.m. She was prepared for the worst.

Taylor was one of hundreds of people – several of whom have ties to Mary Baldwin – who braved an early alarm clock and icy temperatures in December to be part of what is referred to in the film business as a cattle call – a mass casting call for large crowd scenes. The place: Rockbridge County High School in Lexington, Virginia. The movie: Steven Spielberg’s remake of the classic 1898 novel by H.G. Wells War of the Worlds.

People wait in line for a chance to be in War of the Worlds


Contrary to her expectations of waiting hours and hours in line crammed with thousands of anxious people, Taylor got through her first cattle call with ease. Only about 100 people were in front of her in line, but she watched as a line of more than 300 grew behind her, meandering through the school parking lot and into the street, just a half hour later.

Taylor said the straightforward process included presenting two photos of herself and she was finished by about 9:15 a.m. She went directly home to wait for a call. Although she hasn’t heard anything, she is not too discouraged – she overheard that the agents were looking specifically for men.

One of the reasons women like Taylor flocked to the casting call was undoubtedly the draw of acting in the same movie with Tom Cruise. Cruise plays the lead in the flick scheduled for release in summer 2005.

As Amy Skretta ’06, another student who tried out for a part, says, “Who wouldn’t want to be in a movie with Tom Cruise?”

Approximately 3,000 people showed up for the call. The air was filled with laughter and many shared food and conversation. Some were wrapped in blankets or huddled with friends. People with Polaroid cameras were helping others who hadn’t brought the required snapshot. No celebrities were glimpsed at the audition, which was run by a casting agency out of Richmond, Virginia.

Virginia Francisco, professor of theatre at Mary Baldwin University, had an education-based reason for attending the auditions in addition to a shot at appearing on screen. “Virginia’s film industry is growing, and may provide work for our graduates. I went to the casting call to get information about the process to pass on to students who might want to try a cattle call – and thinking I might even get some experience as an extra. I didn’t get a call back, though.”

Front cover of the novel War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells Jennifer Gillies ’08 had a more trying experience than her classmate Taylor. “I really didn’t know what to expect, so I brought a dozen donuts. I got there at 8:07 a.m., and it seemed like there were about 2,000 people ahead of me in line. People from the casting crew periodically went through the line and handed out paperwork that needed to be returned to the people at the desk. It took a little over four hours to get inside the gym and another half hour to get to the front desk. Once I got there, the interview lasted about one minute. They asked if I would be available for the filming and costume measurements, and looked over the paperwork and photos. Then they joked with me about whether I was going to eat all the donuts.”

Saturday was junior transfer student Whitney Ward’s second audition for a part as an extra. Her first occurred when she was a student in Charlotte, North Carolina. That time she was called back twice for Shallow Hal. Unfortunately, she was out of town for both callbacks. This time she chose to go later in the afternoon, about 3:30 p.m., hoping the wait wouldn’t be so long. She, her brother Colton, and fellow student Katie Leishear ’05 got in and out quickly. Her brother did get a call back.

“They are shooting scenes from a battle and with the National Guard. Apparently I don’t look very warrior-like!” said Ward. “They told Colton to wear dark comfortable clothes, and to bring something to read because there would be a lot of down time. They said he would be paid $80 a day and would be working for just two days.”

The cattle call. Interesting to think about the next time you see a crowd scene in a movie.

For more information about War of the Worlds, visit .

Photo of people lined up for the casting call appears courtesy of Vincent Lerz, staff photographer for The News Leader in Staunton, Virginia.