It started with a Facebook post: “Open casting call for a movie being filmed in Lawrence. Need men 30-50 to play roles for a film set in the mid-1950s.”
I’ve been a movie fan since junior high when I first saw “The Philadelphia Story.” Since then, my life has been a quest to be as witty and sophisticated as Cary Grant (still trying) and to fall in love with Katharine Hepburn (which I do every time I watch one of her movies). I’m profoundly disappointed when my real-life dialogue doesn’t crackle with the wit, insight and humor of Billy Wilder, Moss Hart, Groucho Marx and John Huston.
Those who know me — and still put up with me — may find this hard to believe, but, despite the outgoing bluster they know now, I was a painfully shy kid. Exceedingly shy. Please don’t call on me in class even if I know the answer shy. So the thought of performing in public IN FRONT OF LOTS OF PEOPLE WHO DON’T KNOW ME was terrifying. Oh, how I wish I could go back and talk to that kid.
Needless to say, I’m over that. The thought of speaking in public, performing in public or failing in public doesn’t hold nearly the paralyzing fear it used to. There are still situations I’m healthily uncomfortable with, but now those situations are a challenge and an adventure, not 10 times worse than death.
A challenge and adventure like auditioning for a small role in a movie.
The movie is “Jayhawkers,” a dramatization of basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain’s time at KU and the social changes it caused. A member of the current KU basketball team is cast in the lead role.
The director is Kevin Willmott, who was a screenwriter in Hollywood before coming to teach at KU. Since then, he’s made several wonderful films, including “CSA: The Confederate States of America,” “Bunker Hill” and “The Only Good Indian.” (Note to everyone reading: you MUST watch “CSA: The Confederate States of America,” “Bunker Hill” and “The Only Good Indian.” They are fantastic films.)
One of the “Jayhawkers” producers is a longtime friend, Scott Richardson. His daughter and my daughter were bestest friends growing up.
When I saw Scott’s Facebook note about the casting call, I had only one thought: time to cross “auditioning for a small part in a movie” off my Bucket List.
One problem: I have no acting experience and they want a résumé along with the audition. I decided to treat this as an opportunity, not a problem, like when a casting director for a Western asks, “You can ride a horse, right?” and you say “Of course I can ride a horse,” whether or not you’ve even SEEN a horse.
I created a résumé that was truthful, yet treated my lack of experience as an asset and let my enthusiasm for the project shine.
It’s been quite some time since I’ve had a starring role, fifth grade to be exact. I starred as Prince Charming in Mrs. Bornstein’s class production of “Sleeping Beauty.”
My reviews were quite impressive:
“A+” — raved Mrs. Bornstein
“He’s a good kisser.” — gushed Martha Caruso
“Can I wear the cape tomorrow?” — pleaded Scott Mueller
“Technically proficient, but Wilke’s performance was forced, derivative and petulant.” — Phil’s mom
Since then I’ve acted like a fool, a ham and a reprobate. I’ve acted like I know what I’m doing, like I deserved the world served up to me on a platter and like a spoiled rotten brat (adult division). I’ve acted bad, good, rotten, redemptive, interested and disinterested. I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king. I’ve acted like I’m entitled to more than I am, but lately I’ve been acting like a responsible adult. I consider that my best work to date.
I’m very adaptable, method even. To get the part, I’d be willing to shave my beard. Hell, to get the part I’d shave my legs. Depending what you need, I’ll start smoking, lose 70 pounds, quit smoking, gain weight, learn to play basketball or sit quietly in the corner until you need me.
If that doesn’t get their attention, I don’t know what will. A friend with a good camera took some headshots of me, also a necessity for the audition, and with my new résumé and those prints I was ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.
I thought I’d aid my chances by auditioning in costume. I put together my best middle-aged man in the mid-1950s costume: short-sleeved white shirt, black slacks, black dress shoes and an “I tied it myself” bow tie. I would put a part in my hair and slick it down.
When I was growing up, my dad caught the morning train to New York City every day. He used Vitalis to style his hair, though I’m sure he’d vigorously deny ever “styling” his hair. I’m sure the cast of “Mad Men” goes through gallons of the stuff to keep all that well-coifed hair in place.
I thought I’d pick up some Vitalis when I did my grocery shopping. I couldn’t find any in the tsunami of hair care products, so I asked a clerk stocking items in the next aisle: “Do you have any Vitalis or Bryl Creem?” The woman, in her late 20s or early 30s, said: “I’d say no because I’ve never heard of either of those products.”
Kids today don’t know a damn thing. Jeez I’m old. I found some later at a drug store.
When I dressed in my audition costume, I had to look at YouTube videos to relearn how to tie a bow tie. I looked like milkman or service station attendant in 1954. For good luck, I put on my Marilyn Monroe socks. (Had I been auditioning for a comedy, I would have put on my Wile E. Coyote socks.)
When I got to the audition July 8, I was the only one in costume. It felt like one of those dreams where you’re in school and are the only person in class who’s naked. Soldier on, I says to myself. It will give you an edge, I says to myself. The director and crew won’t have to imagine you in costume, they’ll SEE you in costume.
There were about a dozen people ahead of me to audition for roles in the 30 to 50 age range. Some wore suits, others were in “I just finished walking here in 90 degree heat after working in the garden” clothes. Some were ruggedly handsome, some looked like accountants, some looked homeless.
Ninety minutes later, my name was called. Now IT’S SHOWTIME. I was only slightly terrified. No, wait, that’s a lie. I was only slightly confident; I was fully terrified.
When I walked in, the director recognized me and said “Hey, Phil, how ya doin? I love the outfit.”
Here is the entirety of my audition:
DIRECTOR: OK, stand here (in front of camera) and give us your name and phone number.
PW: Phil Wilke, 785 blah blah blah.
DIR: I’m not going to have you read for me today but I do want to use you. Would you be able to have a flexible schedule in the coming weeks?
DIR: Great, we’ll be in touch.
And I left.
It’s among the best 27 seconds of my life. But I think I’m in. Whether it’s a face in a crowd shot or a small speaking part, I don’t care. I think I’m in.
Regardless of what happens, I can cross that off my Bucket List. Next up: learning to tap dance and driving a race car.