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Cast Away

Fishnets and fingerless gloves at a Pittsburgh casting call as Michael Chabon’s first novel heads to the screen

Carolyn Kellogg
August 23, 2006

On the 12th floor of a once-grand Pittsburgh skyscraper, a staticky radio plays A Flock of Seagulls. Five women, including me, are wearing fishnets; one has a side ponytail. It’s not 1983, but we’re all trying to look as if it is. We’re at the open casting call for the film version of Michael Chabon’s debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, a coming-of-age novel about college grad Art Bechstein and his new best friends: Gatsby-like, openly gay Arthur, flaky girly-girl Phlox, and danger-seeking wildman Cleveland.

Peter Sarsgaard will play Cleveland, which I’m excited about—not that I’ll have any contact with him. There’s no chance producers will spot me, gasp and cry, “That look! We must give you a screen test!” This casting call is for those who aspire to become, as they put it, “background.” This is where they cobble together the bodies that will provide visual texture in the film, like people sitting at distant tables in a restaurant.

Ever since I decided to move here for grad school this spring, people had been telling me I had to read The Mysteries of Pittsburgh—which I did, finally, last week. It seemed serendipitous that it would begin filming in town shortly after I got here; fateful, even, that the film was looking for extras for a “punk club scene” and my hair is pure fire-engine red. Plus I’m a bit homesick for Los Angeles, and figured being around a film crew might feel comfortingly familiar. For this mishmash of reasons, I happily caked on the eyeliner.

There are, from what I can tell, three types of people striving for this extra gig:

1. The idle. A handful of senior citizens who demonstrate no understanding of the casting process, if not general befuddlement, but what the heck, they’ve got time on their hands. And a middle-aged woman sporting a could-be-from-any-decade outfit that’s distinguished by its lack of waist and yards of fabric, crows about how exciting unemployment is—yesterday she passed the first audition to be on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and now this!

2. People who’ve held onto those 80s fashions all these years and are just dying for a chance to wear their slouchy red suede boots and fingerless lace gloves again. Why, exactly, some of these things never got thrown out is another mystery of Pittsburgh.

3. Genuine actors. The side-ponytail girl makes a point of greeting the casting agent. A pretty blonde Pitt student has her 8×10 headshot in hand. A Mama Rose-style stagemother hustles her two crimped-haired preteen daughters up to the registration table. They know the drill.

What’s missing (myself excepted) are the bookish types who’ve actually read the novel. I was kind of hoping we’d sit around jawing about the mysteries of the movie version of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Like…

– Why is it set in the 1980s? The book was written then, but nothing places the story specifically in that era. Is it because bisexuality comes up but AIDS doesn’t? Could it just be because 80s retro is hot?

– Would anyone besides me be saddened that fabulous Arthur won’t be in the movie at all? Would they know which “important parts of his character” will be “folded in” to Cleveland? Mysteries adapter/director Rawson Marshall Thurber (the auteur behind Dodgeball) isn’t spilling.

– Considering a crucial Seder scene in Chabon’s previous novel-turned-movie Wonder Boys never made it to the screen, will the fact that the protagonist’s dad in Mysteries is not only a mobster but a Jewish mobster get any play?

Maybe the people who might debate these questions will show up later. It’s still early; most students are wisely sleeping in.

Meanwhile, we wanna-be extras obediently fill out forms, get photographed and have our measurements checked by assistants who themselves have dressed up in 80s regalia for the occasion. “Are you really a size 42?” they ask the man in front of me, who shrugs as he clocks in at just 38. Me, I worry: My hair might be a perfect fit, but they want “college age”—and while I’m honestly and truly a graduate student, I’m not sure that my 30-something self will pass muster.

And what I realize is that I desperately want to make the cut. Sure, I’d like to be a blurry head in the back of a scene, but what I really want is to see from the inside out how this book becomes a movie. The adaptation doesn’t end when the screenplay is done: every person on set, every prop man and wardrobe assistant and grip is adding to what the story will be on screen. Will any of the cast and crew care about Chabon’s novel, or will they all just be doing their jobs lighting and pushing the dolly and pretending to eat on cue?

Whether I get to see for myself is uncertain. As they told me at the casting session, We’ll be in touch.