Answering a different call


"Should I write down that I'm a masseuse?" Diana Duda asked, hoping to sear herself into the memory of the casting director who had inspected dozens of potential movie extras and had hundreds more to go.

Casting director Marshall Peck smiled politely at her before he began to quickly size up the next person in line.

Duda and more than 1,200 others crowded into the Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University yesterday to attend a casting call for extras in the movie Ladder 49, a firefighting drama to be shot in Baltimore from the middle of this month through July.

Some were from Baltimore and Washington. Others journeyed from as far as North Carolina and New York City. All hoped to gain a small nonspeaking role in a major film that will star John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix.

About half of those who attended the casting call were firefighters seeking a spot in a movie about their trade.

Others were actresses and models, construction workers and college students, dreaming of a role that might propel them to Hollywood.

Duda had simpler aspirations.

"I want to bring actors coffee," said Duda, a middle-school teacher who lives in Owings Mills. "I want to massage them."

The casting call began about 10 a.m., when Peck addressed a large group of aspiring extras on what they should expect from the movie about a firefighter (Phoenix) who is trapped in an inferno and reflects on his life.

First, Peck warned them that the work would be arduous and grueling - often entailing 12-hour days, some of them through the night. Then, he said the pay was about minimum wage.

"You should do this for the fun of it, not the money," Peck said to laughter.

Finally, he answered the crowd's questions - ranging from parking concerns to whether he needed Spanish-speaking actors.

"You're not going to talk, so it doesn't matter," Peck said.

But the casting director's warnings did not deter the crowd.

They immediately lined up to be photographed by workers using Polaroid cameras, an expensive addition to the casting call but one that Peck says is worth the cost.

Polaroid photographs, he said, are far more realistic than the glamorous head shots supplied by many in the audience yesterday.

After workers stapled the photographs to information forms that contained the applicants' names, addresses and phone numbers, the potential extras spoke briefly to Peck, who sat at a table on the auditorium's stage.

A veteran casting director who has worked on such films as Tuck Everlasting and Primary Colors, Peck sized up potential extras in just a few seconds and jotted down a few simple notes on each.

500 could get call

Those selected to be extras will be notified as the filming progresses, he said. More than 500 people could get a call.

Debbie Fairall, a volunteer firefighter from Laurel, said she came to the casting call to land a spot in the movie to "make sure it was done right."

But she had other motives, as well.

She and her husband, John, brought their 1-year-old daughter, Rebecca. The parents hoped that Rebecca might also get a call from Peck for a part in the movie.

"I think she's adorable," her mother said.

"She could be a star. But that could just be the biased mother in me."

Others had dreams for themselves.

Robert Dahler, 34, a Middle River volunteer firefighter, had watched other movies being made and always believed he could perform on the other side of the camera.

"I like to express myself," he said. "I'd love to make it big."

Even high-ranking Baltimore officials wanted to appear in Ladder 49.

Baltimore Deputy Mayor Jeanne D. Hitchcock was one of the first to pass through Peck's line.

Mayor's cameo

The two chatted briefly as Hitchcock dropped off her information packet and photograph, and Peck said he would try to make sure she was included in Mayor Martin O'Malley's cameo appearance.

As she left the stage, the deputy mayor noticed a reporter.

"I was just welcoming the casting crew to Baltimore," Hitchcock said with a smile.

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