The mini-mall is a ghost-mall: a small Sears that sells appliances, a cellphone store, a Goody’s clothing store. Everything else is closed, just shells of store spaces where people once shopped. But on this Saturday afternoon, under the dim overhead lights, a line of people, some holding manila envelopes with 8x10 photos of themselves, winds through the center of mall, leading to an abandoned department store where the director and casting director search for faces for the film. They’re looking for extras and background actors, and to fill minor roles. The space is huge and strange, a store without products. Shreds of its former life remain: a few empty clothing racks, changing rooms, and naked mannequins piled in a corner.
I go with my friend, Robert Gipe, author of the novels Trampoline and Weedeater, and a producer of Higher Ground community theater in Harlan. He knows many of the people in line, introduces me as the author of the book. One man, who read my novel, talks to me about fighting the strip mines in the ’70s. He was featured in Barbara Kopple’s brilliant 1976 documentary Harlan County U.S.A. The majority of people in line don’t have any film or acting experience: they’re responding to the call mentioned in the newspaper.
The people in line ring with familiarity—resembling distant family members, my students in Kentucky, and, in some sense, the cast of my novel. All ages stand in line, from a young, four year old boy with wavy blond hair down to his waist and wearing cowboy boots, to an old, bony, hunched man in a wheelchair wearing a POW hat. Some came dressed for a job interview or for church: men with nice jeans or khakis, shirts tucked in. There are a few women in medical scrubs. Mothers, fathers. Teenagers. A guy in his late 50s, with a long gray ponytail and dark, haunting eyes, gets a callback. So does a young woman, skinny and tattooed, anger and distrust shooting from her eyes. One man brought a full-size keyboard with him, and plays a song he wrote inspired by reading my novel. At the front of the line, each person gets their photograph taken and reads two lines with the casting crew. Some are nervous, worried about their lines. Some read in a monotone; others recite the simple lines with fiery emotion. Around 50 of the 400 who show up today will get call-backs, and some of those people will show up in the film.
I’ve never acted in anything, not even a school play. Just the idea of acting makes me anxious. I prefer to be behind the scenes, but I absolutely understand the draw. If I lived in Harlan, if this wasn’t about my novel, I’d probably be here. Because: movies are magic. I’ve always loved film, the same way I love novels. I’ve gone to them to feel connection and hope, for beauty and escape, the way other people feel going to church or camping underneath a wide open sky. To see my novel adapted for the big screen is a dream and a wild ride. Here we go.