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March 21, 2001:
Pick me!
When a director shows up in town, wannabe stars abandon books and carrels to audition

By Alex Rawson '01

Last month, Hollywood showed up at Princeton. And students flocked.

At Triumph Brewing Company on Nassau Street, MTV set up shop in mid-February in an effort to find a Princeton student for their next edition of The Real World, a popular reality-based program. That same week, in McCosh 10, hundreds of students hoping to land roles as extras in an upcoming biographical movie, about Princeton professor-Nobel Laureate-paranoid schizophrenic John Nash, sat uncomfortably through a painfully melodramatic performance by the film's casting director.

While I did not audition for the Real-World, since I can imagine few things less desirable than to have my every move, thought, and emotion chronicled in a setting designed for maximum group conflict, a huge number of students did. They were herded in groups of eight in front of a camera, asked a series of slightly offbeat questions ("What is the strangest thing that has happened to you this week?"), and 10 minutes later sent on their way. Only those who had satisfactorily unique answers were called back for a longer, more private interview. Of that second group, only a handful were asked to submit personal videotapes. And only one will be chosen.

I did attend the casting call for the film A Beautiful Mind, if only because I thought it would be interesting to see how filmmaking works, both during casting and, with any luck, during production itself. And it was interesting, though not for the reasons I might have expected.

The casting director, a man quite appropriately named Mr. Dance (at least that's what it sounded like), took the stage at 9 a.m.. for a presentation he would give 10 separate times over two days. Dressed in black, Mr. Dance pranced across the stage, alternating between affected tears and equally affected heartfelt reflection for more than an hour, telling stories about his prior casting experiences in Steel Magnolias and other films, and generally trying to demonstrate his artistic genius. He claimed to be "trying to get a read on how we in the audience conveyed our emotions." I think he was just egotistical. At the end of his monologue, we were grouped with others who looked just like us, photographed, and sent on our way.

It seems certain, though, both MTV and the film company will use some number of Princeton students. Who will they choose, and why did both groups choose to come here in the first place?

In the case of the film, the answer seems obvious -- the film is set in Princeton. But this is Hollywood, and the movie stars Russell Crowe (yes, the same Russell Crowe who, just months ago, was wielding a sword and running around half-clothed in the Roman Colosseum) as John Nash and Ed Harris as his psychologist. The movie doesn't need Princeton students, but the producers want Princeton students anyway. As Mr. Dance himself explained, this movie is an "Oscar-type script." This is to be a major-release film, and my guess is that its makers have a very particular Princeton stereotype in mind that they want to portray. We all know what that stereotype is. It is the same stereotype that makes Tom, one of the singles on Fox's Temptation Island and sadly (in my opinion) a Princeton graduate, such a popular character on the show. Where all of the other singles have actual occupations listed next to their names on the screen, Tom is simply "Ivy League Graduate," which immediately gives him a whole host of imagined characteristics in the eyes of the national audience. And that stereotype sells.

My guess is that MTV wants to capitalize on the Princeton stereotype in precisely the same way -- regardless of how the student they ultimately select ends up behaving on the show, they can select footage that implies the stereotype, and they can build a whole set of made-for-TV conflicts around that image.

By flocking to the casting calls and the auditions, we students merely help the entertainment media to perpetuate the Princeton stereotype. That's not good for the university. Of course, that's also not what we are thinking about when we go to the casting call in the first place. Really, the stereotype isn't true, and we're no different from students at any other school -- in the end, we all just want to be on TV.

You can reach Alex Rawson at ahrawson@princeton.edu