Atmospherians

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
In September 2015, Duke University’s football team promoted its backup quarterback to starter. This was a little bit of a shakeup because the new starting quarterback was a total rookie stepping up to take command of the team.

Sam Greenspan:
Duke’s new quarterback may have been inexperienced, but he sure did look the part. He was exactly the kind of person you’d cast in a movie about a team trying to turn their luck around. Dude is 6’4″, 225 pounds, has boyish good looks, and an ‘aw shucks’ grin.

Roman Mars:
That’s ‘aw shucks’ producer, Sam Greenspan.

Sam Greenspan:
Meanwhile, in Orange County, California, a public defender was making headlines for his work investigating how local law enforcement had been stacking the deck against defendants.

Roman Mars:
Newspapers show him in a standard suit with wireframe glasses, ducktail hair and a goatee. He’s got the look of a 20-year veteran of the courts, who’s managed to keep hold of his ideals. Meanwhile…

Sam Greenspan:
In the West African country of Burkina Faso, a group of armed soldiers in military fatigues forced their way into a cabinet meeting and asserted their control over the government.

Roman Mars:
In each of these cases – the quarterback, the attorney, the coup – newspaper articles about each of them described them in exactly the same way. They were all written up as being straight out of Central Casting.

Sam Greenspan:
Calling something or someone from Central Casting is a kind of cultural shorthand for a stereotype or archetype.

Roman Mars:
Something so visually perfect that it’s like it’s been designed.

Sam Greenspan:
The first time Barack Obama flew in Air Force One, he said to the pilot, “I’ve got to say, you’re out of Central Casting. You’re exactly what I want the pilot of Air Force One to look like.”

Sam Greenspan:
If you do a news search for the phrase ‘straight out of Central Casting’, you’ll get tons of hits about athletes, business executives, politicians, billionaire philanthropists.

Roman Mars:
But every now and then you’ll find an article that makes reference to a proper noun Central Casting, in Burbank, California.

Sam Greenspan:
“Morning, I’m going to Central Casting, please.”

Roman Mars:
I’ve known the phrase straight out of Central Casting for a long time, but I’d never really stopped to think about where it came from and so I was quite surprised to learn that Central Casting is a real place.

Sam Greenspan:
I know, right? It’s like learning that Acme is a real company and that they still make anvils. Even my taxi driver, a longtime resident of Los Angeles, even he didn’t know Central Casting was real.

Roman Mars:
Central Casting is in Burbank, California in the San Fernando Valley and it’s where the vast majority of extras come from.

Sam Greenspan:
“Okay. I am on South Flower Street in Burbank, California outside of the Central Casting building.”

Sam Greenspan:
It’s a nondescript two-story office building, the kind of place you’d expect to find an orthodontist.

Roman Mars:
And every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, starting in the very early, early morning, people line up outside Central Casting.

Sam Greenspan:
When I got there at eight o’clock on a Monday morning, there were about 50 people in line. It would grow to about 100 over the next hour. At the very front was a woman named Charissa Gerro.

Charissa Gerro:
“I got here at 3:10 in the morning.”

Sam Greenspan:
“3:10 AM?”

Charissa Gerro:
“Yeah, so it’s-”

Sam Greenspan:
“Already been a long day.”

Charissa Gerro:
“Yeah, it has.”

Roman Mars:
The people in line at Central Casting aren’t there for auditions. Charissa and everyone behind her in line are there for the chance to fill out some paperwork, take a headshot, and get entered into Central Casting’s database for extras. They will not be cast for speaking roles, though many, if not all the people in line are hoping that a director or producer will like their look and give them some dialogue, just like how John Wayne, and Marilyn Monroe, and Brad Pitt got started.

Sam Greenspan:
The line of Hollywood hopefuls stretches down the sidewalk. Some people have brought lawn chairs or blankets to sit on and they all look, well, they look like they’re straight out of Central Casting. There’s a handsome Texan in a suit and tie, fresh-faced to the prospect of showbiz.

Texan Man:
“Friends called me over and I’m from Texas, so they were like, Hey, you want to do some background work? Central Casting, you can go over there.”

Sam Greenspan:
There’s a female bodybuilder.

Female Bodybuilder:
“I do fitness competitions, so I’m trying to build myself as a brand in that industry as well.”

Sam Greenspan:
A guy who calls himself Kid Radioactive.

Eric Bird (aka Kid Radioactive):
I’m going to be famous!

Sam Greenspan:
Even though it’s already hot, and most of the people here have been waiting for three, four, five hours, people are cheerful – optimistic, even. Then at around 9:30, a guy emerges from inside Central Casting. He’s handing out these laminated slips of paper. They kind of look like oversized bookmarks. These are the tickets in to today’s registration process. He only makes it halfway down the line when he runs out.

Russell Leblanc:
“You didn’t get one, I’m sorry.”

Woman:
“Should we wait and see if somebody doesn’t have their paperwork?”

Russell Leblanc:
“No, ma’am.”

Woman:
“No?”

Russell Leblanc:
“Thank you. Come back Wednesday, Wednesday morning. Try to line up in between like four, maybe five in the morning.”

Sam Greenspan:
Central Casting’s bouncer is named Russell Leblanc.

Russell Leblanc:
“I’m the safety specialist that was passing out the cards this morning.”

Sam Greenspan:
“Right, so your people’s either best friend or worst enemy in the morning.”

Russell Leblanc:
“Yes, pretty much.”

Sam Greenspan:
One person protests and a few ask Russell about exceptions, but most of the 60 odd people who didn’t get tickets retreat to their cars wordlessly. Then the door to Central Casting opens up and the 50 or so left, golden tickets in hand, slowly file in

Roman Mars:
The first job that any aspiring film actor gets is usually as an extra, known in the industry as background actors.

Anthony Slide:
They’re the people who really make the film without your being aware that they’re present.

Sam Greenspan:
That’s Anthony Slide.

Anthony Slide:
My name is Antony Slide, I am the author of 76 books, I believe, if I count correctly, on the history of popular entertainment. One of them is ‘Hollywood Unknowns: A History of Hollywood Extras, Stand-Ins, Bit Players, and Stunt People’.

Sam Greenspan:
Even though the industry has shifted to calling them background actors, Anthony Slide still calls them extras.

Anthony Slide:
They were always called extras in the early years. Theodore Dreiser, the novelist, called them “atmospherians,” which is a rather nice title, I think.

Sam Greenspan:
If you’re a director, you need atmospherians because if you tried to shoot a film out in the world with regular people-

Anthony Slide:
The risk you take is the people walking around suddenly aware they’re being filmed and so they’re suddenly going to start waving at the camera, mugging or whatever.

Sam Greenspan:
Plus you’re going to have to shoot the same scene a bunch of different times, and so you need to be able to tell your actors, background included, where to go and what to do. You need people who are paid to listen to you.

Anthony Slide:
It’s about control, yes.

Roman Mars:
In the early days of cinema, the Hollywood machine had near-complete control of extras, both on the set and off. People would come from all over seeking fame and fortune. To get work, people converged on the gates of the movie lots hoping to get a cast for the day. They were desperate. Many were exploited.

Sam Greenspan:
So many horror stories were emanating from Hollywood that by the 1920s Hollywood had been nicknamed, “The Port of Missing Girls.”

Anthony Slide:
‘The Port of Missing Girls’ is a place where women flocked in the thousands, in the tens of thousands, in the hope of getting into films, and they were all very vulnerable. They were reliant upon the men at the studios – particularly the casting directors, the assistant directors – who would hire them. A lot of times these men would simply ask for sexual favors as a reward for hiring them to appear in a movie for a dollar a day.

Roman Mars:
Extras who did get hired were often not paid what they were promised.

Sam Greenspan:
By 1925 the state of California was threatening to investigate Hollywood if they didn’t clean up their act. So as a means of regulating the industry and keeping the government off their back, the Motion Pictures Association of America, the MPAA, established Central Casting.

Roman Mars:
A centralized clearinghouse to match people who wanted to be extras with the people who wanted to hire them.

Sam Greenspan:
Now, instead of just picking one of the major movie studios and just standing around at the gates all day hoping to be picked, people who wanted to be extras could register with Central Casting. So now they could wait by their phone, hoping for a call like-

Michael Jones:
“Hello?”

Casting Agency:
“This is Michael Jones?”

Michael Jones:
“Why, yes.”

Casting Agency:
“Berkeley Company, Warner’s. Be there at eight tomorrow, street clothes.”

Roman Mars:
Extras also called in to Central Casting constantly, so much so that the operators developed super quick ways to relay information.

Anthony Slide:
If there was no work, they’d say ‘NWRK’. They wanted the extras to try again later. They say ‘TRYLA’.

Sam Greenspan:
But as cinema took off and as silent films gave way to talkies, the need for extras only grew and Central Casting had to get more sophisticated and it’s tracking and recruitment of extras.

Jennifer Bender:
T”his is the team that’s doing the registration today.”

Sam Greenspan:
Back in present day Central Casting, Executive Vice President Jennifer Bender is showing me around.

Jennifer Bender:
“So then afterwards they’ll come over here and get their photos taken.”

Sam Greenspan:
This office is one of three. Central Casting is now in Burbank, New York and New Orleans.

Jennifer Bender:
Between all three offices we’ve got about 90,000, almost a hundred thousand people.

Sam Greenspan:
It’s like there’s a small city living inside their computer servers.

Roman Mars:
An extremely diverse and infinitely indexable city.

Jennifer Bender:
“This is Sam.”

Sam Greenspan:
“Hi, I’m Sam. Nice to meet you.”

Sam Greenspan:
Jennifer introduces me to Brandy Hawkins.

Brandi Hawkins:
My name is Brandy Hawkins and I am a lead casting director here. I cast the stand-ins, photo doubles, dead bodies, restaurant patrons, circus acts, everything. Everybody that’s not talking.

Sam Greenspan:
Brandy takes me on a test drive of how the Central Casting database works. She opens up a window on their custom-built software, which has just about every search parameter for a person you can imagine. Height, race, shoe size, bust size, tattoos, location of tattoos, missing limbs, how much nudity you’ll do. Now she just needed a target.

Brandi Hawkins:
“Do you want to look for like your photo double?”

Sam Greenspan:
“Oh my God. Yeah, let’s do that.”

Brandi Hawkins:
“Okay, just looking at you, this is what I would do, but you can’t get offended by it.”

Sam Greenspan:
“No please.”

Brandi Hawkins:
“So I would do like, I would go on maybe the 24 to 35 range.”

Sam Greenspan:
“Okay.”

Brandi Hawkins:
“And I would do Caucasian male. What are you like 6-6’1?”

Sam Greenspan:
“6’2.”

Brandi Hawkins:
“That’s pretty good. So I would do like 6 to 6’3. I would do hair color, brunette or brown. Coat, about 40-42 somewhere in there?”

Sam Greenspan:
“40.

Brandi Hawkins:
“I’m good at this. And like 32 waist?”

Sam Greenspan:
“32 waist.”

Brandi Hawkins:
“Then we would just do a search.”

Sam Greenspan:
One by one a stream of tall brown-haired, 30-something white dudes all scroll by.

Brandi Hawkins:
“Then we just kind of scroll through and see kind of who we think that like might come up that’s anywhere near. That’s pretty good. Like I would submit him, he looks like he’d be like your long lost brother.”

Roman Mars:
Oh man, that sounds so unsettling.

Sam Greenspan:
It was a little unsettling. I just wanted to stand up and shout “No I’m unique.” I asked Brandy how she got comfortable talking so explicitly about what people look like.

Brandi Hawkins:
It was very difficult at first because I came from a human resources background and there were so many things you couldn’t do. Like you couldn’t hire people based off of their looks. Whereas, now that’s what it’s all about. Like they’ll literally say, I need an African-American male, six-feet tall that fits the sizes and if you’re creating a basketball team it’s not going to look like a realistic basketball team if they’re all these Caucasian looking guys who are five-foot-four.

Roman Mars:
So to do this Central Casting and pretty much every casting agency that deals with background – there are plenty of others – their call-outs can be pretty blunt. Central Casting’s Facebook page is full of descriptions such as, this is a real one: “looking for hip, attractive men and women who appeared to be Asian in their twenties with trendy wardrobe, no visible tattoos”.

Sam Greenspan:
To an outsider, this language can really feel abrasive.

Roman Mars:
It’s clear that this line of work demands that you categorize and stereotype.

Sam Greenspan:
Kristan Berona is a Senior Casting Director at Central Casting and to get a feel for how she works, I asked her how she’d cast a couple of different locations starting with a dive bar.

Kristan Berona:
A dive bar, I would probably do an older Caucasian guy, bartender, kind of maybe on a little bit on the bikery side or a little bit on the sketchy side because they’re always at a dive bar.

Kristan Berona:
Then I would probably do a second bartender that would be like a tatted-up hipster and some women that have probably been through it.

Sam Greenspan:
Auto body shop?

Kristan Berona:
Auto body shop – auto bodyworkers, mostly Hispanic guys. I would do definitely guy in his forties, kind of punchy with maybe a mustache, and then some younger guys that are kind of running around. I would probably do a female on her fifties that’s the receptionist. I mean I picture myself in the place and what I would see.

Sam Greenspan:
Background actors are supposed to look like they belong there, so casting directors play to our expectations about how we think the real world looks and sometimes in doing so they end up perpetuating those expectations.

Roman Mars:
Casting directors are trying to strike a balance between authenticity and expectation. They’re constantly looking at the real world and wondering if it matches the way they would cast it.

Sam Greenspan:
Here’s Central Casting, Executive Vice President Jennifer Bender, again.

Jennifer Bender:
The other week I was in New York and I was walking down the street and there were more blondes than brunettes. What’s very stereotypical if you’re casting a New York street scene is they don’t want any blondes because people think of New York, they think of brunettes, right? I just thought to myself, if I were to cast this scene doing a New York street scene, I would be fired because this, it doesn’t even look like it should be really here.

Sam Greenspan:
Back in the registration room, the people who are waiting outside all morning sit at chairs facing a PowerPoint presentation. A Central Casting employee comes out

Casting Employee:
“How’re you guys doing? Good morning. How’s everyone today? I know you guys are going out there for quite a bit.”

Roman Mars:
The central casting orientation is pretty much like any new employee orientation.

Casting Employee:
“All right. The next form is the I-9 form. That should be the second to last page in your packet.”

Sam Greenspan:
Though every now and then there, are some forms to fill out that you would not find at most places of business-

Casting Employee:
“Onto level of nudity. For this one, I do need everyone to select one thing. A ‘yes’ would be everything of course. ‘No’, is swimsuit for women, ‘partial’ would be a naked scene from the rear for men, so just keep that in mind. Of course, you can always edit this…”

Sam Greenspan:
There are boxes to check for tattoos, piercings, missing body parts, if you can dress in drag, can dress like a clown, can juggle.

Roman Mars:
There’s also information about how the payment system works and a session on identifying the signs of heat exhaustion and who to talk to if you’re feeling ill on set.

Sam Greenspan:
After about an hour of document signing, everyone gets a headshot

Photographer:
“One, two and three.”

Sam Greenspan:
And that’s it. They are released back into the world where they will wait for a role.

Roman Mars:
There’s a cynicism that one could take here that Central Casting is about turning humans into objects. It is one of the only, if not the only, job where you are hired solely for what you look like.

Sam Greenspan:
On the other hand though, one could argue that this is progress. Here everyone will be seen. The young, the old, the short, the tall, the housewife, the ex-gang member, the bombshell, the amputee. This is a pathway into showbiz that’s not about nepotism or cronyism or who you’ll sleep with. At Central Casting, people fill out I-9’s and get some knowledge base about what to expect on set.

Roman Mars:
And actually get paid.

Sam Greenspan:
And maybe, just maybe, one of them could become the next Brad or Marilyn, but until then they’ll check Facebook and wait by their phones for the call.

Jimmy Mackay:
“Hey Jill, this is Jimmy from Central Casting. Hey, I’m calling to see if you want to work ‘American Crime Story’ tomorrow. All right, so you’re going to be media type at 9:30 AM. Correct. Awesome. Thank you, Jill. Of course. All right, bye-bye.”

Jimmy Mackay:
“Hey Dusty, this is Jimmy from Central Casting. Hey, how’s it going, man? Good, good, and are you available tomorrow? Awesome. All right, so you’re going to be media type at 9:30 AM. Correct. You’re all set. All right, you too. Bye-bye.”

Jimmy Mackay:
We’re booked up on the Caucasian spots, so we need one more African-American, one Hispanic, one Asian.

  1. Casey

    Hey Roman!

    I love the new episode and the challenge coin is awesome. Is there any way you would be willing to explain what all of the symbols on the coin are? I definitely recognize most of them from previous episodes but even though I’ve listened to all of them, I can’t seem to place every single one. It would be nice to have an explanation enclosed with the coin at the very least for why you picked each symbol and what episodes they reference. Would you consider it?

  2. Quint Hall

    Where did you get that top picture? There is so much going on with it. There is a wonderful representation of the diversity of American, but then it is also a very interesting comment to show the traditional, white male controlling things from the power-side of the counter. Is it a Rockwell?

  3. nm

    Where can i find the music from this episode? I recognize a song in it but can’t put my finger on the name.

    1. David Lajko

      Dream a Little Dream of Me (Mama Cass) and there’s also Plink Plank Plunk in the background playing in the middle – if you meant that :D haha

    2. Miami

      Yeah what is it that is playing in the background at the very beginning?

  4. John

    Fun show! FYI, ACME anvils were real, and the company still exists. Wile E Coyote was actually ordering from…Sears Roebuck and Co! “ACME” was the in-house brand for some of Sears’ tools in the early 1900s, including blacksmithing equipment. Here’s a link to a picture of one of their old ads: http://acme.com/calendar/images/anvil_ad.gif

    1. Sorry I’m just now seeing this, but thanks for watching/listening to the show!

      That’s awesome that ACME anvils are real. New trivia fact of the week!

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