Southern Cattle Drives

by Angela E. Gabriel

Hold a cattle call and they will come. From Tennessee, Georgia. From the upper crust of Florida, where it’s too far from water to be called the Gulf. Everyone comes to Huntsville, Alabama, in the hope of becoming a movie star.

Not that I call it a cattle call when I notify the production companies, talent agencies, and the small-time press that we’re looking for actors. They prefer the term open audition, but in truth cattle call is much more suitable. As the skittish actors wallow into the public library auditorium, they almost moo for attention in a slow, perfect drawl.

I wonder about these wannabe actors, who retain the toughened pelts of southern high schools and community colleges. It is quite a mystery to me–and I ponder it while staring–how the flag of teased bangs has not wavered here since the early eighties. One would believe that the struggle lay in fighting the humidity that still hugs the south, or the men who respond to the hair as if it were a mating call.

But humid bangs or not, they still come. In herds. In a flurry of composite shots and resumes boasting of automobile commercials and being an extra in a college film. Nestled in an auditorium, nervous sweat mingles with entirely the wrong colors for a camera shot. Too many patterns revolve and evolve here. Clothing notwithstanding, I watch them mingle, compare, twitter.

I give the stare of the cattle-driver. I’m the one to cull this herd. I’m the one to sit for eight hours and slightly tease the true talent out of these babies.

Before I can begin, one woman arrives late with a dramatic entrance–as if this will whip the film world into a frenzy of excitement. Instead, it whips me like those hot August winds in the middle of downtown Birmingham. I stop her, while the heavy theatre door leans on her flank. Her look is pure astonishment. Reminds me of a deer. Not the one in the headlights, but after, when the head comes round to crash through a heavy windshield.

I’m still glad it was just a little doe that landed in my unyielding lap.

In front of everyone, I tell her that being late is not an option. Her teased-until-it-got-mad flag bobs up and down. She’s young, as they all are. Tenderized. In order to make her a little more well-done, I glower and snarl, “Is being an actress. . . in a film . . . important to you?”

More bobbing.

“Then sit down, take your number, and remember that this film is professional. Being late is not.”

This is the turning point in her life. I see her fingernails, self-done by the traces of polish on her cuticles here and there. Her shoes are a bit too tight, but for some reason I know they are the only ones without concrete scars. And, God love this child, she’s wearing the perfect audition outfit: Flowing dark skirt like her hair; the palest of blue sweaters. No patterns, no shocks of color. Just southern simple.

Tears or no, this will be what all those pep rally, pride rocks, sweaty acting classes, and “I went to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert at thirteen and didn’t get caught” moments were for. Defiance without fear or she’ll break and run. I hold my breath as she mouths “Yes mayam” through plum lips without a quiver, without the certain bitchiness of lanky girls who’ve spent too many years tanning. She turns to sit. I catch the look of determination, catch the door on my way out, and decide that I like this one. We’ll see if she can act.

In the parking lot the tick-tick of exhausted air conditioners surround me. The more I see of double cab trucks with downsized cabs, the more a certain kind of fear creeps in. We want more room, yet we don’t want more room. Status is defined now by how many folks a truck can carry rather than the load you can throw in the back. All the potential actors inside hustled here in these trucks, and I wonder how many will drive away slowly with disappointment.

It’s time.

Boots, heels, clicking human hooves across the planks of their future. Auctioning off their talent for the prize of less than four lines in a feature film. Some say all actors are the same. I say that Southern-bred actors are different. They look different in the way that a strawberry is different from a cherry. Same fruity group, just more seeds to draw from. I sense their stories, smell their habits, whether smoking, drinking, or the tart whiff of an addiction to breath mints. They try to hide the accent. We tell them we want a regional accent. Then, by all the wonders of the world, they give us fake Southern drawls created by whoever dialect-coached countless sets of bad eighties Southern feel-good films. The normal, “eyeve nehvar”, becomes “ah’ve nevah”. Even the cameraman giggles to himself. We stop to re-group and express the need for normal speech, quirks, “aint’s”, the dropping of word endings, especially “g’s”, and all.

Her number is up, so to speak. Big brown eyes like so much cattle. Cattle call. Will she be slaughtered, or prized? Her monologue is pure emotion. We sit and nod, a very good sign at any casting affair. She’s got the four lines, she’ll take the scene from the leads and we all know it. And as she sways up the aisle, she shows me a glimpse into what Southern Lady subtlety has become.

She leans over, and with a smile in her voice, says, “I was late because yer directions were just awful!” I like her even more. She is now medium-well with a touch of sauce.

Day to night and we are done. Enlisting two speaking roles and twelve extras for our film. I remember how it is, how it was, and how hard to fight against the prejudicial entertainment industry once they hear you speak. When your words actually sound unique.

I stand to dismiss. Speak true to my own heritage.

“Thank ya’ll for comin’ out.”

Angela E. Gabriel, a Birmingham, Alabama native, is a professional screenwriter and author. In the film industry off and on for seventeen years, she began her screenwriting career doing major rewrites in 1995. Her first feature length film, “Valley of Lost Souls” was written in 1996, and from there her credits include two feature length, a documentary on WWII, and her current feature length, “When Love Steps In”. Her novel, “St. Charles and the Lake People” will be completed by Christmas. She works as an Assistant Director, UPM, and in other facets of the industry. From a casting call this non-fiction piece unfolded. Angela is currently on target for Director’s Guild of America status. Upcoming projects include another documentary, and two more full length films.