Amistad's problematic casting call

Many filmgoers know about Steven Spielberg’s coup in casting Golden Globe nominee Djimon Hounsou for a leading role in “Amistad.” What they may not know is that hiring the film’s leads was easy, says casting director Vicki Thomas — at least when compared to filling “Amistad”‘s smaller roles.

Because of the authentic Mendhe language spoken by the movie’s slave characters, director Spielberg insisted that these actors be African-born. The perfectionist auteur believed that the 13 slave characters with talking roles should be native speakers of one of the more than 100 African languages. This requirement eliminated most of African-American Hollywood, and left it up to Thomas and her crew to span the globe — literally — in search of talent.

Thomas (“Con Air,” “Devil in a Blue Dress”) held open casting calls across three continents: Africa, Europe and North America. To bring a ’90s twist to the film that’s set in 1839, solicitations for photos and credentials were placed on the Internet. “With just two and a half months to cast everyone, we were scrambling every minute,” says Thomas.

But it was near the end of the casting process that Thomas and her team encountered their biggest problem. They had narrowed their list to the African-speaking actors they wanted, but when Thomas requested proof of their clearances to work in the U.S., she felt as if she were speaking a foreign language.

“We would ask for their green cards and visas, and they would tell us yes,” says an exasperated Thomas. “But then we wouldn?t hear from them for days.? Eventually Thomas discovered that many of the actors were in the U.S. illegally.

For some extras, the problem went beyond that of normal legalities: It was a matter of life and death. “We had people who had escaped from Sierra Leone,” says Thomas. “We lost an esteemed professor, who was a very good actor. But for him to go back to Sierra Leone to get a visa, meant he risked losing his life.? The lack of legal paperwork put both Thomas and the actors in a difficult position. ?We couldn?t put them in the movie,” she says, “but we couldn’t bring ourselves to turn them in either.”

Now that the film is finished and Hounsou may end up with an Oscar nomination, Thomas understandably feels that her hard work was well rewarded. “When you have an end result as good as this,” she says, “it’s absolutely worth every headache.”

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