In a quiet office suite high in the Dimond Center mall Sunday, Teddy Smith stood delivering lines for the role of a 25-to-50-year-old Inupiaq whaling captain while kids squealed on the ice rink several floors below.
The actor is forbidden from talking about his lines, but clearly the character is mad about something. Casting directors wanted three flavors of emotion, Smith said later as his parents shopped at a Wal-Mart across the parking lot: Calm, not-so-calm and angry.
"The biggest thing is to just really be relaxed and remain calm and not think about what people think of you," said the veteran actor, who was raised in the Northwest Alaska village of Kiana and was asked to come back and audition for the role of a respected Barrow elder later that night.
Hear that, Alaska? Act natural.
Auditions have begun for "Everybody Loves Whales," the upcoming Universal Pictures movie that begins filming in Anchorage and Barrow this fall. With an estimated budget of $30 million and Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski set to star, the movie tells a dramatized story of the 1988 attempt to rescue three gray whales trapped in sea ice near Barrow.
News of the project -- and filmmakers' plans to cast dozens of Alaskans in speaking roles, if possible -- have stirred Hollywood dreams in would-be actors across the state and beyond. More than 1,000 people have e-mailed or called in hopes of winning speaking parts or extras work, said Deborah Schildt, one of two Alaska casting directors.
"I have to clear my voice mail two or three times a day," said Schildt, who started the morning with 96 unopened e-mail messages.
"Teenage girls are especially tenacious," she said.
The auditions move to Barrow next weekend, in time for the spring whaling festival, Nalukataq. After that it's Western Alaska, then off to Fairbanks for the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in late July. Multiple auditions are planned for Anchorage, Schildt said, with the filmmakers looking to cast Russian-speaking sailors, a helicopter pilot who can actually fly a helicopter, cameramen and restaurant workers, and an army of extras.
On Friday, Schildt saw about 20 kids for the role of an Inupiaq boy, about 10 to 13 years old. Two children arrived from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta village of Chevak. One from Bethel. On Sunday, the casting directors were looking mostly at an Alaska Native elder and whaling captain roles.
Some at the audition, like Smith, are already working actors. An Inupiaq ex-Marine in horn-rimmed glasses and graying crew-cut, he signed with an Anchorage talent agency back in 1993.
Posting an audition clip on YouTube helped win him a role in "On the Ice," which remakes the award-winning, Barrow-based short film "Sikumi," Smith said.
Others are walking into their first audition.
Steve MacLean, an Inupiat born in Barrow who now lives in Anchorage, came at his wife's urging. A program director at the Nature Conservancy, he holds a master's degree in wildlife and fishery sciences from Texas A&M University, where he studied bowhead whales, MacLean said, pages of dialogue folded in his hand.
Pop music from the mall below -- Gorillaz, vintage Cyndi Lauper -- echoed across the empty business complex.
While this is his first casting call, MacLean's brother is in the business. Andrew MacLean directed "On the Ice" in Barrow.
Steve MacLean said he's hoping the moviemakers do their homework and do right by Inupiaq culture in the movie.
"There are some things that were not exactly right in some of the lines that were given. Some misperceptions of some small details," he said after the audition.
Back in the audition suite, a young man stood in front of a row of folding chairs, shifting his weight as he waited for his turn to deliver lines standing on an "X" in front of the camera. While the Alaska-based casting directors funnel dozens if not hundreds of actors through casting calls in the coming weeks, others working on the film will review each tape, Schildt said.
For now, things are just getting started. Casting for extras is expected to begin later this summer. While movie-makers typically look for adults -- fewer labor restrictions -- Alaskans like 11-year-old Frances Carlisle of Girdwood are hoping to snag a spot in the background.
"She thinks she's going to meet Drew Barrymore," said Tina Carlisle, the girl's mother.
The filmmakers plan to begin shooting as early as mid-September.