WATERVILLE (AP) – A cosmetologist, a college professor, a politician and a laid-off mill worker all converged in the basement of an American Legion hall Friday to pursue their Hollywood dreams.

The no-frills setting didn’t stir visions of Tinseltown, but it seemed an appropriate venue for casting calls on “Empire Falls,” which is set in a struggling mill town not unlike Waterville.

Producers of the film, based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Richard Russo of Camden, are looking to cast 30 speaking roles and 2,600 extras. Filming in Skowhegan and elsewhere in Maine is scheduled to begin Sept. 8 and wrap up by mid-November.

On the first day of open casting, a long line formed so early outside the American Legion’s state headquarters that the casting process began two hours ahead of schedule.

Hundreds of folks stood in line to get a number, then waited to be hustled in front of the camera. Some were serious actors who brought head shots, while novices had their Polaroids snapped. Each would later have the chance to utter one of 12 out-of-context lines posted on the wall.

One was spoken by a liquor agent: “Mrs. Majeski? State of Maine liquor control.” Another came from the mouth of a man working in a diner: “Something bit me. Hurts like hell. I can work though.”

Most of those auditioning seemed not to have read Russo’s novel, but some, like 39-year-old Brett Fadem of Waterville, were holding copies as they waited, as if cramming for an exam.

“Judging from the length of the line, I might have time to finish it before they interview us,” said Fadem, who teaches physics at Colby College, where Russo once taught English.

Others were polishing their chosen lines. Dawn Thistle, who teaches special education, planned to read for the “difficult art teacher.”

“We will tolerate no more outbursts from the blue table,” the 31-year-old from Chelsea practiced in a stern voice.

Once they got into the casting room, some aspirants froze in front of the camera. Elizabeth Watson, 56, a former state representative from Farmingdale, stumbled as she read for the art teacher role.

“Sorry, I flubbed it,” she told the casting agents. But minutes later she seemed pleased, having seen them put an “A” on the form she filled out.

Cameron Bonsey, who owns Maine Talent Source in Falmouth, was running the casting sessions. He and another casting agent gave groups of 15 hopefuls a brief spiel about what would be involved if they were chosen.

The groups were asked to improvise a scene as the crowd at a high school football game, as Bonsey ad-libbed as the radio announcer:

The team scores a touchdown. (Cheers.) But there’s a penalty. (Groans.) A man is down on the play. (Gasps). Now he’s back up, he’s OK. (Applause.)

The movie, produced by HBO Films, will star Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Helen Hunt, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ed Harris as Miles Roby.

Roby, the frustrated manager of a diner in Empire Falls, is the protagonist of Russo’s book. His teenage daughter Tick, who also has a major role, has yet to be cast, according to Bonsey.

“There is a possible Tick out there somewhere, walking through this door,” he said.

One of those hoping to land the role was Shanna Nadeau, a 19-year-old cosmetologist from Winslow who has acted local plays.

She picked up a copy of “Empire Falls” Thursday night and was on page 70 while she waited. Tick is a high school sophomore in the book, but Nadeau felt she could play the part.

“Even though I’m 19, I still look completely young,” she said.

Jessica Ashe, 25, of Millinocket, decided to audition after hearing her mother say the book was about a depressed Maine town where the major employer had shut down. For Ashe, who was laid off by Great Northern Paper last September, the story struck a chord.

“I’m a displaced paper worker. I live the book,” she said.

Fred Rice, 66, a retired professor from Kansas State University, came to audition on a bit of a lark. Afterward he was heading home to Cape Elizabeth.

“Waiting for the phone to ring,” he said. “Might be a whole new career in show biz. You never know.”

AP-ES-08-08-03 1904EDT

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