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September 1, 2014, 3:06 pm

Top casting director tells how it’s done

If you’ve ever wanted to be an extra in a film or on television, you need to meet Christopher Gray. Gray specializes in casting extras for Hollywood’s big-budget blockbuster movies or network TV shows such as “Collateral,” “Amistad,” “Hustle and Flow,” “Men of Honor” and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.” Extras, or background actors, are the people who are walking or sitting or chatting or standing in any movie or TV show with no speaking lines. Gray has made his mark in Hollywood casting extras for more than 100 Hollywood big-budget movies and TV shows.

Working in Hollywood wasn’t part of his career goal. Gray, born in Memphis, Tenn., is a graduate of Howard University and then studied law in California.

In California, a friend asked him to help out with casting and he caught the proverbial acting bug. He is among a handful of Black casting directors with 25 years of experience casting ordinary people to play roles in movies or TV shows.

Even though he has established himself as one of the casting experts in the movie and TV industry, Gray faces the same challenges that most African-American actors feel in Hollywood — there aren’t enough roles or opportunities for Blacks. According to Gray, in the casting department, there isonly a handful of Black casting directors in Hollywood.

“There are very few scripts for Black actors is the number one problem ... then you have the same actors vying for the same position (role). Sometimes when I go into production meetings, I am the only Black person sitting in,” said Gray, who operates his Christopher Gray Casting Agency in West Hollywood.

As one of the pioneers in Black Hollywood and among a handful of Black casting directors, Gray is not known in Hollywood production circles as a Black casting agent. He is the only African-American casting director to have cast extras with all of the major studios — 20th Century Fox, MGM Pictures, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney/Touchstone, Dreamworks, New Line Cinema and Paramount Pictures — and worked with blockbuster producers and directors, including Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Mann and David Lynch.

And although he has cast millions of extras and his movie credits include A-list superstars such as Tom Cruise, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Denzel Washington and Will Smith, procuring the next movie or TV project remains an “everyday struggle.”

“Hollywood is who you know. It’s all about who you know. If you don’t know anybody, it’s really hard to break in,” explained Gray, who gave rare, behind-the-scenes insight on how casting directors are hired in Hollywood.

His advice for people who want to be the next Christopher Gray is to learn the behind-the-scenes areas of the movie-making or TV show production business, including wardrobe, costume design, hair or makeup, through apprenticeships. There are more opportunities behind the scenes.

Being an extra is also a way to get exposed to the world of movies and TV shows. It’s a way to see the mechanics involved — lighting, cameras, sound, set design and scene production. Gray says “90 percent” of the production work in Hollywood is from on-the-job training, not taught in schools.

You can see Christopher Gray Casting’s magic touch in “What To Expect When You’re Expecting,” starring Jennifer Lopez, Cameron Diaz and Chris Rock in theaters now and the remake of “Steel Magnolias” starring Queen Latifah, Jill Scott, Phylicia Rashad and Alfre Woodard on Lifetime TV in September.