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June 8, 2001
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Reality of `Mole' casting tryout
Please don't call us, we'll call you


Special to the Tribune
May 24, 2001

Thirty seconds.

After 3 1/2 hours standing in the Saturday morning mist, wind and sun, I was finally sitting in front of a casting person for ABC's "The Mole." About 30 seconds later, I was outside; the audition was over.

At least, it seemed like 30 seconds. It probably wasn't more than two minutes from the time I sat down to the time the steel door closed behind me.

I was trying out for the second season of "The Mole," ABC's reality TV show hosted by Anderson Cooper. It features a group of players and one mole, a person working for the producers who tries to sabotage the group's missions. The players are quizzed, and the person who knows the least about the mole is kicked off the show.

Reality TV addict

This isn't the first reality TV show I've ever watched. In fact, this is the ninth-consecutive year I've been a reality TV addict. From the second season of MTV's "The Real World" up to today's "Chains of Love," I've been watching -- sometimes with awe, sometimes with disgust. But the dramatization of real lives and real situations has always been more interesting to me than most scripted shows. I even publish a Web log, realityblurred.com, linking to news and gossip about reality TV shows.

But I've never applied to be a cast member on any show.

Mostly, that decision had to do with my awareness of how the shows are produced. In exchange for the experience and the ephemeral fame that inevitably follows, you agree to have your words, your thoughts and your experiences turned over to editors. They, in turn, create a character out of your footage -- a character that uses your words exactly but that may cut out those all-important spaces in the middle.

For "The Mole," I was willing to risk it. I never wanted to starve myself for the chance at $1 million ("Survivor") or lock myself in an IKEA-furnished house with Julie Chen as my only outside human contact ("Big Brother").

Something different

But "The Mole" appeared to offer something a bit different, a higher level of game play for viewers and participants. The weekly challenges were complex and often physical, and they always required the players to think. And the game itself seemed more rigorous; the players scribbled notes about who was eating what for breakfast in case that was a question on the quiz about the mole's identity. It's not necessarily better than other shows or even more interesting, but it was a game I'd want to play, a game in which I'd like to be a pawn.

And so, on that Saturday morning, I trekked with a friend to Gino's East at Wells and Ontario, the former site of Chicago's Planet Hollywood. By the time we arrived at 8 a.m., the line was already 60-plus people long and growing. We went to the back of the line and waited.

Just before 9, we saw the first official-looking person. He walked fast down the sidewalk, past the ragged row of people. "Good morning! How long have you been here?" he said. The woman standing in front of us, who looked suspiciously like Kathryn (the Chicagoan who turned out to be the mole in "The Mole's" first season) told him "about a half hour," and we nodded.

"We just failed the first audition," I said, only half joking. The man soon disappeared inside, leaving us standing in line. A few college kids with slick "Mole" casting badges came by and numbered our applications:

I was 67.

"We're going to have fun today!" the man shouted as he walked down the line, repeating his question and occasionally clapping his hands together slowly. "Just be yourself," he told us. I wished he'd shut up and stop giving away the secrets of reality TV casting. If there's anything I've heard over the past nine years about casting, it's that you want to just be yourself. People who try too hard or are obviously acting during their audition tapes or in-person interviews generally don't make the shows; those that send in a videotape of themselves just talking about their lives usually do.

We waited more.

Finally, at about 11:15, well after the drizzling thunderheads above gave way to fast-moving clouds that let the sun's warmth flood the sidewalk, it was our turn, numbers 60 through 80. Inside the room that used to serve as Planet Hollywood's gift shop, we handed our numbered applications to a woman.

The application was long and tedious -- 10 pages long. Am I high maintenance or low maintenance? (Low.) Have I ever been arrested? (No.) Do I usually win arguments? (Depends upon who I'm arguing with.) Those sorts of questions went on for roughly six pages; then came the ranking of ability in certain skills, from leadership to rock climbing. I scored close to a 10 -- "very unskilled" -- in most.

Now, though, my words and rankings and biographical information were all in the hands of a real casting person.

Then we waited some more, until one by one, she called us.

I wasn't really nervous when she called my number; I didn't have time to be. I walked into the room (the private party room at Gino's) and sat down at the table she pointed to. There was no one there, just a spread of legal pads, folders and other work stuff you'd expect to see spread out on a table at Starbucks.

My friend Mary was at the opposite end of the room. .

No time for handshake

Then two important-looking men came through a door. One sat down in front of me. I wanted to introduce myself, shake his hand, but he didn't have time for that. He told me quickly that this would be fast, and then apologized for the wait.

"Oh, no problem," I said, trying desperately to be myself.

Flipping through my 10-page application rapidly, like you'd flip through a phone book to get to the right section, and with the detailed interest of an auditing IRS agent, he asked me questions.

"Tell me why you want to be on `The Mole.'"

"Well, um, after I graduated from college two years ago, I wasn't really ready for the 9-to-5 thing. I really want to do something that challenges me -- mentally, physically and as much as possible."

He didn't respond; he just kept flipping.

He asked me what I did for a living. I told him, mentioning that I was also a writer. He asked what kind of things I liked to write about, and definitely avoiding the obvious answer ("experiences like this one"), I told him.

"OK, thanks. They'll call you if they want you," he said, and directed me to the exit.

Call-backs, according to the official rules on ABC's Web site, were the next day, Sunday. I sat by my phone most of Saturday. It never rang.

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