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").
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
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
"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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