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Working with Johnny Depp: Public Enemies extras tell their stories

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On Scott Rawson's first day, he stood in the same spot in shoes that were too small. It wasn't until day two that he learned he could move around and - to his delight - smoke!

Rawson was cast as an extra in Public Enemies, the Universal Pictures release that chronicles the true story of the oft-idolized 1930s bank robber John Dillinger. Over the course of a couple months in the spring and summer of 2008, portions of the film were shot in various locations throughout the state. From downtown Columbus to the Capitol Square, our neck of the woods was an important backdrop to the action of Public Enemies, which stars Johnny Depp and Christian Bale and was directed by Michael Mann. It opens nationwide July 1.

"We were told by Mr. Mann that those of us who smoked should do so every time we were on camera," recalls Rawson, 46, a regular performer at Broom Street Theater whose day job is in sales and management. He thought the license to light up would be paradise. It wasn't. That day he smoked three packs of his own cigarettes. The next day, they gave him smokes: Liggett straights. "Nasty! I smoked three and a half packs of the horrible things."

Rawson is one of hundreds of local folks who got a taste of Hollywood glamour - and, in some cases, Hollywood cigarettes - as extras in Public Enemies. I tracked down some of them and asked them to reminisce.

Getting the call

Rawson didn't have high hopes when he showed up for a casting call at Monona Terrace on Feb. 16, 2008. He was dressed and ready to go when he nearly backed out: "I figured I did not have a prayer." His 15-year-old daughter convinced him to go.

Some went to the casting call on a whim, figuring it was worth a shot and might be fun. Madison's David Borud, 29, a construction worker and UW-Madison grad, was caught off guard by all the people who turned out dressed in period clothing. "We just showed up in street clothes and felt a little conspicuous," he says. "A lot of the people had dressed up to fit the part."

One of those was Madison's Jennifer Taylor, 37. She eagerly researched hair and makeup styles from the 1930s and rushed out to vintage clothing shops to find the perfect outfit: a black, short-sleeved dress accessorized with a scarf belt and an antique pin.

For Drew Kopmeier, 19, a soon-to-be sophomore at Edgewood College, the casting call itself was anti-climactic, but the phone call he received a few months later from Joan Philo Casting was anything but. "I was totally stoked," he recalls, excitement in his voice. "I called my parents on the spot, and they were ecstatic. It was really awesome."

Borud was called around 5 p.m., and he needed to be on set in Columbus at 6:30 a.m. the next day - quite a challenge for someone with a full-time job. He begged his boss for a day off. He learned that this turn-on-a-dime schedule was par for the course in Hollywood. "It's pretty much how for the most part everything works," he says. "Things change so quick. The schedule they have is so moveable and random that a lot of times they don't quite know until a really short period ahead of time what's going to happen on the set the next day."

F-bombs dropping

Throughout the filming, Borud and the others saw over and over again how stressful filmmaking can be. Making movies is hard work.

Michael Mann is nothing less than tough. Each scene needs to be perfect. For cast and crew, this means constant readiness. "It involves being where they want you to be when they want you to be there," says Borud. "You have to be always available."

But making movies also can be dull. Kopmeier hated his first day on the job in Madison. "It was absolutely boring as hell," he says. "They just put us in a waiting room, and I was literally there for 10 hours before they needed us."

Taylor, whose work brought her to Darlington and Columbus, agrees that the first day was the worst. "It made me appreciate the improvements in clothing we have today," she recalls. "Clothes from Depression-era 1930s were not very warm, and the shoes were paper thin. I shivered so much my back was sore." At least Taylor got paid for her discomfort - slightly above minimum wage, plus overtime, for a total of about 48 hours' work.

Oscar-nominated Mann has directed films like The Last of the Mohicans and Ali, and was executive producer for the 1980s television show Miami Vice. Mann actually got his start at UW-Madison, where he took his first film class.

Asked about their experiences working with Mann, some extras are more diplomatic than others. Borud pauses to find the right words. "He's a very thorough director," he recalls. "Nobody messes with what he wants. He knows what he wants, and you just do what he wants."

Kopmeier describes Mann's directing style with a chuckle: "On the set, he's a real grump. I mean, there were f-bombs going here and there and people getting pissed off and yelling."

Kopmeier is quick to add that he's heard, off set, that Michael Mann is a really nice guy.

Star power

Public Enemies brought to Wisconsin the kind of Hollywood celebrities we rarely see around here. So I just had to ask the extras: Any behind-the-scenes stories about all those famous people?

Scott Rawson spent time with stars like Stephen Dorff, who plays Homer Van Meter, Dillinger's right-hand man. "Funny, but when you're peeing next to someone they kind of lose their star power," Rawson says. "It became old hat to see stars. The only time I really got excited is when we were at Darlington and Bobby De Niro showed up. I didn't even know he was involved with the movie." Robert De Niro is executive producer of Public Enemies.

David Borud was hired as a stand-in for actor Jason Clarke, who plays gangster John "Red" Hamilton. "I don't think I spent less than 12 hours on set on any day that I was there," says Borud. He notes that stand-ins are used to get the details of a scene - scenery, lights, camera angles, props - ready before the actors actually show up to do their stuff.

Christian Bale, who plays FBI Bureau Chief Melvin Purvis, is one of Drew Kopmeier's favorite actors. An encounter with Bale during filming at the Capitol nearly caught him speechless. "I didn't know what to say," Kopmeier says. "So I just kinda looked up, smiled and pointed at him and I'm like, 'You're looking good.'" That didn't get much of a response from Bale - just a puzzled face.

Mostly, it seems, the stars kept to themselves. While some of the extras met Depp and Bale, no one had any juicy gossip to report. Still, the Wisconsinites didn't seem disappointed. Their moment in the spotlight was more about doing something exciting than star-gazing.

Can I have your autograph?

And now, with Public Enemies hitting theaters, the local cast members are ready to sit back, enjoy the film and relish the thrill of being a part of it. Their days on set were long and hard, but the extras are left with an abundance of fond memories.

"This is something we can share with our son and friends and family," says Mary Beth Ring, 47. Ring and her husband, Tom, who live in McFarland, were extras in scenes shot in Columbus. "We already know what we're buying for Christmas presents this year: copies of the movie when it comes out on DVD."

The experience also was educational. Jennifer Taylor was left with the feeling of having just stepped out of a time machine. She compliments the crew for transforming downtown Columbus into a bona fide 1930s main street, and she now knows, literally, what it was like to walk in the shoes of a 1930s woman. "Unitard-like girdles and pantyhose all the time? Ugh," she says.

"I definitely got a better sense of what it may have been like back then," says David Borud. "Walking around in period clothing and driving around in 1930s cars and stuff like that, you can kind of fake yourself into thinking, 'I'm actually there.'"

As for Scott Rawson, he will never forget signing autographs during filming in Columbus. "Here we are, a bunch of nobodies from just down the road, and the entire town seemed to want us to sign things." He'll smile every time he thinks about the day a couple of women sneaked onto the set wearing period clothing. They were kicked out pretty quickly, he recounts, since it was obvious that they had not been costumed by award-winning costumer designer Colleen Atwood.

Rawson also still enjoys a tangible benefit in the form of a teenager's approval. Because of his involvement with Public Enemies, he says, "I am much cooler in my daughter's eyes. All of the theater I have done and the commercials and independent films have meant nothing to her. But this one...yeah, I'm cool now."

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