By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
Erròn Jay, a 27-year-old aspiring actor originally from Kansas City, Missouri, has one film credit to his name: a 2005 Sci-Fi Channel horror flick called Larva. You get the idea. "I was the police deputy," Erròn recalls. "The only black person in the movie. You can't miss me." He is aware that his race does not bode well for his longevity in such a film. "Yeah, but I didn't die first," he crows. "I died like an hour and a half into the movie. There's plenty of deaths before mine."
Now Erròn is chasing a much larger, more prominent role, that of another tragic figure who didn't die first: Biggie Smalls.
Fox Searchlight's Notorious is evidently a full-scale biopic of the deified Brooklyn rapper, born Christopher Wallace, died (in a still-unsolved 1997 murder) the Notorious B.I.G. Think Walk the Line, think Ray. Except Notorious has not yet been shot. Nor cast. In fact, the producers last week announced that their leading man would be some random dude on the Internet. An online open tryout, a big p.r. event, with the tagline "RU BIG?" Get a video camera. Act out a page of the script. (Yes: good lighting. No: profanity.) Engage in some freestyle rapping. Upload it. Anyone can do it, anyone can win. Might be Erròn. Might be you.
Might be a terrible fuckin' idea. Citing another major announcement sometime this week, Notorious's producers were unavailable at press time; you'd better hope to Christ that the major announcement isn't a reality-TV show called So You Think You'll Love It When We Call You Big Poppa, hosted by Malcolm Jamal Warner, in which starry-eyed hopefuls try to remember all the words to "Me & My Bitch" or flamenco-dance to "Hypnotize." To fill Biggie's shoes (size 13, notes his mother, Notorious co-producer Voletta Wallace, in a video intro on the search's official hub, biggiecasting.com) with an absolute unknown, with a gimmicky MySpace/YouTube/American Idol flourish, smacks of desperation. Biggie is not a Broadway production of Grease or a Pussycat Doll. He's one of the most lionized and romanticized figures in hip-hop history, and this is ostensibly a major motion picture. Can this possibly work? No way of knowing, alas, until the producers find their man. Or don't. Might be anyone. Might be you.
Might be Erròn. "The look we're going for is an actual trailer," he says excitedly. "As if I was already in the movie." Erròn is discussing his own audition video, calling from Chicago, where he's lived for the last four years, having recently graduated from DePaul with a master's in fine arts and acting. The message board at biggiecasting.com immediately lit up with aspiring Biggies offering resumes, passionate testimonials (often typed in all caps for emphasis), MySpace pages, and uploaded photos to underscore the uncanny resemblance. (Popular tactic: Wear a Biggie shirt and mimic his facial expression.) And, somehow, Erròn Jay has dominated. Roughly half the posts are from Erròn, or people claiming to be Erròn, or people claiming to know Erròn and enthusiastically endorsing him for the role (though one poster frets that he might be too handsome), or people denouncing Erròn and accusing him of orchestrating this campaign himself. "I guess I have the most supporters on there," he says. "Which then makes me have the most haters on there."
He laughs at the notion that all these supporters are his own invention. "I may be an artist, but I don't think I'm that creative," he says. "Nor do I have the time. I go on at least nine or 10 auditions a week here in Chicago. I think it's a hilarious theory that I would just sit on my computer all day, rather than work on my craft or do something more productive."
So he's doing something more productive: the audition tape. For the freestyle portion, he's working with a rapper friend from Queens who has been helping him to nail the East Coast style. (Erròn describes it as more metaphoric.) He is also employing his researching skills: When he played a "50-year-old socially inept man" in the August Wilson play Two Trains Running, Erròn sought out actual 50-year-old socially inept men (mostly war veterans and the homeless) and talked to them. So he's absorbing Biggie's music, videos, interviews, photos. Working on the voice, the cadence, the walk. The swagger. Especially the swagger. Erròn bristles at the notion, flung by some of his online detractors, that he's not gangsta enough for the role. "Kansas City is not the easiest place to live," he notes, also pointing out that prior to Training Day, no one was particularly scared of Denzel Washington either. "He put it on," Erròn says. "He put it on just fine. Put it on enough to win an Oscar."
But perhaps we've given Erròn too much airtime already. Biggiecasting.com has already put up several audition videos they've received; this early crop is not promising. William from Dallas is clearly reading off his script and can't quite suppress his Southern accent. Isaiah from D.C. has an actually pretty great read-through, but his freestyle includes a shout-out to Vitamin Water. Ondre from Freeport, Kentucky, has gotten terrible reviews ("If you really love Big you wouldn't even have done that"). Brian from Philly is overdressed. Mmmm. This is going to take awhile. So in the interest of bringing this to fruition, let's chat briefly via e-mail with a few other Biggie wannabes who've made their aspirations known:
Age/Weight /Location 26, N/A, Toledo
Acting Experience Nearly cast as the lead in the Fat Albert movie
Rapping Experience "Hell yeah I'll freestyle!!!!"
Possible Issues "I hate to sound vain, but Biggie wasn't a good-looking man and I been told that I'm a good-looking guy . . . that might be my biggest hurdle to jump gettin' into this movie, but as far as swagger and personality and emotion I got it on lock."
Current Mood Determined
Gabriel "Big Bamm" Edwards
Age/Weight /Location 34, "a strong 300 pounds plus," Brooklyn
Occupations Actor, music producer, hotel-industry union delegate, fashion designer, caterer
Prior Acting Experience Portrayed Wallace in Judgment Day, a play about Tupac put on in Harlem in the late '90s
Connections Catered a Biggie memorial at S.O.B.'s, where he met Voletta Wallace ("She was really nice and enjoyed my cakes")
Brooklyn Swagger "It's the way we walk, the way we talk and wear our clothes and floss. Once you are born and grow in Brooklyn it's embedded in your soul, and no matter where you go in the world people are like, 'You from Brooklyn, New York, right?'"
Age/Weight /Location "Grown and sexy"/"270-plus as of today"/Flatbush native, currently in Dallas
Occupation "IT Consultant/Six Sigma Master Black Belt (Google if unsure of this occupation)"
Claim to Fame Appeared as T-Bone in the first season of I Love New York
No, Seriously "The I Love New York show was crazy, honestly! I say 90 percent or more of what you saw was spontaneous and real. I met some really cool people and we stay in contact to this very day."
Brooklyn Swagger"The gangsta part is a non-issue for meï¿½growing up in Brooklyn, I already know, enough said."