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NOTORIOUS

Casting 'Nortorious'
From the beginning, the idea of Christopher Wallace – an impoverished, mammoth-sized kid (he was 6 foot 3 inches and over 300 pounds) with a drug-dealing, gangland past -- becoming an international celebrity was highly improbable. That he made that incredible leap was testimony not only to his ample talent but to his mesmerizing persona. Indeed, as the Notorious B.I.G., Wallace demonstrated in abundance a quality that every rapper claims to have but a rare few actually possess: swagger. Far more than mere confidence and a cocky walk, swagger is a complex attitude, an entire approach to life, an innate and bold ability to make all that you are inside a part of the style you show the world.

To find that kind of swagger in the actor who would play Wallace, the filmmakers found themselves on a difficult quest. Initially, they held an open call in New York City, and those who came to the audition ran the gamut. "So many young men came, from a 14 year old to a 44 year old,” recalls Voletta Wallace. "I saw some good performers, but none reminded me of my son.”

Next, casting director Tracy "Twinkie” Byrd lined up more prospects, each of whom posed, rapped verses from Biggie's music and recited dialogue. None of them had the right stuff. "We weren't looking for someone who looked like Biggie or who was doing a great imitation. We were looking for someone who could cut to the essence of his complexity,” says Byrd, "and that was a lot more difficult to find.”

At long last, an ample-sized young man – not a pro actor but a fledgling rapper from Brooklyn -- strolled into the auditions with the same kind of quiet nonchalance that many remember in Wallace. His name was Jamal Woolard and casting associate Wendy McKenzie, recalls instantly getting goose bumps when she saw him, well before he even opened his mouth. She immediately called Byrd. "I said, ‘We found him. It's him,'” she says. "I felt it in my bones. He came at me with this attitude like ‘Yo! If Brooklyn found out I ain't get this, it's on you.' That's swagger, honey.”

More importantly, Voletta Wallace felt the same way; "Jamal came in looking like Christopher, sounding like my son, and had the right attitude.”

Woolard, who hails not far from Wallace's old Fulton Street stomping grounds seemed to channel everything that made Wallace so compelling. He had the size, the deep vocal tone, and, despite his lack of acting experience, he was fired up to take on the role. "Right away, he took the responsibility of playing Biggievery seriously. Just like Jamie Foxx was Ray Charles, Jamal was Biggie,” says Byrd.

With a life not that different from Wallace's, Woolard admits he knew just what it would take to play him. "You can't buy swagger,” Woolard comments. "That's a Brooklyn thing. You got to be born with swagger. I'm just a regular person making it happen. We're from the same hood, and that helped a lot, and I know the struggle and I know how to rap. I hope when people see the movie, they're going to be like, ‘he's here.'”

Still, Woolard faced a steep learning curve, and before production began, he embarked on a four month-long acting "boot camp,” working closely with acting coach Mimi Lieber and studying videotapes of Christopher Wallace for hours at a time. He gained 45 pounds for the role, moving from his natural 260 to a more bulky 305, and he worked tirelessly at matching Biggie's trademark baritone and commanding tone.

"I had to break down his body language, the speech, the mannerisms, how he held his head, the way he would breath, the way he made people look at him when he entered a room,” Woolard explains. "Biggie was real specific in his movements. He never asked, he always ordered, his chin was always up, looking forward. When I put my shades on, I would slip into his world, and become Big Poppa.”

Woolard credits Wa

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