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THE SOLOIST

Intermezzo
Director Joe Wright knew from the beginning he wanted to draw extras for "The Soloist” from the ranks of the downtown Los Angeles community depicted in the film. For him, the extras were the heart of the film and its link to the real world. To find hundreds of homeless background extras, extras casting coordinator Maryellen Aviano initiated a series of open calls at several homeless outreach centers, including Lamp Community, the Midnight Mission, Union Rescue Mission, Volunteers of America and SRO Housing – ultimately signing up 450 members. Among them were a core group of about 20, nicknamed "the Lamp Chorus,” who appear in several scenes with Foxx and Downey inside the Lamp Community building where Nathaniel Ayers resides. (The Lamp Chorus was also joined by ten SAG actors for scenes that required specialized performance skills.) Lamp and the other programs maintained their own personal advocates on the set to assure the extras' needs would be effectively communicated.

Despite early uncertainty about how it might all work out, the experience was unforgettable for everyone involved. "I've never had a more enthusiastic group of extras in my 32 years in the business,” Aviano says. "The downtown community completely embraced the movie because Joe Wright spent several months working with them and invited them to share their experiences. The film gave them an opportunity to step up and show how resourceful they can be as a community.”

Wright worked with the homeless extras using an organic process and an almost documentary approach. To keep these diverse extras comfortable and relaxed in the strange world of moviemaking, Wright tried to maintain a very human atmosphere by keeping the crew's footprint to a minimum so the set was spare with very little in the way of lighting or equipment.

Says Wright: "Working with members of the Skid Row community was, without exaggeration, kind of life-changing really. It taught me a lot of humility and to never underestimate anyone, and also that it's possible, even within the film industry, to bring about some good and to have a positive, practical effect on people's lives. That was tremendously exciting.”

The cast felt much the same way. Says Downey: "It was quite an immersion, being with these members of Lamp, many of whom were mentally ill, drug15 addicted or in various states of homelessness. It was a fantastic leap of faith that this was somehow going to work out and we'd all interact and get along and simultaneously shoot a movie about this story – and yet we did.”

Adds Foxx: "Joe Wright had the beautiful insight to give the film the authentic quality of the people who live there. He took a risk and he made it work. Joe stuck to his guns and came out with his heart wide open and that opened us all up.”

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