NEW YORK CITY -- When it comes to playing Biggie on the big screen, size matters. Take it from De'Andre Neal, a 6-foot-3, 315-pound bouncer with fingers as thick as Twix bars. The Brooklyn native was one of more than 100 hopefuls who turned out for an open casting call on a soundstage in Manhattan's meat-packing district, trying to fill the size-13 shoes of Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G., in "Notorious," a new biopic about the slain rapper.
"Seriously, I saw people who shouldn't even be here," said Neal, 29, his voice so deep it could give you the bends. "There's one kid who looked like Eminem. This ain't no '8 Mile' thing, man."
Ten years after Wallace was shot to death at the age of 24 in a drive-by in Los Angeles, Biggie has come back to life in the form of mostly unknowns vying for the chance to play the man who once described himself as "heartthrob never, black and ugly as ever."
Because of the paucity of Hollywood actors who resemble the rap heavyweight, "Notorious" distributor Fox Searchlight hosted the casting call to find an authentic character to play Biggie, whose fans still consider him the hip-hop king of New York. "Nobody got a better flow than Biggie, to this day," said Brooklynite Kenneth Washington Jr., 21.
Joining the line on the sidewalk in a neighborhood known for its chic boutiques and exclusive clubs, contenders came wearing Kangol caps and Coogi sweaters, Versace shades and Jesus pendants on heavy silver chains. While some quietly studied their scripts as they waited to be called in, others boasted about their similarities to the slain savior of East Coast hip-hop.
"From the size to the lazy eye, we look alike," said William "Big Wayne" Hunter, 34, who wore a blue suede suit and a "Godfather" hat cocked to the side.
Shaun Monroe and Karl Ellis, longshoremen from New Jersey known around the docks as Biggie and Biggie Jr., respectively, came to support each other. "The real truth is, he put fat black guys back on the map," Monroe, the bigger of the two, said.
After nearly three months of watching video auditions that aspiring actors from around the country submitted at www.biggiecasting.com, "Notorious" director George Tillman ("Men of Honor," "Soul Food") and producers Wayne Barrow and Mark Pitts (the rapper's former managers) were hoping that their Biggie was in the building. Voletta Wallace, Biggie's mother and a "Notorious" producer, was there to watch the contenders perform her son's song, "Warning."
"It isn't a publicity stunt. And it isn't a question of, 'Let's just pick somebody who's overweight and dark, put a Kangol on him, and call it a day,' " said Biggie biographer Cheo Hodari Coker, who wrote frequently about hip-hop for The Times in the '90s, wrote the "Notorious" screenplay with Reggie Rock Bythewood and was the last journalist to interview the rapper before his death on March 9, 1997. (Police still haven't caught whoever killed Biggie six months after the murder of his West Coast rival, Tupac Shakur.) "I think the important thing for anyone auditioning for the movie is, not only do you have to capture the confidence and swagger of Notorious B.I.G., you have to capture the sensitivity of Chris."
The casting call was a major step forward for a film that has been in the works for seven years, and for which Sean "Diddy" Combs is executive producer. In 2005, Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day") was approached to direct but moved on because of scheduling problems and creative differences with the producers. "They're in the record business, they're not in the film business," Fuqua told the Associated Press earlier this year. Recently, Philadelphia rapper Beanie Sigel, who made his big-screen debut in the 2002 crime-drama, "State Property," auditioned to play Biggie. But it's still anybody's game.
Of course, it helps if you've got game. Time will tell if the role goes to an established artist like Sigel or a newcomer like Neal, who was called back for a second round of tryouts Sunday.
Scanning the crowd from behind dark shades, Neal sized up his competition in a flashy freestyle: "We here for the movie called 'Notorious' / Every time I'm on the line, they say I look glorious / Spontaneous, with the illest type of rap / Everybody else just full of bull . . . ."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times