It was an unlikely St. Patrick's Day fiesta at Union Station on Sunday as 8,000 girls and young women--one of the biggest crowds to fill the venerable train station in years, if not decades--sang, danced and angled for their big Hollywood break.
Many were extroverts, flashing their brightest smiles and chattering away with the Hollywood types in charge. A few were painfully shy, prodded by parents with their own dreams of stardom. They came from as far as Seattle and Jalisco, Mexico.
But nearly everyone was in a celebratory mood at Sunday's casting call for an upcoming Warner Bros. movie about the idolized slain Tejano singer Selena, which begins filming in May.
Producers are looking for two girls: one to play Selena as a little girl from about 8 years old and another to play her between the ages of 18 and 23. Although singing and dancing mattered, it was Selena's magnetism and winning smile that they were hoping to find.
With just the slightest urging from a casting associate, 9-year-old Christina Vargas, dressed daintily in a blue crushed-velvet dress, launched into Selena's biggest hit, "Bidi- Bidi Bom Bom," pulling some fancy dance steps through it.
Her footwork was impressive but on her final twirl, she lost her balance a bit. Undaunted, the longhaired little girl grinned broadly and proceeded to her next task: acting. Casting associate Elisabeth Rudolph asked Christina to "get mad," pretending that she had borrowed her dress without permission.
"You should have asked me," snapped Christina believably.
"I've always wanted to be a movie star," said the Sun Valley girl after her audition. "I've always wanted to be a singer and actress since I was a baby. I want to be in this movie of Selena. Even if she's dead, it's like she's alive to me."
For many of the older aspirants, the spirit of the popular singer was alive and well.
"I just came down here because I love Selena," said 21-year-old Aileen Ramos, who was dressed in trademark Selena garb: slinky black bell-bottoms, a midriff-baring blouse and big, gold hoop earrings. "She was very outgoing. She had a personality that was good at heart."
And how did she feel about her chances at getting the part?
"A lot of people tell me I look like her, so I feel really good about it," said Ramos, a wannabe actress who works at a San Diego telephone company.
The mood of the casting call was more like a party than a cutthroat Hollywood competition. A popular Spanish language radio station had set up a live broadcast outside, and many hopefuls joined in the impromptu fiesta, some dancing in celebration of Selena's spirit.
That, says casting director Roger Mussenden, is what he is searching for. "I'm looking for an essence. I'm not looking for a physical look-alike. I want someone to capture her personality, her warmth and sense of fun. And have that gazillion-dollar smile. We can do the rest. It's the movies and it's all smoke and mirrors, anyway."
To 20-year-old Lizette Iniguez, a University of La Verne student who wants to practice law, "She's just a great role model for Hispanics. We don't really have any. You don't see Hispanics much on TV. We're still a minority."
Selena was shot to death last March at a Corpus Christi motel. Yolanda Saldivar, her former fan club president, was convicted of her murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Of the thousands of tryouts, about 50 were being seriously considered, said Mussenden. It is likely that the 8-year-old Selena will be chosen from one of the four open auditions being held across the country, said Gregory Nava, the film's writer and director. (Other auditions were in San Antonio, Miami and Chicago.)
"Somebody was saying there must be a lot of heartbreak here, but when I asked people what the happiest moment of their life was, so many of them said: 'Coming here today,' " said Nava ("My Family," "El Norte.") "There's joy whether they get the part or not. It's just become a celebration of Selena and of who we are."
The film's producer, Moctesuma Esparza, whose credits include "The Milagro Beanfield War" and "Gettysburg," called Selena "such a bright light who exuded love, and the girls and young women here today are here to share that memory and pay tribute to her, whether they want to be actresses or not.
"There's no competition here," Esparza said. "This is so much a part of our culture. We're not oriented toward competition. We're oriented toward support and achieving the best each of us can achieve."
"I always wanted to meet Selena in person," said 8-year-old Gladys Rosales of Lynwood. "But since I didn't get the chance to meet her, now I'm trying to be like her."