Katey Zouck was excited to see a casting announcement on the website Actors Access for a role in the feature film "May the Best Man Win."
She dressed as directed in a business-casual skirt and blouse and drove to a South Central Los Angeles address, determined to get the part.
But the 26-year-old Los Angeles actress and about 30 other young hopefuls who showed up for the audition found themselves the victims of a "Borat"-style prank.
Some of the women were asked to perform in blackface, others to impersonate Adolf Hitler and shout Nazi propaganda.
The prank casting session was the work of What If It Barks Films, a London production company whose principals have deep experience in the world of reality TV.
The movie's writer and producer, Lee Hupfield, produced episodes of "Big Brother: UK." One of its executive producers, Andrew Newman, served as a consultant on the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's "Borat," while producer Andrew O'Connor is managing director of Objective Productions, the company responsible for the long running British hidden camera show "Balls of Steel."
"May The Best Man Win" is a real movie, with a budget of $800,000, about two men who try to out-do each other by pulling outrageous stunts. The casting call wasn't an audition for principal roles within the movie, but for a film-within-a-film segment about women who become the victims of those stunts.
"The joke is, 'Will these women audition for a part that they think is immorally reflected?'" explained Oliver Obst, another executive producer of the film.
Of 50 women who answered the ad for the audition, 15 signed release forms allowing the producers to film them. Of those, seven performed in blackface or Hitler mustaches.
Zouck drove to South Central intending to land the part, even though, upon arriving, she found the lines she was given clumsy and melodramatic.
"I'm here and my job as an actor is to take what I'm given, make it real for myself and justify the words, no matter how crazy I may judge them to be," the actress reasoned.
But she became increasingly suspicious as the audition process proceeded.
Production assistants came and went wearing headsets — as if they were on a real film set. Actresses comparing notes found they had been called for different parts. Some were told they would be auditioning for a dramatic lead, others for a comedy. All had been given "sides," the lines they would be asked to speak in the audition.
Some were asked if they felt comfortable being pranked, others if they were comfortable pranking others.
After two hours, her concern rising, Zouck decided she had had enough. She asked several production assistants whether the women auditioning were being filmed, and if so for what film and what director. No one would answer her questions.
She persisted, though, and finally got an explanation from Elle Viane Sonnet, an associate producer on the project: Every actress on the set was being pranked. The two "casting directors," it was later revealed, were the movie's two male leads — actors Whitmer Thomas and Drew Tarver.
Some of the actresses signed nondisclosure agreements after being paid $50 for their participation and willingness to have their footage used in the film, and would only discuss the experience anonymously, for fear of legal action.
"I did feel ambushed," said one, a 34-year-old actress who agreed to portray Hitler and shout out Nazi propaganda. "I had sat in the holding room for three hours, so I had a choice now to either go in there and be filmed doing something that's potentially pretty uncomfortable, or I could go home just having wasted half my day."
"May the Best Man Win" may be following in the film footsteps of Cohen's "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." That 2006 20th Century Fox mockumentary, directed by Larry Charles and written and produced by Cohen, mixed scripted footage with unscripted "gotcha" scenes featuring unwitting people.
The filmmakers and studio were sued by several participants, who alleged they had been tricked into signing bogus release agreements. None of the lawsuits were successful.
Ray Marshall, producer and co-founder of What If It Barks Films, insisted that at no point was any actress forced to do anything with which she did not feel comfortable. They had options and they were made very clear what those options were.
"Quite a few of those girls were more than happy to be involved, and we have some fantastic footage from them," Marshall said. "Whether we are officers of good taste or bad taste is neither here nor there — it's the style of an edgy comedy. It's intended to be funny."
Obst also defended the prank.
"Someone was nominated for an Oscar for playing Hitler," he said. "So I don't see what the issue is."
Besides, he added, other parts of the movie are far more extreme than what the auditioning actresses endured.
"Our script calls for our main character to pull pranks that are far, far worse than what happened with the actresses," Obst said.
The extreme pranks, performed in the Los Angeles area, include someone being pelted by what appear to be dog feces, and two people dressed as genitalia appearing to engage in sexual intercourse while ice skating.
Zouck was not mollified to hear she hadn't gotten the worst of it.
"Every day as unknown working actors, we go to these cattle calls, and take time off work, but that's not what is upsetting," she said. "What is upsetting is that we did all that and it turned out they were making fun of us. I felt like an idiot actress. I felt violated."