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Buffalo residents savored roles during filming of ‘Marshall’

When the cameras rolled, Carla Van Wart sat at a back table in the old Military Road bar all dolled up in 1940s style with fitted sweater, scarf at the neck and a little black hat.

Van Wart found herself in a new role. On this warm June evening, she wasn’t doing her usual job of outfitting movie stars like Chadwick Boseman and Kate Hudson in the movie “Marshall” during filming in Buffalo.

She was the one in costume, feeling awkward, thrilled and transported to the time of the early civil rights battles before Thurgood Marshall was appointed as the first African-American on the Supreme Court.

More than 100 local residents played roles during the filming of “Marshall” – helping out as extras in some scenes or lighting the sets. Pianist George Caldwell even played jazz.

In Van Wart’s case, it was hot in Dill’s bar that night. Without air conditioning – not so common back then – even the room temperature felt authentic.

“You definitely didn’t feel like you were living in today’s world,” she said. “It did, very magically, feel like you had stepped back in time.”

Van Wart usually makes her living doing wardrobe for Broadway shows that come to Shea’s.

While the multimillion-dollar movie “Marshall” was being shot around Buffalo earlier this summer, she was one of the local people working in and behind the scenes. She got the part as a last-minute extra while she was doing her regular job as costumer, coordinating actors’ suits, dresses, pocket watches and cufflinks for the actors.

When shooting was well underway on that June evening, directors noticed they needed another woman in the bar scene. A production assistant called, “Carla!”

Soon her hair was pinned up, makeup on and she was transformed.

“I’ve always done back stages. To be on the other side was a little bit scary. I don’t know how to act,” said Van Wart. “I don’t want to mess anything up. It was a very strange feeling and hard for me to wrap my head around.”

Buffalo-area residents made up most of the 100 extras and also most of the 70 or so handling cameras and lights. They lent the interiors of their vintage houses and even drove their 1940s cars and trucks. As they worked, they marveled at the novelties and particular mysteries of a Hollywood movie production, like the special “hazer” machine that makes fog so even the air looks hazy and old. They reveled in the camaraderie that comes with all the long waits between takes.

For Van Wart, the experience was a lot like getting to wear that gorgeous little black hat flecked in white, which she had eyed since she started sorting through the vintage clothes.

It was exciting – especially to dive so completely into another, more fashionable era.

“It didn’t matter where you were going,” she said. “You got dressed to go there.”

Other Buffalonians – from pianist Caldwell to the extras – also found the historic production educational and auspicious.

The film is the biggest period movie shot in Buffalo since Robert Redford’s 1930s-era “The Natural” was released more than three decades ago.

The film about Marshall tells the story of a sensational case of a Greenwich, Conn., socialite, played by Kate Hudson, who accuses her black chauffeur, played by Sterling Brown, of rape.

At the time, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was sending Marshall, played by Chadwick Boseman, around the country to represent African-American defendants and advocate for fair trials.

As one of the jurors in the courtroom scenes, Buffalo-native and actor Steve Abbott enjoyed the drama from a front-row seat on the sixth floor of the old Dillon courthouse.

“The acting was outstanding. It was like watching a play the whole time,” he said. “You have all these hot, good actors … I don’t see how it can’t be a great film.”

For a former Orchard Park High School principal, getting to be an extra was the culmination of two career paths.

“I love Thurgood Marshall. I studied him deeply,” said Don Wesley, who went to law school after he retired. He once studied acting and directed school productions.

He applied to be an extra as soon as he saw the notice on TV and recognized the lead as the actor who played baseball legend Jackie Robinson in the movie “42.”

“Chadwick Boseman? Are you kidding me? I tried to give myself every opportunity by responding immediately,” he said.

Wesley’s interest in educational law led him to pore over Marshall’s landmark 1954 case, Brown v. Board of Education, that led to the Supreme Court ruling that public school segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

It was a thrill to be cast in a nonspeaking role as a businessman visiting the law office of the attorney Sam Friedman, played by Josh Gad, the actor who voiced the snowman Olaf in Disney’s “Frozen.”

He spent all day waiting and surrounded by the movie’s stars at the Niagara Falls library, which served as the law office.

Even though his scene, talking to a secretary in the background, was fleeting, he loved every bit of the process, which included getting fitted for a high-waisted and comfortable 1940s suit.

“Everything that they did was so crisp and clean,” he said. “I just sat there in an adrenaline rush all day long. I was just sitting there among all this royalty. For me at this stage of my life, turning 70, that was a real kick.”

Caldwell didn’t mind the long waits between takes either.

“It was just great to have this thing happen here,” said Caldwell, who gathered local musicians for a scene at the Statler Hotel nightclub that served as Minton’s jazz and supper club in Harlem. They played “Trouble in Mind” as Andra Day sang.

In the waits between takes, people around them took selfies and Caldwell and the Grammy-nominated rhythm and blues artist swapped stories, discovered common friends and compared retro outfits: Her black, gold-trimmed gown to his double-breasted suit, fat tie and two-toned shoes.

“It wasn’t drudgery, it was fun,” he said.

Caldwell, who recently played “Trouble in Mind” at the Birdland jazz club in New York City, is more used to working as a musical director for Broadway productions, like he did for the nationally touring “Sophisticated Ladies” about Duke Ellington.

On the Marshall set, it was an honor to play with music direction by Marcus Miller, known for his work with jazz great Miles Davis.

As for the big name actors like Boseman and Hudson, Caldwell’s band was playing across the room and too far away for even a good look.

“I never laid eyes on them,” Caldwell said.

But that, he said, is irrelevant.

“It was just totally great to see everybody working, doing what they love to do,” he said. “And, it’s going to culminate in a film.”

email: mkearns@buffnews.com

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