TORONTO — Entertainment industry experts are cautioning parents against blindly taking their infant children to open-call film and television auditions after a newborn was briefly abducted during a fraudulent casting call last week.
It was supposed to be an audition for a Bollywood film, but all the warning signs were present, experts say — from the advertisement on Craigslist, to the unprofessional manner in which the casting call was conducted, to the fact that generally babies audition via photograph rather than in person.
“What can they do, cry on contact?” asked Heather Allin, president of the Toronto branch of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists.
Luckily, police found one-month-old Roma Patel hours after she disappeared on Dec. 30, allegedly in the arms of the woman who had arranged the casting call.
The incident has provided a wake-up call for parents looking to turn their babies into film stars, said Amanda Rosenthal, owner of a talent agency in downtown Toronto.
“The safest and best way to (audition) is obviously to have an agent,” Rosenthal said. For those who attend open calls — where directors effectively open their doors to anyone who walks in — “just do the research,” she said.
“Make sure that you’re going somewhere legitimate, that it’s an actual casting director. (Do) not just go somewhere completely random where you don’t know anything about where you’re going and who it is that’s casting it,” Rosenthal said.
In Roma’s case, her parents decided to audition the infant after a friend sent them an advertisement from Craigslist. Posted about a week prior to the Dec. 30 audition, the ad stated: “Top pay for Bollywood film. Needs star child for the lead in Born Again. Baby must be a … newborn baby girl of Indian background.”
The promised $15,000 payout is what spurred Bhupendra Mane to forward the ad to his friends. Mane, a Toronto-based actor who frequently responds to casting calls on Craigslist and Kijiji, said this is the first time he has encountered an illegitimate ad through such channels.
Allin, however, said it is “incredibly rare” for a union contract to be put out on a site such as Craigslist.
“That right there is a warning sign,” Allin said, noting casting directors typically put out calls through forums such as Casting Workbook, an online performer database.
Auditions are then conducted in a recognizable audition room without a back door, so parents waiting outside the room can feel confident their child is safe.
The location where Roma’s “audition” was held was a Toronto production company called A La Carte Videos, but as owner Nathalie Malette explained, it was purely an accident that the suspect, New York actress Michelle Marie Gopaul, ended up using the space, which the company does not routinely rent out.
The studio was closed for the holidays, but an electrician doing work on the premises encountered a woman who was desperate to host an audition after a booking next door had fallen through, Malette said.
“She spun a very good tale … he thought he was helping someone out,” Malette said.
Electrician Frank Berti allowed the woman to come and go throughout the day. At one point, he recalled, the woman asked the Patels if she could take their baby for a few minutes.
“She closed the door behind her which meant he couldn’t see where she was going,” Berti said; the suspect then allegedly sped off in a cab with the baby.
Rosenthal advised parents to check the legitimacy of any open-call project before attending an audition, even simply by Googling the title. And when babies are required in television or film productions, Allin said, parents should stay on set with their child at all times.
Gopaul, 24, will remain in custody until next week.
Wearing a prison-issued green jumpsuit, Gopaul made a brief court appearance in a packed Toronto courtroom Tuesday. She looked visibly upset as her mother and other family members waved to her while sitting in the courtroom.
Gopaul, who also has family living in Toronto, faces one charge of abduction of a person under 14. Her next court date has been set for Jan. 11.