In 1993, Jan Black (Gillespie) heard about a casting call for young children. Two casting agents were going all over the southeast looking for authentic Southern children, who had no prior acting experience, for a movie called “The War” starring Kevin Costner. “The one thing I knew about this was that if anybody had a Southern kid, I did,” she laughed.
They only needed 10 genuine Southern kids for the film, but they interviewed approximately 10,000. Lucas was around 10 at the time, small for his age, but feisty. The day she brought him to Cullman for the casting call, there were 400 others lined up at the civic center in hopes of getting a part.
The casting agents (who were from Los Angeles) called the children in to hear them speak in groups. The casting agent had asked Jan to help Lucas learn some lines as he waited his turn. There were a couple of four-letter words in the script, and Lucas raised his eyebrows at his mother before he read them aloud. ”This isn’t like you are really saying bad words,” she instructed him. ”This is just pretend.”
Throughout the day, the casting agents narrowed their choices down to a handful. Finally, as one of the few to be left standing, Lucas was called in to speak to them alone. “They just wanted to hear him talk, I guess, and to get some general information,” Jan explained.
Later, when they had chosen Lucas to go on to the next level of interviews, the LA casting director, Debbie Zane, came out to speak to Jan. She laughed when she repeated what Lucas had told them. It seems that they had asked Lucas where he was from, and the little boy responded innocently in his profoundly Southern drawl, “Do you know where Mickey Wiggins store is?”
That got their attention. They taped him, sent the video tape to the director, and Lucas got the part.
That was the first time Jan ever saw Lucas on the big screen. “I was really very proud of him,” she said. “I always knew that Lucas had something special to share with others. Lucas still tells everybody that I just took him to that casting call so I would get to meet Kevin Costner,” laughed Jan. And she did get to meet him, along with lots of other names you’d recognize.
She answered the phone in her home in Speake one day and the caller identified himself as Billy Bob Thornton. The name meant nothing to Jan at the time. Thornton was calling to schedule a meeting with Lucas, who had just landed the part of Frank in “Sling Blade.” After they had talked for a few minutes, Jan asked him, “Okay now, where are you from? I know people in Los Angeles don’t name their kids Billy Bob.”
“You’re right,” Thornton chuckled, “I’m from Arkansas.”
Not too long afterward, they met Thornton at a Sizzler restaurant in his home state. “He wanted Lucas to get to know him before he saw him in character as ‘Carl’ so that Lucas wouldn’t be afraid of him,” Jan explained.
Jan laughed when she recalled that Lucas would go fishing in a little pond on the set of “Sling Blade” when they took breaks to move the set around. “Those people were shocked when Lucas caught about 50 fish one day. They kept remarking that it was amazing how he could be fishing one minute and back in character the next.” The fact is, Lucas was pretty much being himself, and continues to be that way, even today, which makes such him a “natural” for almost every part he has ever played.
Jan traveled with Lucas in those first years. She was on the set of “The War,” “Sling Blade,” “American Gothic” and later a Disney movie called “Flash” in which Lucas played the part of a boy who rode a horse in search of his father. That movie was filmed in Georgia.
One place she didn’t go was to Romania when Lucas and his older brother, Lee, went there to film some of the early scenes in “Cold Mountain.” “That was not my idea of a place to visit,” she laughed. “Lucas got blown up and there were a lot of bloody scenes. He said there were flies everywhere,” she made a “yuck” face. Lucas was about eighteen at the time and after that, he began to travel on his own most of the time.
In the summer of 2009, Jan and her husband, Mike Gillespie, traveled to Georgia to visit Lucas on the set of “Get Low” (which has just been released on video). “That movie was based on a true story about a man from Tennessee,” said Jan. “Robert Duvall played the part of Mr. Bush, and Lucas played the part of a funeral home director.”
One day while Jan and Mike were there, Bill Murray (who played the part of the funeral home owner) got hungry for some soul food. Murray had noticed a little country café down the road, so they all loaded up and went to eat.
Just a lazy summer day outside Atlanta, this was, and into this little hole in the wall kind of place (where nothing much ever happens besides the cook spilling hot grease) walks Bill Murray with Lucas Black and two other people that those guys are still probably trying to figure out — Jan and Mike. The owner looked hard at Murray and said, “I know you! You’re Gene Hackman!” Murray just played along. (Later, a lady did recognize Murray).
The food was great, they kidded around with the staff, and then left to get back to the set. Riding down a little back-road outside Atlanta, they came up on a small church. On the steps a bridal party posed for pictures, taken in advance of the wedding later that night.
“Pull over here,” Murray instructed the driver. The car whipped in the parking lot and Murray rolled down his window and asked them, “How are ya‘ll doing?” It took a minute, but one of the bridesmaids got a glimpse of Lucas and whispered loudly, “Hey, that’s the guy who rode the horse!” When someone else recognized Murray the little entourage piled out as if they belonged there.
Of course the bride — in shock from this unexpected appearance on her wedding day — flew into the sanctuary to grab the groom, who hadn’t expected to see her before the ceremony.
Now, some couple in rural Georgia has a wedding album full of glossy 8x10s filled with the smiling faces of Bill Murray, Lucas Black, and Jan and Mike Gillespie. “They all wanted to have their pictures made, even the photographer,” said Jan, her infectious laughter ringing throughout the room. “There was Lucas with the bridesmaids, Bill Murray with the groomsmen and all of us with the whole wedding party, just as if we had known each other all our lives — it reminded me of the ‘Wedding Crashers’.”
Just as suddenly as they had appeared, the group got back in the car and disappeared in a cloud of Georgia dust.
Lucas was in Columbia, Mo., filming “Killer Diller” when he met the lovely Maggie O’Brien. They dated for a few years, then on July 3, 2010, they were married in a charming ceremony, surrounded by loved ones and close friends. The couple has just announced that they are expecting their first child. Jan couldn’t be happier.
* Editor’s note: Jan Black Gillespie’s husband is a cousin of the writer’s husband.