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‘Empire’ Strikes Home: UM employee has Ties to Casting Director of Popular Fox TV series

By now, you’ve probably at least heard of “Empire,” the Fox-TV series that dominates ratings for its timeslot and trends heavily in social media. What you probably didn’t know is that a University of Mississippi staff member once worked for the show’s casting director.

Ellen Phillips waiting to go on the set of “The Playboy Club” NBC-TV series.
Ellen Phillips waiting to go on the set of “The Playboy Club” NBC-TV series.

Ellen Phillips, a broadcast communications specialist in University Communications, interned nine months with Joan Philo five years ago. Thanks to Philo, Phillips had a role as an extra in the defunct NBC series, “The Playboy Club.”

Phillips vividly recalls her day on the set.

“My experience wasn’t very glamorous, but it was fun,” she said. “I had to go in for a wardrobe fitting the day before and was dressed in a light teal pencil skirt with matching blazer and a colorful silk scarf tied around my neck. I was told to show up 10 minutes earlier than my call time, with my hair in rollers and nothing but foundation on my face.”

The studio was in the warehouse district on the West Side of Chicago. Phillips arrived and immediately went into hair and makeup.

“I was in there while some of the ‘Bunnies’ were getting their hair and makeup done,” Phillips said. “That was fun hearing them banter about people on set and watching them practice their dance routines. I was envious because I wanted to be a pretend Playboy Bunny for the afternoon.”

As an extra, she waited for about 45 minutes. When Phillips was called to set, she didn’t know what she was going to be doing or what her scene was.

“For all I knew, I was the personal secretary to star of the show and I would take up so much screen time that they’d have to give me a more permanent role on the show with dialogue and boom, I’ll be a star on the rise,” Phillips said.

Sadly, her scene was a small one in which she played a pedestrian.

“My part was very simple: walk in a straight line and pretend go into a fake building,” Phillips said. “I did this about six or seven times, then was done. But we couldn’t leave until they were sure we were wrapped, so I waited for another 45 minutes.”

Unfortunately for Phillips, the show was canceled before she got to see herself on the small screen. Since that show, she and Philo have stayed in touch.

“Joan and I always had a great working relationship,” said Phillips, an established independent filmmaker in her own right. “I’m thrilled the new series has been so widely successful.”

Phillips regularly watches “Empire” and said she wishes she could be on the program – if only for a moment.

“I’d love to go back to Chicago (where “Empire” is filmed) and be an extra on the show,” she said. “It’s an eight-hour drive, and I have a place to crash. It would be worth it just to see Joan again and be a part of such a hit series.”

Given the show’s continued success, Phillips may get her opportunity. After only its first two episodes, Fox renewed “Empire” for a second season, a rare coup in network television. With the first season wrapped and halfway over, the cast and crew will be on hiatus until production resumes in August.

“I am really hoping I hear back from her,” Phillips said. “She owes me!”

Courtesy of UM Communications

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