Mel Gibson's Casting Call

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The star of the film is a movie novice who was only recently working at a Lowe's in Texas and dancing with a Native American theater troupe. His leading lady is also a movie first-timer — from Cuautitlán Izcalli, Mexico. The oldest and youngest actors on the set know no other language but Maya and never saw a tall building before their first make-up call.

No, this isn't the no-name lineup for the newest Blair Witch Project. They're the cast of Mel Gibson's new feature, Apocalypto, an action epic about the ancient Mayas currently filming in southern Mexico.

Their obscurity should come as little surprise. Just as he did in The Passion of The Christ, Gibson is using relatively unknown actors in the film (in which the actors speak only in Yucatán Maya), many of whom either are Mayas or are descendants of other New World tribes. "It brings an honesty and a valuable reality to what were doing," Gibson tells TIME, which was given the first exclusive look at the Apocalypto production for an upcoming story in the magazine. "These characters have to be utterly believable as pre-Columbian Mesoamericans."

Gibson is quick to note that Apocalypto is less dependent on dialogue than most movies, and as a result, he looked for people who could express as much with their faces and actions as they do with their lines. Newcomer Rudy Youngblood, 25, a movie-star handsome Comanche and Cree Indian who plays the Apocalypto hero named Jaguar Paw, grew up in Texas and had been a grass dancer with the Native American Dance Theater before Gibson found him last year. "As a dancer, I know how to tell a story with my eyes and my body, which is the kind of acting this film requires most," says Youngblood. "But I also have ancestors who fought at Wounded Knee and Little Big Horn, so it's not hard to use my Native American heritage for this role. Mel's been teaching me a lot about how to go back and find emotional things in my life and family to draw on."

Since a good chunk of Apocalypto involves a wild and terrifying foot chase through the Mexican rainforest, Gibson has also put Youngblood through a brutal action-adventure wringer, with the rookie doing many of his own stunts. "I'm amazed at how much Rudy's running reminds me of a cat," says Gibson. "He's the track star we needed for this picture."

Raoul Trujillo, a veteran Native American film actor, is perhaps the only Apocalypto actor who may be recognizable to U.S. audiences (he appeared in last year's The New World). He says he jumped at the chance to be part of Gibson's Maya adventure. "A story like this has never been done before," says Trujillo, who plays a sinister Maya warrior named Zero Wolf. "Mel is fearless that way." Mayra Sérbulo, a Mexican Zapotec Indian who has been nominated this year for an Ariel (Mexico's Oscar) as best supporting actress, agrees. "People do have to remember that this is action fiction, not a Maya documentary," she warns. "But I'm frankly surprised and excited about the care they're taking to portray indigenous Mexicans."

In the end, says Gibson, as a Maya dialogue coach from a small town in the Yucatan stands behind his director's chair, he's hoping Apocalypto, set for release this summer, will make Maya language and history as "cool again" as The Passion of the Christ made The New Testament. Without the religious controversies that swirled around that film, of course. But even if Gibson fails to make Maya hip, he's almost certain to make some unknown actors very famous.