Idea of the 'casting couch' belies profession's crucial role

Forget the couch. Think of this job as the power behind the throne.

For Joseph Middleton it is unquestionably the best job in showbiz.

Middleton is one of Hollywood’s hottest casting directors, particularly when it comes to spotting up-and-coming young talent. He is the maestro behind casting in the Universal blockbuster comedy “American Pie” and teen rave pic “Go” — both efforts garnering Casting Society of America awards.

He just cast Paramount’s Chris Rock comedy “Down to Earth”; “Go” helmer Doug Liman’s next feature, “The Bourne Identity,” with Matt Damon; Sony Pictures’ upcoming “Legally Blond,” starring Reese Witherspoon; and Universal’s “Josie and the Pussycats,” with Rachel Leigh Cook, Tara Reid and Rosario Dawson.

Claims Middleton: “We have the best jobs in Hollywood and you know why? Because we’re there at the very beginning of a movie and everybody’s happy and everybody just knows the movie is going to be a winner!”

Right.

And if you believe that is always the case then you are probably also convinced that stars of yesterday and tomorrow are usually plucked from drugstore soda fountains and the casting couch.

Mary Buck, president of CSA, unhappily concedes those cliches persist.

Hollywood mythos

In fact, it’s a bad idea to even broach the “couch” subject with Buck or any of her colleagues.

“We are so tired of the casting couch. It is a stupid myth, a piece of Hollywood lore that should go the way of the old Hollywood star system. And if there was or is one, it’s on the producer or director level,” Buck insists. “Casting is an art, a talent, a profession and a skill and should be respected as such.”

The couch myth perpetuates the quid pro quo of sexual favors for a role. The lore came to life in the old days when the studios ran Hollywood; producers and executives would simply pick and choose talent employed on the lot who were not already involved in a film. Producers’ secretaries did a lot of the scouting, functioning in a primitive casting director mode.

When the stars became free agents in the early ’60s, the rules of the game changed and the power base shifted from the studios to the stars. The role of casting director emerged as a critical function in making movies — the director’s backup in hustling the best and most appropriate talent for a film. Hence, casting directors became a catalyst in any thespian’s shot at stardom.

“About that couch,” quips Middleton, “if that’s true — ‘Bring ‘em on!’ I mean where are these people?!? Now that I think about it, I’m going to put a really bad actor in a movie just for sex. Hello? You are only as good as you’re last movie. I’d lose my career.”

Joking aside, Middleton, his colleagues, directors, producers and studio production executives take the casting process very seriously. In fact, all interviewed see it as one of the most crucial roles on, as opposed to in, a movie.

Greg Poirier, who wrote “Rosewood” and “Gossip,” and marks his directorial debut with Revolution Studio’s first release, “Tomcats,” says: “If you cast your picture well, you’re 80% home.”

No road map

Middleton and colleague Debra Zane note there is no set route in casting a film. In fact, often the studio or director has already brought aboard the leading actors in the film before the casting director is even hired.

Zane cast more than 100 roles in the Oscar-nominated “Traffic,” a process that took 10 weeks. But it was director Steven Soderbergh who lured Catherine Zeta-Jones for the role as the coke kingpin’s wife. Both Soderbergh and producer Laura Bickford had been in discussions with Benicio Del Toro before Zane was called. Then there was the issue of the male lead. First Michael Douglas wanted it and passed because he felt the role wasn’t fleshed out enough. Harrison Ford considered it then passed and it was back to Douglas. The film was unusual in that the players had committed to the film without contracts since the film had not found a studio home.

Soderbergh tapped others he has worked with before — Albert Finney, who also stars in Soderbergh’s other Oscar-nominated entry, “Erin Brockovich;” Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman — both of whom starred in Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight.” Cheadle appears in Soderbergh’s upcoming “Ocean’s 11,” which Zane is casting and Guzman also starred in Soderbergh’s “The Limey.” (Zane notes that Soderbergh does like to use some actors repeatedly but no set “repertory” of players in particular exists for the filmmaker.)

Of “Traffic,” Zane recalls “by the time I came on board there were more than 100 speaking parts left to cast and they were largely Latin. Steven decided halfway through the process that they should be speaking Spanish in the film. The parts were written in English. So when they auditioned they had to translate it themselves. They had to speak the roles in Spanish and I would respond in English.”

Zane also cast DreamWorks’ Oscar-winner “American Beauty.” But she is quick to dispel sole credit in the discovery of Wes Bentley, whose career skyrocketed after that film. She says he was one of several clients the William Morris Agency submitted for the role.

“I auditioned about 60 to 70 guys for that part,” she notes. “When Wes read for the part all of a sudden I understood the scenes. I got emotional. He got emotional. It was just so very clear he was right. Even the writer said it and when the writer can say, ‘That’s it! That’s the person!,’ you know you’re there. It just clicks.”

Package deal

For Poirier that was the case in the casting of his first film as director. However, he didn’t use a casting director when choosing his leads for “Tomcats” — a comedy trumpeted as another “American Pie.” He wrote the script and took it to Revolution packaged with actors Jerry O’Connell and Shannon Elizabeth in place.

After Revolution committed, “then I hired the casting director,” he says. “In Jerry’s case, William Morris looked at my script and sent me a tape of him. He and I met and we decided to do it. He didn’t read (for the part.) Neither did Shannon. But the others did.”

While the director does have the final say in casting, the real power comes in knowledge of what’s out there in terms of talent.

“Who has the power in Hollywood?” quizzes Middleton. “It gets down to that question. If it’s a first-time director, then the casting director does. Otherwise, it is always the director.”

As a rule, many directors and producers have a tendency to use the same casting directors again and again.

“You want a casting director that has tastes similar to the director because it is all about the director’s vision,” says veteran producer Mark Johnson. “When you have that then you can speed-dial your short list to talent.”

Johnson, like the casting directors, says the processes vary depending on the director’s comfort zone and what the character demands. For example, cattle calls are often used for very young talent, especially if a shortage of childhood actors are available. If a director is still shooting another movie, the casting director will audition the talent and often give the director a videotape.

But the best case scenario is always having the actor read for the part in person. Even when all the rules apply and everything seems to mesh perfectly, there are no guarantees.

“With ‘American Pie’ and ‘Bourne Identity’ it was perfect,” says Middleton. “But I can remember when I cast ‘Mulholland Falls.’ It was going to be my hit (casting experience). That movie became the story of the hat! Look at the movie if you don’t believe it. It was supposed to be ‘L.A. Confidential’ and it wound up being ‘Mulholland Falls’ (a bomb).

“But in the end it wasn’t because of the cast. It was because of the story. And like everything else in this business, it always comes down to story. A good story will always draw a great cast.”

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