Mary Selway, widely recognized as Britain’s top casting director, died Wednesday at London’s Harley Street Clinic following a long battle with cancer. She was 68.
Her death, unexpected to many who were unaware how far the disease had progressed, prompted an outpouring of emotion and tributes across the British film community. It’s scarcely an exaggeration to suggest that, in her 36 years as a casting agent, she played a major part in the careers of half the actors and directors in the industry.
In 2001, her extraordinary influence was acknowledged by the British Academy of Film & TV Arts, which awarded her the Michael Balcon Award for outstanding contribution to British film. She received the Women in Film award for outstanding creativity in 1999.
She was working right up to the end on “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and “The Libertine.”
Indeed, in the past couple of years, under the shadow of recurring illness, she had been busier than ever, casting a remarkable range of movies including “Love Actually,” “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” “Thunderbirds,” “Vanity Fair” and “Beyond the Sea.”
Who’s who of helmers
Across nearly four decades, she worked on more than 100 films, with a who’s who of directors including Steven Spielberg, Roman Polanski, Robert Altman, Ridley Scott, John Boorman, Nicolas Roeg, James Cameron, Clint Eastwood, John Madden, Michael Apted, Blake Edwards, Fred Schepisi, Sydney Pollack, David Hare, Bertrand Tavernier, Liliana Cavani, Neil LaBute, Fred Zinneman and Bruce Robinson.
Writer-director Richard Curtis, with whom she worked on “Notting Hill” (directed by Roger Michell) and his own directorial debut, “Love Actually,” commented, “She was astonishingly patient, imaginative and bright at her job. But apart from that, she was more fun to work with than anyone else in the film industry. I remember when Roger first suggested Mary for ‘Notting Hill,’ and I was a bit skeptical because of the age thing, but she turned out to be the most youthful and revolutionary member of our company.”
Curtis gives Selway sole credit for the casting of Bill Nighy in “Love Actually,” the part that won him this year’s BAFTA for supporting actor and relaunched his career.
Another actor who has publicly acknowledged his debt to Selway is Richard E. Grant, a total unknown before she cast him in what turned out to be a career-making role in “Withnail and I.”
Daniel Craig, whom Selway cast in several pics starting with “Love Is the Devil,” said, “There’s no one who had a greater influence on my career than Mary Selway. When Mary got hold of you, she kept hold of you, and I know for sure that it was her faith in me that kept me going forward. There are many people, not just actors but also directors and agents, who feel they owe their career to her.”
Helmer Mike Newell, with whom she was working on the fourth “Harry Potter” when she died, said, “Once she had taken something on, she bit into it and never let it go. She believed in every film she did very fiercely, and sometimes her willpower was the only thing that made them happen.”
Newell gave the example of Altman’s “Gosford Park,” which survived several financial wobbles before it actually started shooting. “She held that huge cast together through thick and thin, when the film went down and came up again, and in the end that cast was what got the film made. I don’t think there’s anyone else who could have done that.”
Too shy to act
Mary Selway was born March 14, 1936, in Norwich, England. At 13, she enrolled at the Italia Conti stage school, in defiance of her father’s wishes that she should continue her academic studies. But she soon discovered she was too shy to be an actress. After doing some modeling, she became a production assistant on TV variety shows. She was so inexperienced that, when asked for the first time to take a memo, she asked, “What’s a memo and where do I take it?”
After spending her 20s working in TV and theater, she got a job with Miriam Brickman, the leading casting agent of her time.
As well as casting movies including “Tess,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Out of Africa,” “Gorillas in the Mist,” “Emma” and “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” Selway was associate producer of “A Dry White Season” and producer of “Wuthering Heights.”
She was divorced from actor Norman Rodway. She is survived by her daughters, Kate and Emma Buckley, and by her partner of 14 years, Ileen Maisel.