Cast hunt sends out global S.O.S.

Finding actors is a scramble

Several Oscar contenders cast their movies in far-flung places, a trend that might lead you to believe Hollywood has developed a go-to blueprint for such challenges.

No such luck. Mostly, casting the international movie remains a mad scramble.

“You just call everybody you know,” says casting director Victoria Thomas of “Blood Diamond,” nominated for five Academy Awards. “You just do whatever you need to do.”

Complicating the process is the desire for local authenticity, which often means that the right person for the job is someone the director has never heard of, as was the case with Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima.”

“Clint wanted natural Japanese speakers that don’t have an American accent,” says “Letters” casting associate Matt Huffman, son of the film’s late casting director, Phyllis Huffman. “And as people live over here (in the U.S.), as time goes on, they develop a small American accent.”

To find the right candidates, “Letters” relied on the help of local casting associate Yumi Takada in Los Angeles as well as Warner Entertainment Japan president and representative director Bill Ireton overseas to evaluate talent with all kinds of resumes.

For example, Huffman notes that Ireton met with Kazunari Ninomiya, most famous in Japan as a member of the pop group Arashi, before Ninomiya won the pivotal role of reluctant soldier Saigo.

Even finding the right person for the right role didn’t mean the job was done.

“Certain guys (in the U.S.) were on student visas, but we couldn’t hire them on the film, because one doesn’t clear you for the other,” Huffman says. “We ask the agents to be very clear — we tell them straight up that this is contingent upon so-and-so having the proper visa for the project. But if we were to know that beforehand, I think it raises some discrimination issues. You kind of have to leap first and then wonder.”

Casting a wide net roped in Rinko Kikuchi for her Oscar-nominated role as Cheiko in “Babel,” whose director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, employed performers from five continents. While Kikuchi’s fame is increasing daily, it’s worth recalling how stunning it was to see the unknown actress share equal face time on “Babel” billboards with Cate Blanchett, Brad Pitt and Gael Garcia Bernal.

But the role hardly fell in her lap. Kikuchi says she auditioned over the course of an entire year.

“Alejandro was hoping to work with a real deaf, mute person, so basically there was simultaneous casting going on,” she says. “The one with real deaf people, the other with professional actresses like (me). That’s why it took such a long time.”

For “The Last King of Scotland” and “Blood Diamond,” casting abroad could become nervewracking.

“You want to know if there’s an acting pool in the place you’re actually shooting,” says Thomas, who also led casting on “The Last Samurai,” director Ed Zwick’s previous film. “It turned out there was a very nice acting pool in Johannesburg. … We knew that we were going to be able to find actors and potentially good supporting actors, so that we wouldn’t have to bring them from the U.S. It just becomes a matter of economics.”

More problematic was finding local actors in the film’s other shooting location, Mozambique — most notably for the important supporting role of Dia Vandy, son of Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou’s Solomon Vandy. First-timer Kagiso Kuipers won the part after a labored audition.

“He was a little boy in South Africa who came in, and I think Ed was not sure he could carry it. None of the kids we saw came and, boom, blew our socks off. … Ed did an improv with him and got pretty mean with him and got a reaction with him. This kid started to cry. It got kind of personal. Ed kind of saw there’s a way in: ‘I can get what I need out of this kid.’ … We really lucked out that he really responded.”

“Last King” director Kevin Macdonald originally wished for a Ugandan or East African to play the role of Idi Amin. Eventually, to no one’s dismay, American Forest Whitaker won the part (and ultimately, an Oscar nom on top of widespread kudos).

That did not alter Macdonald’s plans to cast most of the film overseas. He enlisted the aid of both a local woman involved in the theater world and a member of an expatriate amateur drama society, Andy Williams.

“I think we took five actors from the U.S. and the U.K. over there, and everyone else was Ugandan,” Macdonald says. “We cast people that had never been in film before — they might have done some local theater or were musicians. They have quite a vibrant theater world there.”

Amid all the country-to-country casting challenges, one thing that doesn’t seem to trip up any filmmakers is to see actors auditioning in a foreign language. Eastwood “always knew what lines they were talking about,” according to Takada.

“It’s important to remember that in good theater and good film, you shouldn’t need to know what’s being said,” Huffman adds.

“The other thing I think is very interesting is that (Eastwood) was one of the only English-speaking actors on Italian sets at the very beginning of his career,” Huffman says, “and being with him on set (for “Letters”) and observing this whole process, the communication was there.”

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