In praise of casting directors

Films put their trust in the hands of actor trackers

On Jan. 23, the Screen Actors Guild Awards will conclude its ceremony with the org’s pick for the best film ensemble. The award has been given 14 times, and only seven times has the Oscar pic winner matched the SAG winner. In almost every case these double-awarded pics were films with a shared focus: “Crash,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Chicago.” The Academy Awards tend to prefer star vehicles, choosing “Gladiator” over “Traffic,” “A Beautiful Mind” over “Gosford Park” and “Million Dollar Baby” over “Sideways.”

Regardless of how many actors do the driving, the process always begins with casting directors. They’re some of the very few people in the moviemaking chain who aren’t honored in the plethora of kudocasts. Herewith, Variety gives them their due.

Although Vernieu had a “good local (casting) person” in New Mexico “to bring the authenticity of the landscape and those small towns,” she found most of her actors in Los Angeles. A notable exception was Jack Nation, who plays Gyllenhaal’s young son. They found Nation in an Albuquerque restaurant. “He has a great, sweet face with expressive eyes, which is important because he doesn’t have a lot to say,” says Vernieu. “We saw at least a hundred kids.”

A child actor is central to Jim Sheridan’s “Brothers,” and that is the one who plays the daughter of Marine captain Tobey Maguire and wife Natalie Portman, who, in turn, stirs up the pot with uncle Jake Gyllenhaal. Casting director Avy Kaufman explains, “At her age, to even see what happens among her uncle, mother and father, and then to speak about it — I don’t want to say ‘mature,’ but it’s deeper than that — it’s a very, very hard role for a young girl of 7 to do.” Kaufman was confident that Bailee Madison could handle it. Even so, Sheridan “worked a long time with her, getting her to cry; every emotion came out of her, and it was very honest. She had no fears of any of the famous actors in the piece.”

Leo Frank had been involved with casting Helen Mirren in “The Queen” and James McAvoy in “The Last King of Scotland,” so when it came to putting together the cast of “The Last Station,” about the last days of Leo Tolstoy, she felt certain about the two star thesps. “You know what roles the actors are going to fall for,” says Frank. “James was born to play that kind of Russian idealist. And I knew Helen’s mother was Russian. I knew it was something she wanted to do.”

As for casting the role of Tolstoy, Frank says, “When it gets to that age group, it isn’t a huge list.” She and director Michael Hoffman discussed Paul Scofield and Ian Holm, but ultimately settled on Christopher Plummer. “He’s Canadian but he feels European,” Frank says.

Hoffman went directly to Paul Giamatti to cast the film’s sole American actor.

The longest waiting game, surprisingly, involved McAvoy’s love interest, the pragmatist Masha. “The money people wanted a huge name for that role and we kind of held out and got Kerry Condon. Other actresses became unavailable or didn’t want to travel to Berlin to film. We were patient. I’m a huge fan of Kerry’s.”

Casting director Mark Bennett worked hard to balance the ensemble of Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker.”

“Casting the three leads was almost like casting a love triangle,” he says of Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty. “We spent a long time moving those chess pieces around the board, making sure we struck the right balance among the three leads. If we had lost any one of those actors, the entire cast might have looked different.

“The characters in ‘The Hurt Locker’ are men of action,” Bennett adds. “They’re not the kind of characters who talk a lot about their feelings, so you had to be sure you cast actors who communicated as much as possible just by virtue of who they were.”

Some casts fall into place quickly. “An Education” was not one of those films.

“From the first email to the last deal I closed, it was two years. That’s how long it took to cast,” says Lucy Bevans.

No doubt about it. “The biggest challenge was casting Allan,” the casting director says of the film’s male lead. “A lot of actors were nervous about taking on that role because he is ostensively unheroic and he is perceived as being bad when you read the script. A lot of actors were nervous about that. It was the hardest role to cast.”

Ultimately, director Lone Scherfig went with American Peter Sarsgaard. “We started with British actors because it is a British role, but Peter was always on our list,” says Bevans.

The film’s ingenue, Jenny, also required special attention. “You’ve got to find someone you believe as a 16-year-old girl who basically becomes a woman during the course of the movie. It’s a huge arc for any actress,” Bevans says.

Despite that daunting task, she immediately considered Carey Mulligan. “I’d seen her in a play at the Royal Court in 2004, her first play. I’ve been tracking her ever since.” Even so, more than 100 young actresses were considered, and when they got down to a handful, “Peter was generous enough to read with them. I was thrilled when Carey was cast, because I’d been tracking her so long.”

Casting directors Ellen Chenoweth and Rachel Tenner experienced a similar “thrill” when Michael Stuhlbarg wound up as the lead in “A Serious Man.” What Ethan and Joel Coen did not want for their film was “a big star,” says Chenoweth. “I think we saw everyone who could be considered for the role of Larry Gopnik, a Jewish guy in his 40s. It was a little nerve-racking, because we just didn’t know who we were going to cast. It took a long time.”

The two casting directors, however, had become “obsessed” with Stuhlbarg after seeing him play Billy Crudup’s mentally challenged brother, Michal, in “The Pillowman” on Broadway over four years ago. They auditioned him for “Leatherheads” and no fewer than three different roles in “A Serious Man” before “we settled on him as Larry,” Chenoweth reports.

Although Stuhlbarg was not cast from an open call, many of the supporting roles in the film were.

“I’d hang out in the back of synagogues and knock on the doors of Hebrew schools in Minneapolis,” Tenner recalls. “Joel and Ethan love all those quirky personalities and great faces. It took a long time, but we found whom we wanted.” In fact, all the adolescents and teens in the movie were cast from open calls.

A similar but more arduous process led to Gabourey Sidibe’s headlining of “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.” “There weren’t any professional actresses that fit the bill, so we had to go outside that field to find a ‘real person,'” says Billy Hopkins. “She was supposed to be 16, but the filmmakers wanted to find someone who was at least 18 so that they could film without restriction. We had to search to find her, starting in high schools in New York and L.A. and then all across the country. We even went to places like McDonald’s, believe it or not,” where the casting team’s first obstacle was simply “getting people to believe you.”

They did find a number of girls, and director Lee Daniels held an eight-week boot camp of sorts with 10 different actresses but went with none of them. Finally, “We went to all these community colleges in New York,” says Hopkins, “and that’s how we ended up finding Gabourey Sidibe. She was truly the last person we saw. She came in and when she read, she was so real. She only ended up reading a page, but we gave her the full script and asked her to read another scene.”

Hopkins rushed the DVD to Lee, who met with her the next day and offered her the part on the spot. “We had auditioned her on Monday, and she had the role by Wednesday.”

Oren Moverman’s “The Messenger” explores the powerful reactions on the home front to Iraq war casualties, and the most difficult casting task was to find actors to play the characters who receive the tragic news about the deaths of their loved ones in that war.

“It was hard for actors not to go over the top emotionally when they came in,” says Laura Rosenthal. “Less is more. It’s very hard to see it all in a room, and I think it’s really hard for actors to feel safe. We tried to make sure they felt OK; it was intimate, and we didn’t rush people in the waiting room. But less is more; it’s tough to come in full-on.”

With Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel in place as the central lovers of Marc Webb’s “500 Days of Summer,” casting director Eyde Belasco had to make sure the rest of the ensemble was up to their level: “I feel that sometimes supporting roles are neglected, that not enough time is spent on people who have one line or even one scene.”

Belasco did a big search for McKenzie, one of the best friends. “And I feel we saw every comic actor in town. Geoffrey Arend was one of the very last people we ended up seeing, and he does have a comedic background, whereas the other best friend, Matthew Gubler, to my knowledge doesn’t have a comedy background, he comes from serious episodic TV. But despite the differences in their backgrounds, they were just perfect for these roles.”

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