Spielberg casts ‘Geisha’

Green thesps to topline for Col

While “Saving Private Ryan” continues to fire volleys in theaters, Steven Spielberg has selected two unknown actresses to star in his next pic, “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

Rika Okamoto will play the lead role in the epic drama, which tells the story of Nitta Sayuri, a 9-year-old girl sold into slavery in Kyoto in 1929, who grows up to become one of Japan’s most renowned geishas.

Okamoto, formerly the principal dancer at the New York-based Martha Graham Dance Co., was born in Japan and subsequently lived in Europe. She is a newcomer to the film biz, and somebody whom Spielberg seemingly has plucked out of complete obscurity.

In the mix as well

Also inked for the pic is Broadway actress Julyana Soelistyo, who made her debut last season in David Henry Hwang’s play “Golden Child,” and was nominated for a Tony Award.

“Geisha,” based on the novel by Arthur Golden, is due to begin shooting in the first quarter of 1999 in Japan. Red Wagon Prods.’ Douglas Wick, Spielberg, his “Ryan” collaborator Ian Bryce and Bonnie Curtis are producing the pic for Columbia Pictures.

Golden’s hefty but bestselling book, which is written in the form of a memoir, details the decadent geisha existence and the impact of WWII on this secret, erotic environment.

“There’s nothing more exciting than seeing the perfect embodiment of your characters in flesh and blood,” Wick said of Okamoto and Soelistyo.

Pic’s casting agent, Francine Maisler, discovered the two thesps.

Good year

It’s set to be a good season all round for Soelistyo, who hasn’t been in a film before either. She’s now garnered a small supporting role in Martin Scorsese’s drama “Bringing Out the Dead” for Touchstone and Paramount Pictures.

That pic stars Nicholas Cage, Ving Rhames and Patricia Arquette, and is being produced by Scott Rudin and Barbara De Fina.

DreamWorks originally was set to co-finance and co-distribute “Geisha” with Columbia. But DreamWorks withdrew from the project in May, saying that it was too modest to require a co-production arrangement.

Columbia always said that the production would be moderately budgeted, with no major Hollywood stars. Col TriStar Motion Picture Group vice chairman Lucy Fisher — Wick’s wife — and Col Pix prexy Amy Pascal are overseeing it for the studio.

Soelistyo is repped by Gotham-based Linda Kalodner at Writers and Artists Agency.

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