In these Alice in Wonderland days when all shall have prizes and the awards season lasts the whole year round, it’s a puzzle that one of the key creative roles in any movie — the casting director — remains largely without kudos.
But anyone who doubts just how important a casting director can be should have witnessed the funeral of Mary Selway last week at St. James’s Church on London’s Piccadilly.
The British film industry ground to a halt for the afternoon to bid farewell to this extraordinary woman who played midwife to so many careers and elevated the selection of actors into an art form.
There were eulogies from Mike Newell, Richard Curtis, Ralph Fiennes, Bob Balaban and Duncan Heath. The pallbearers included Daniel Craig, Bill Nighy and Roger Michell. Working Title topper Tim Bevan left a test screening in New York halfway through to fly back for the event.
“There’s no one who had a greater influence on my career than Mary Selway,” says Craig. “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.”
British actors are one of the country’s greatest creative assets, and Selway did more than anyone to promote their remarkable upsurge onto the worldwide stage over the past decade or so. She was the queen of ensemble casting, with movies such as “Master and Commander,” “Love Actually” and perhaps most significantly “Gosford Park.”
Among more than 100 movies stretching back 36 years, her collaboration with Robert Altman was arguably her greatest triumph. Altman acknowledged that her contribution to the movie was second only to his.
“When I arrived in England to try and put together ‘Gosford Park,’ my first stop was to see Mary Selway,” Altman recalls. “How lucky can you get? Mary was a genius at her work. But she was also a passionate, rueful, funny, civilizing force. She got us through. Over months of ups and downs, she held together not only the magnificent cast she had assembled; she held me together. I adored her, and will miss her fiercely.”
Just a few months ago, she explained her craft thus: “The most important thing is to understand the world the director is trying to achieve, and the kind of actors he can work with. It’s about finding the right temperament of the person, with an emotional truth that the audience can believe. If you get the perfect cast, then 75% of the work is done.”
And her most recent tips for future stardom: James Purefoy, poised for a breakthrough in Mira Nair’s “Vanity Fair,” and Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, whom she cast in “Love Actually.”
The British Academy of Film & TV Arts honored her in 2001 with the Michael Balcon award for outstanding contribution to British film. Perhaps now is the time for BAFTA to create the Mary Selway award for achievement in casting. It would be a fitting memorial to a true heroine of British cinema.