Big casts make for major challenges

Finding right mix of actors can lead to SAG win

A great ensemble cast doesn’t necessarily lead to a great film — but it helps. In five of the 12 years it has been awarded, the SAG Award for ensemble cast of a film has predicted the picture award at the Oscars (“Crash,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” “Chicago,” “American Beauty” and “Shakespeare in Love”). Even if it doesn’t lead to Oscar’s top prize, a SAG win in the cast category can create Oscar heat, as it did for last year’s winner, “Little Miss Sunshine,” which went on to win for original screenplay and for Alan Arkin’s supporting turn.

Variety spoke with several casting directors about the major challenges they faced in putting their respective ensembles together.

Atonement. Jina Jay needed to find three different actresses to play the role of Briony, the adolescent who falsely accuses a man of rape. “Vanessa Redgrave happened first,” she says, “and then Romola Garai, who plays Briony as an 18-year-old.” But the revelation was the 12-year-old Briony, Saoirse Ronan. “Saoirse was recommended by a dialogue coach I’d worked with. Saoirse’s father sent a DVD of her reading. Spectacular! We flew her to London with several other girls. We met an enormous number of girls, 350 girls, whom we saw on a one-to-one basis — 350 is a lot.”

There Will Be Blood. According to Cassandra Kulukundis, Paul Thomas Anderson “often wants unknown faces and nonactors. With this film, it was vital. The script was set in turn of the century, and the people were starving on the land. They were 35 but looked 55.” So she rented a car and drove around the country looking for unknowns. Among her finds was 9-year-old Dillon Freasier from Fort Davis, Texas. “I had gone on a search for a child who was more interested in the outdoors, not a kid who watched TV and played Game Boy,” she says. “I met Dillon at his school and videotaped him, and ran back to California to show my tape to Paul.”

Sweeney Todd. Susie Figgis, a Tim Burton veteran, says this pic was one of her toughest. “I’d know how to cast a Tim Burton movie and I know how to cast a musical,” she says. “But the two are not an easy marriage. You’re trying to find this quirky world of Tim Burton, but you need to find people who can sing.” And they all had to be okayed by Stephen Sondheim. Another challenge, Figgis says, is that Burton wanted the teenagers to actually look like teenagers. “He wanted 16 and 17, which is younger than drama school kids. I discovered singing corners of Europe that I didn’t know existed. I discovered youth opera societies in North Ireland,” which is how she found Jayne Wisener to play the young female lead, Johanna.

Charlie Wilson’s War. As Ellen Lewis explains it, “There’s a Vegas section of this movie and a Washington section of this movie, they’re in Jerusalem at one point, they’re in Texas. At the same time, you have to make everyone cohesive. Mike Nichols has a theory — he says everybody needs to be almost part of the same person.” Fortunately, Nichols knows actors and keeps close tabs on the theater world, which is where he got Denis O’Hare, John Slattery, Christopher Denham and Ken Stott. Nichols even cast one of his students from Gotham’s New Actors Workshop, Joe Roland, who wrote and starred in a play that Nichols produced Off-Broadway.

Eastern Promises. Casting directors Deirdre Bowen and Nina Gold needed to find actors who could play Russian mobsters in London. “We had a lovely fellow who had a Turkish acting troupe in London, and he made some connections for us,” Bowen says. “We were looking at a cross section of London that was not the London you see in ‘Masterpiece Theater.’ ” Eastern European supporting players include the Polish actor Jerzy Skolimowski and the Turkish Josef Altin, plus lots of Russians for the ensemble scenes.

American Gangster. “This was the easiest job, even though it was a huge, huge cast,” says Avy Kaufman. “A lot of times you show directors a lot of people and you have to show them 20,000 more,” but Ridley Scott was decisive. Because the material was attractive, Kaufman says, “I got great people to do parts they wouldn’t normally do,” including Roger Bart (“Young Frankenstein”), who plays an angry attorney and Kevin Corrigan (“Grounded for Life”), who in one scene gets to bite Russell Crowe.

Michael Clayton. Ellen Chenoweth had little trouble recruiting actors for juicy supporting roles to surround George Clooney. “There was something King Lear-ish in a way” about Tom Wilkinson’s character, says the casting director, whose list consisted of classically-trained Brits and Aussies, plus Warren Beatty. Chenoweth was particularly proud of calling Tony Gilroy’s attention to Sean Cullen, who played Clooney’s more responsible brother. “He’s like the guys you saw running into the World Trade Center,” she says. “He has this dignity and goodness about him. That guy could say to George, ‘Stop messing around.’ ”

Hairspray. David Rubin and Richard Kicks covered all bases. “Musicals have recently had a rough time of it at the box office,” says Rubin, “so we had one eye on the kinds of actors who could attract a broad audience. We wanted the offbeat character actors like Chris Walken, the latest matinee idol like Zac Efron, the Disney Channel heroine Amanda Bynes, and John Travolta, the reigning kind of movie musicals.” At one of open-call audition, they found newcomer Elijah Kelley. “There was no one else in the casting session for that role,” says Rubin. “We hoped not to go further.” And they didn’t.

Into the Wild. Francine Maisler credits Sean Penn with making the casting process an easy one. “He makes the sessions a very safe place for the actors so they feel free to experiment. He knows what he is looking for, but he is also open to being surprised,” says the casting director. And how did she find those bizarre skinny-dipping tourists? “The two tourists in the Grand Canyon were originally written as German, but we decided to also look in Copenhagen, which is where we found the actress Signe Olsen. I’m always open to looking anywhere in the world to find the right person for the role.” (Robert Hofler contributed to this report.)