A Star Is Found
by Janet Hirshenson and Jane Jenkins with Rachel Kranz
Most casual movie watchers never stop to think about casting, but good casting is essential to making great movies.
Casting is a part of filmmaking that most people never think about -- but once you become aware of it, you might be startled at how central these decisions are to your experience of a film. Just recall Hollywood's casting legends -- Casablanca, for example. The studio's first choice for the role of Rick was George Raft, then a major leading man. Only when Raft wasn't available did the studio grudgingly accept minor contract player Humphrey Bogart, known mainly for playing gangsters in a slew of second-rate crime films. Matching Bogie with Rick turned the actor into an icon for world-weary, cynical heroes with hearts of gold -- and it endowed the film with near-mythic status. Who knows what would have happened if George Raft had been the one to murmur "Here's lookin' at you, kid" -- but it's hard to imagine that a new type of film hero would have been the result. Bogart seemed so right that, once he was cast, the part seemed made for him -- even though he hadn't actually been anyone's first choice.
Or think of The Wizard of Oz with first choice Shirley Temple as Dorothy. When MGM couldn't get ''America's sweetheart," they reluctantly awarded the role to Judy Garland, then known mainly for her teen musicals with Mickey Rooney. Of course, even without Judy, Oz would have been endowed with magic, a gripping story, and a stunning score, but Garland brought to the film her extraordinary combination of vulnerability, longing, sweetness, and hope -- qualities that made a potentially good movie into a great one.
Or consider The Godfather, early candidates for which were Ernest Borgnine and Ryan O'Neal. Just take a moment to picture those two in the roles that Marlon Brando and Al Pacino ultimately played. At this point, the roles seem to have been written with Brando and Pacino in mind -- but that's only because they did, finally, get cast in them; it was hardly a foregone conclusion. Likewise, Charles Grodin has long been notorious as the guy who turned down the part eventually played by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. Perhaps the movie would have been equally good with Grodin in the part -- but at the very least, it would have been a different movie if Grodin, not Hoffman, had been the one to stammer, "Mrs. Robinson, are you trying to seduce me?"
The two of us have been casting directors through the last three decades of Hollywood history. We got our start in what we thought of even then as the University of Zoetrope, working with Francis Ford Coppola in his extraordinary effort to create another type of Hollywood studio. Francis is a true artist who dreamed not only of making his own groundbreaking movies but also of creating an environment in which other film artists could collaborate on a new kind of American cinema. Unfortunately, his utopian venture only lasted a few years, but for those of us who were privileged to be a part of it, it was a life-changing experience.
When Zoetrope Studios went under, we went out on our own. We founded The Casting Company and began relationships with some of Hollywood's most exciting young directors: Ron Howard, Rob Reiner, Chris Columbus, and later on John Hughes and Wolfgang Petersen -- men of artistry and integrity whom we're still lucky enough to be working with today. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, we also cast movies for such directors as Tim Burton, Brian De Palma, David Lynch, Steven Spielberg, Jerry Zucker, and many others. Then and at Zoetrope, we discovered such stars as Alec Baldwin, Steve Carell, Tom Cruise, John Cusack, Matt Damon, Benicio Del Toro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Anthony Edwards, Emilio Estevez, Brendan Fraser, Andy Garcia, Scarlett Johansson, Diane Lane, Rob Lowe, Michael Keaton, Kyle McLachlan, Virginia Madsen, Dylan McDermott, Joaquin Phoenix, River Phoenix, Tim Robbins, Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Winona Ryder, Nicollette Sheridan, Elisabeth Shue, Kiefer Sutherland, Patrick Swayze, Lili Taylor, Billy Bob Thornton, Bradley Whitford, Forrest Whitaker, and Robin Wright (later to become Robin Wright Penn). More recent directors we've worked with include Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) and Nancy Meyers (Something's Gotta Give, The Holiday), while among our twenty-first-century acting discoveries are Paul Bettany, Daniel Craig, Linda Hardy, Josh Lucas, Mike Vogel, and the Harry Potter kids: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint.
We gave some of those actors their first parts. There were others whose talent we recognized, and if we weren't able to give them significant roles, we were at least able to help them pay the rent until something better came along. And then there were those who had maybe worked a bit -- but we gave them the part that put them on the map.
You would think that with a list like that, we'd both be unshakably confident whenever a new script crosses our desk. Alas, no. Like the veteran actress who never fully gets over her stage fright, neither of us has ever quite learned to greet a new movie with equanimity. The moment we take on a new project, the anxiety sets in. The typical Hollywood script contains roles for fifty to a hundred actors, not counting the extras -- those faces in the background who have no speaking parts. (Luckily for us, "extras" casting -- an entity unto itself -- usually takes care of those roles.) The sheer volume of parts can be daunting, let alone the commitment we both feel to finding candidates who are truly right for each role, actors who will fulfill the director's vision and help the movie reach its best potential. We take our cue from Konstantin Stanislavski: "There are no small parts, only small actors."
Casting is a complicated, delicate, and almost alchemical business. To be a good casting director, you need instinct, patience, and the ability to remember hundreds of diverse faces, voices, and performances. You also need the kind of empathy that enables you to know, almost before he or she does, what your director wants in a particular part, as well as the sympathy that allows you to put a nervous actor at ease or to help a potentially stellar actress find the great audition that you sense she can give. Perhaps most important, you need the kind of wild faith that enables you to keep believing in miracles -- to know that the part that's gone unfilled for months will eventually be cast, to find the performer who's eluded you for so long, to see the talent in the awkward but brilliant kid whom no one else will consider. When that kind of faith is rewarded, it's a thrill like nothing else we've ever known. Those are the moments we live for, the times that make all the anxiety worthwhile -- and the closest thing we'll ever know to magic.