Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Mystic Art of Casting

Faye Dunaway, long before Bonnie and Clyde, couldn’t get past Arthur Penn’s casting director, who said she “didn’t have the face for movies.” Casting experts, it seems, are sometimes wrong . . . and sometimes more than a little blunt. But it’s all in the line of duty. What drives casting directors is the need to find the perfect actor for each and every role.

To an outsider, being a casting director (please don’t call them casting agents!) sounds like fun.  You sit in a room, while attractive people cycle through, each one aiming to please. They read the lines, you thank them politely, and jot down some yay-or-nay notes when they walk out the door. In fact,  it’s extraordinarily wearying to hear the same words over and over, while trying to maintain your objectivity in the face of so much barely-concealed desperation.

Of course, casting has its amusing moments, along with its weird ones. When I worked for Roger Corman at Concorde-New Horizons, I could always tell at a glance which film we were casting. As I entered our tiny lobby, it would be full of buttoned-down businessmen, or homey grandmas, or girls who were no better than they should be. All of them were actors, of course, and they knew enough to dress the part when they showed up to audition. Once, walking up the street near the Concorde offices, I spotted a young punk sitting in his car, busily adorning himself with chains and leather. For a second I was puzzled, until I realized that we must be casting biker-types that day.

Sometimes producers and directors of studio films announce that they’re seeking a young unknown for an important part. I’m not sure how much of that is publicity gimmickry, but I do know what happened in 1967 when articles appeared across the nation saying that the makers of a small film called The Graduate were seeking a college-age young actor. Résumés and headshots flooded in, both from low-level young professionals (Harvey Keitel and the late Edward Herrmann among them) and from young men whose only qualification was a high opinion of themselves. Some sent in lengthy hand-written analyses of the Benjamin Braddock character; some indulged in rants about the way life was treating them; some let it be known that anyone failing to cast them was making a big mistake. Hoping to trade on their college experience, some enclosed graduation photos or wrote on fraternity stationery. Proud parents recommended their suitably mixed-up sons. One hopeful, with no professional photo at his disposal, scotch-taped snapshots of himself on a piece of notebook paper and sent it along. Another included in his cover-letter the following recommendation: “Previous acting experience--none, however my quality of personality is above average.”

Remarkably, all these applicants were treated with courtesy. All eventually got polite kiss-off letters explaining that the role they sought had already been cast, but that their information would be kept on file just in case.

Of course the part of Benjamin Braddock went to a professional actor, one wholly unknown in Hollywood but busily earning respect on the Off-Broadway stage. Yet sometimes a casting director achieves a real coup. Casting veteran Jane Jenkins remembers, when she was working on Mystic Pizza, how a nineteen-year-old actress showed up late in the day, badly dressed and unfamiliar with the script. Jenkins, spotting potential, urged the girl to return the following morning, dressed appropriately for the role. Overnight, Julia Roberts studied up, and traded in her baggy jeans for the sexy miniskirt the part demanded. The rest, of course, is history.


  1. Robert Redford auditioned for The Graduate. Mike Nichols asked if he'd ever been turned down by a girl. Redford couldn't even process the question. There's a docu on casting d irector Marion Dougherty. Turns out Robert Duval was so adept at bringing in Off-Broadway actors like Hoffman for tv's Naked City he was offered an agency job.

  2. Yes, Robert Redford was one of six bright young actors who actually screentested to play Benjamin Braddock. Redford, who tested with Candice Bergen, seemed to have the inside track, because he'd successfully worked with Mike Nichols on his first big Broadway hit, Barefoot in the Park. But ultimately he didn't fit Nichols' conception of the role. Others included Tony Bill and Charles Grodin, who apparently is still convinced that he won the part, then turned it down over contract issues. Producer Larry Turman told me this was wishful thinking on Grodin's part, though he gave an excellent audition. Larry also said that all three of the film's main players were the first to get formal offers to play their parts. Certainly, a lot of famous actresses were queried about their interest in playing Mrs. Robinson, but only Anne Bancroft was formally offered the role. Thanks for chiming in, Bill. I hope you visit Movieland again soon!

  3. A great piece of casting - especially with Mr. Hoffman around 30 years old. You know, I wish Ms. Jenkins had listened to the little voices pointing out the lateness, the poor dress sense and the poor approach to the work - as she might have saved us decades of bad performances from the supremely untalented Julia Roberts. I turned off the rented VHS of Mystic Pizza and returned it unfinished - because of this amazingly annoying actress who made me angry watching the movie. So - I came by my dislike of Ms. Roberts honestly. I've seen nothing that has changed my mind since.

  4. I take it, Mr. C, that you don't think of Julia Roberts as the epitome of Star Quality. Why do you think she has so many fans?

  5. If I knew that I'd bottle it and be rich.