A film’s success depends on perfect casting just as much as a company’s success depends on hiring the right talent. No one understands this better in Hollywood than casting directors. They know that a movie with great potential can be hobbled by a miscast character, and a mediocre movie can be elevated by a stroke of genius casting.
Last week, casting directors got their moment in the spotlight with the premiere of Casting By at the Toronto Film Festival. Acquired by HBO, the documentary sings the praises of the industry’s top casting directors, in particular the late Marion Dougherty, whom many consider to be the pioneer of modern-day casting. Director Tom Donahue interviews an impressive lineup of luminaries, including Jeff Bridges, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Jon Voight, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese, and unearths some entertaining tales of casting woes and cringe-worthy first gigs.
We mined the film for some tips on hiring the perfect candidate, with some additional insights from casting director Ellen Chenoweth, who’s featured in the film and has cast films like Diner, Broadcast News, The Horse Whisperer, Michael Clayton, and numerous Coen brothers movies.
Casting directors don’t sit in their office waiting for the perfect headshot and resume to cross their desk. They’re out in the field, scouting for new talent, consulting agents and teachers who can recommend fresh faces. “I go to a lot of plays,” says Chenoweth. “I tend to prefer the off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway more than the Broadway shows. That’s where I see people that I might not know. I have a lot of acting teacher friends that I call, particularly if I’m looking for someone new or a little bit younger. I’ll go to their acting classes and watch people.” Even when you’re not actively hiring, keep your eyes open for talent you may want to hire down the road.
Back in the day, studios hired actors to play the same type again and again. If a studio needed someone to play a doctor, they referred to their list of contract actors to see who had already played a doctor. When they needed a pin-up girl, they consulted their list of tried-and-true pin-up girls. This left little room for innovative performances. As the Hollywood star system waned in the 1950s, though, directors and casting directors started making more creative choices—and this sometimes meant hiring an actor who didn’t look the part, such as Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. In Casting By, Hoffman admits in an archival interview that he initially didn’t think he was tall and Anglo-Saxon enough to play Benjamin Braddock. Director Mike Nichols reassured him, “Inside, Benjamin Braddock is short and Jewish.”
When Chenoweth cast the role of an idiotic gym buff in Burn After Reading, she bypassed comedians and picked a less obvious choice—Brad Pitt, in one of his most inspired roles in recent years. “It’s the goofiest role I’d seen him play,” she recalls.
Bad auditions need not be the last stop for an actor who otherwise holds lots of promise—and the same goes for any job candidate. Every actor has a bad day, and an impressive resume should speak to their ability more than a one-off interview. Says Chenoweth, “Sometimes I’ll say to a director, ‘I know they can do better. I know that they’re right for this in a way that they didn’t show you. Let me show you this HBO movie that he did, or let me tell you about a play I saw her in where she really was funny.’” Sometimes she calls actors in for a second audition, if she senses they were off their game the first time around. Indeed, when Dougherty first met Gene Hackman, she was not impressed—but she saw his potential. “He’s 6 foot 2, saw him off Broadway,” she wrote on a note card. “His reading was nothing, but I believe he could be very good. Especially as a gentle, big, dumb nice guy.”
Your first choice may not always go over well with colleagues and bosses, but if you believe in your candidate, fight for him or her before you concede. That’s how Jon Voight got cast in his first and arguably most iconic film, Midnight Cowboy. Dougherty insisted on casting Voight in the role of Joe Buck, despite director John Schlesinger’s preference for Michael Sarrazin. Though she’d only worked with Voight on one television episode, she saw his potential and was determined to find him work. When Sarrazin’s schedule conflicted with Midnight Cowboy, Schlesinger took Dougherty’s advice and hired Voight.
“There are some directors who just want to get it done and make decisions,” says Chenoweth. “Sometimes you have to try to slow it down and say I have a few more people I really want you to see before you decide.” For True Grit, she considered thousands of girls before singling out Hailee Steinfeld. “I like spending a lot of time fine-tuning all the small characters. I think it really pays off.”
The best casting directors have an intuition for an actor’s strengths—ones that the actor may not even be aware of. If you spot these strengths, you can decide how the candidate will best suit your needs. “It’s about being open-minded, where you think maybe someone who’s just played heroic parts could play a more villainous part,” says Chenoweth. “Or maybe you’ll see something more sweet in somebody who hasn’t really shown that side.” Chenoweth cites Mickey Rourke. “He’s an example of someone who had a really sweet, vulnerable side but he didn’t really want to play that,” she remembers from casting him in one of his earliest films, Diner. “He was just attracted to the grittier side of things and wanted to play those roles. Then when he did Diner, he wasn’t really that happy with it. I think because the part showed a lot of vulnerability and I don’t think he really liked showing it.”