Next, please

Apr 1, 2002  •  Post A Comment

They moved in and out of the room at a five-minute clip-same lines, same verse. But it was the syncopated rhythm of the pro watching these actors audition that was worth noting.
His name is Joseph Middleton, and he is a casting director immersed in pilot season hell. His assignment: to cast one of the most anticipated upcoming shows, “Legally Blonde,” the ABC/Touchstone/MGM pilot based on MGM’s hit 2001 comedy film, which Mr. Middleton also cast.
The pilot starts shooting April 15. Until then, Mr. Middleton, like the rest of his colleagues, will continue clocking the 8 a.m.-to-11 p.m. days they’ve been putting in since late January. It’s a relentless pace of executive meetings and back-to-back readings with hundreds of actors, all vying for roles in pilots that carry no certainty of a bankable future.
And on this particular Friday morning, Mr. Middleton and writer/executive producer Rachel Sweet smiled and warmly greeted every anxious contender as if each was an honored dinner guest. The verve delivered in each mini-performance was matched by the enthusiasm of Ms. Sweet and Mr. Middleton, the actors none the wiser.
Mr. Middleton feels their pain, as does Ms. Sweet. Both were actors once.
One by one they filed in for their readings, all nervous smiles, attempting to exude confidence. First up was a tall, handsome brunet with vibrant blue eyes, the essence of WASP, who looked to be picture-perfect for any leading man role. At 6-foot-2, he was the right height, but in his mid-20s, the wrong age. He was deemed too old-looking for the part.
The second prospect was the antithesis of the first, maybe 5-foot-8, very ethnic-looking, with wire-rimmed glasses and sparse facial hair. While he was reading for the same part-that of Oscar Berenson, a law student obsessed with Elle, the legal blonde herself-when it came to unbuttoning his shirt for that certain seductive line, the two actors were a million miles apart in delivery, the second suffering in comparison.
Up next was a beautiful young woman vying for the role of Keaton Winthrop, a key role but not the lead. It was evident that Ms. Sweet and Mr. Middleton wanted her to make it. She got a second try, a strong urging to give a little more forceful delivery. The actress, Caitlin Mowrey, eventually got the part.
Filling the lead role of Elle, played by Reese Witherspoon in the film, would seem to be the tougher challenge, but the solution actually came rather quickly. Jennifer Hall of New York was the choice, hands down. Both Ms. Witherspoon and Ms. Hall are blondes and Southerners; Ms. Witherspoon hails from Tennessee and Ms. Hall from Alabama. “We saw over 200 girls for this role in a two-week period,” said Mr. Middleton. “But [Ms. Hall] had the essence, that certain quality that came through with both of these actresses. She was simply right for the part.”
Getting it right
Ms. Hall is not, however, a physical clone of Ms. Witherspoon, something Mr. Middleton deliberately avoided. “You never want to duplicate the actress who was in the film for television, because you don’t want to take anything away from the film. What you want to do is capture the essence of that character by creating a new Elle for television, so that this character stands on her own,” he said.
Such was not the case for another film-to-television show, “Clueless.” In the film, the lead character was portrayed by Alicia Silverstone. Rachel Blanchard, a dead ringer for Ms. Silverstone, played the role on television. It did not last.
“You never want to devalue either product, and you run the risk of that with copying,” he added. “The goal is to surpass or match what you’ve done on film, but differently in television.”
Ms. Sweet noted, “In `Legally Blonde,’ there are five key roles. I’ve seen probably 50 actors for each role. Joseph has seen 100 or more for each role. Not only does a casting director deal with the actors, juggling that every day, but you’re dealing with their agents, managers, the networks, the studios-all those egos, with everyone trying to justify their position. It requires untold patience, and that’s what makes a casting director like Joseph a gem. He doesn’t run low on that, and he always delivers complete respect for the actors. He loves them, and I think they know it. How the casting director treats actors is so important to the process, and the really good ones stand out. They can make or break the spirit of someone who could be overlooked or should have been the next star. The rejection in this process is insane.”
To emphasize her point, she delivered a gauge based on her own acting experience: “I’ve had auditions when the casting director would take a phone call literally in the middle of the reading. That’s not only bad, it’s unacceptable.”
Like Mr. Middleton, Ms. Sweet, a veteran guest star of “practically every sitcom of the early ’90s, not to mention all the pilots that didn’t go” and now a writer and co-executive producer of the hit sitcom “Dharma & Greg,” found her path elsewhere. “I am a writer. I’m glad I realized it, that I was always supposed to be,” she said.
Mr. Middleton’s go at acting was brief; he quickly realized he didn’t have the “emotional makeup” needed to weather the journey to success. “But I love actors and the journey they go through,” he said. “What it showed me is what makes a good casting director, and I knew I could do that. ”
Casting directors, studio executives, producers and agents interviewed all agreed on what qualities essentially define a good casting director. Basically, it’s a short list: be a good listener and be supportive and encouraging of talent, have good taste, remain open to others’ opinions but sure of one’s own and be ready to defend those opinions. A key factor is flexibility-for example, not dismissing an actor from all future call sheets just because he or she wasn’t right for the part or genre.
Mary Buck is considered by many of her peers, agents and studio heads of casting as the grand dame of casting directors.
“Mary and her partner Susan Edelman are really the Obi Wan Kenobis of television casting. They’ve been doing it for 20 years,” said veteran television agent Jonathan Howard of the William Morris Agency. “They are well liked, have great taste, are well respected and basically considered by many to be the leaders in their field. They did the pilots for `Malcolm in the Middle’ and `Party of Five.’ They’re doing `The Music Man’ [telefilm] with Matthew Broderick.”
Others who make the cut on studio executives’ and talent handlers’ “It” list are Nicky Valco, who cast “Dharma & Greg,” “Ally McBeal” and “Malcolm in the Middle”; Bonnie Zane, who cast “The Larry Sanders Show,” “The Drew Carey Show” and “Ed”; John Levey who cast “The West Wing,” “ER” and “Citizen Baines”; Carol Kritzer who cast “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “Dark Angel” and “Any Day Now”; and Meg Liberman, who cast “Band of Brothers,” “3rd Rock From the Sun” and “Party of Five.”
Ms. Buck and Ms. Edelman do pilots, movies of the week and miniseries. They do not cast episodic television or feature films.
“Episodic is trench work, the toughest, and you get the least amount of praise, [although it’s steady work],” explained Ms. Buck. “In pilots, from the time you get the material to having it fully cast, the process takes about five weeks.”
In a sense, Ms. Buck has an inside track on the wants and needs of studio executives in television. She used to be one: She was head of Paramount casting in the ’70s.
“In our business, you’re always looking for that actor that pops-the one that has that something about them where you just can’t take your eyes off of them. It’s not necessarily about a great look. It’s something else, something undefinable. Billy Bob Thornton has it; you can’t quit watching him. Sean Penn has it, and he’s not your typical handsome leading man. You can’t categorize it. You can’t put a title on it. Tom Hanks-when I was at Paramount in ’79, he was in `Bosom Buddies.’ You knew he had it. But Tom Cruise didn’t have it in televisio
n. He did in film.”
Then again, she had some convincing to do when she fought for casting Jane Kaczmarek as mom Lois Wilkerson in “Malcolm in the Middle.” It wasn’t that they didn’t like Ms. Kaczmarek, they just didn’t feel she was the proper fit.
“Jane had done some pilots, but they were never sure she was right for the part,” said Ms. Buck. But Ms. Kaczmarek’s continued performance on the series has earned her two Golden Globes and two Emmy nominations and a Screen Actors Guild award-pretty convincing stuff that she was right for the role. “You fight for what you believe in. Sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong,” Ms. Buck said.
Casting executives at the studios and networks find the work equally demanding. Sharon Klein left the independent world and began her role as senior VP of talent and casting at 20th Century Fox Television last June. “There’s a huge difference,” she said. “As an independent, I may read 150 actors or more for five roles on a pilot and be focused on two pilots for the season. Here, I’m overseeing 18 pilots, in back-to-back meetings with producers, having to keep on top of the relationships with the writer/producers of all those shows and the casting directors. But I will say that I don’t think I could have done this job if I had not done the other. It would be impossible.”
Kathleen Letterie, the executive VP of casting and talent at The WB network, agreed. Like Ms. Klein, she too had spent years as an independent casting director. Discoveries credited to Ms. Letterie include Katie Holmes of “Dawson’s Creek,” Michael Rosenbaum of “Smallville,” Jessica Biel of “7th Heaven” and Lauren Graham of “Gilmore Girls,” to name a few.
“What you miss in an executive job is the chance to read a lot of actors, and I still do [read] some,” Ms. Letterie said. “I also think it makes you sensitive to the growth of actors. As a casting director you can’t get cocky, because one year somebody can be totally bad and the next year they are perfect for a role.”
For her, Michael Rosenbaum is the actor that comes to mind. “He kept getting cast in these comedies `Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane,’ `The Tom Arnold Show’ and this pilot, `Fresh Meat.’ But it wasn’t happening for him. Finally, the role of Lex Luthor came along for `Smallville,’ and we couldn’t find anyone.” She convinced Mr. Rosenbaum to shave his head and go for it. Because the show is a drama, not a comedy, it took some convincing on Ms. Letterie’s part to have others overcome a genre prejudice and consider him. Her ability to resist pigeonholing actors, and to make a persuasive case, came from watching actors grow as a casting director. And it is something she tries to remain open to with independents helping her cast pilots or episodes. “And I do watch for how casting directors handle actors, nurture them for the roles,” she said.
Which, in the small world of casting, brings us back to Joseph Middleton.
“Right now Joseph is casting the `In My Life’ pilot for us,” Ms. Letterie said. “It takes place in the South in the ’60s. This kid with spiked hair came in for a reading and he was good but clueless about the part. No one was wearing spiked hair in those days.”
Maybe it’s a hair thing with Ms. Letterie. Then again, maybe it’s the mark of a good casting director who cares enough to make sure a prospective huge talent is right from the beginning. Odds are it’s the latter.