The Art of Casting in Hollywood (2023)

Aisha Zhang, Moderator:

Every once in a while I'm so engrossed in a movie that I completely forget the people on the screen are actors. You know, every film crew has someone whose job it is to choose actors, bring them to life, and make us believe in the film that we're watching. Because behind every great character on screen is a casting director. The trained eye of the casting director finds the right face, the right voice and the right soul for the character in the actor.

REUBEN CANNON: When you audition, you'll hear a lot of dialogue read by the actors. But someone will come in and say those words, like Ray Charles singing "America the Beautiful." You will hear it in a new way for the first time. That's what I'm looking for. I would look for that Ray Charles moment.

Zhang: This is former casting director Reuben Cannon, who appeared on the last season of the Academy Museum podcast. This is the so-called “casting close-up”. It looks at the art and history of Hollywood casting. The session was moderated by Jacqueline Stewart, Director and Director of the Academy Film Museum. She joins us now, alongside former casting director and current filmmaker Reuben Cannon. You two are very welcome.

Jacqueline Stewart: Thank you.

Cannon: Thank you.

CANNON: So, Jacqueline, I want to start with you. You know, this particular season traces the history of casting in Hollywood, starting with the studio system in the '20s, before the actual job of a casting director even existed. Can you tell us a bit about how the early casting process went?

Stewart: Of course. I mean, we have to think about how the classic Hollywood studio system really works as a factory, you know? Directors and other crew members are assigned to specific projects, as are actors. So the studio executives really make those decisions. The producers make these decisions. The actors they choose for the roles are largely determined by their looks. Therefore, your age will determine the type of character you get. Your gender determines the type of character you play. This limits the choice of actors. There really wasn't much choice and many actors were punished for turning down or refusing to play certain roles. So this is very strict, similar to pipelining.

Zhang: Definitely. Talk more about that rigidity, because in those days actors were typecast very rigidly. The descriptions used by studio managers and some great directors, especially actresses, are too shallow. Can you give us some concrete examples?

Stewart: Of course. Let's look at the cast for the 1940 Hitchcock film Rebecca.

(Soundtrack to the movie "Rebecca")

Joan Fontaine: (As Ms. de Winter) I do my best every day, but when people look me up and down like I'm a precious cow, it's very difficult.

Stewart: Check out some of the auditions for different actors who were up for the role like Vivien Leigh and Anne Baxter. It's hard to imagine anyone other than Joan Fontaine playing the role, but others are being considered. A series of memos from Alfred Hitchcock to producer David O. Selznick give you a sense of just how crude and superficial these assessments can sometimes be. Alicia Rhett, for example, was described as nondescript and a little too old. Betty Campbell has been described as too general and too chocolatey.

Zhang: Hasn't someone compared it to china or china?

Stewart: Yes. Yes. Miriam Patty (ph) has been described as having too much Dresden porcelain.

CHANG: Damn.

Stewart: We obviously don't think about these short characterizations of these artists, oh, that's how we bring up that person. You know, we can reveal the different levels of things they can do in this way, and luckily that came later when the pioneer casting directors really started to work more nuanced.

Zhang: Exactly. Let's talk about it. In 1948 the entire studio system began to unravel and casting directors emerged. I want to address you, Ruben Cannon, because you are a pioneering casting director yourself. You are the first African American casting director in Hollywood. You have cast roles in films such as The Color Purple. You were casting director for Warner Bros. TV for a time. I love the story of how you got into this industry. You actually start out in the Universal Studios mailroom, right? I mean, it almost reads like a script.

CANNON: It's actually pretty common because they give these departments these fancy names. Universal describes the mailroom as a leadership training program.

Zhang: (laughter).

CANNON: That means you have to wear a shirt, tie and suit and deliver the mail through the parking lot. The story I'm telling is that I learned everything I need to know about Hollywood from lecturing in Chicago. There are three rules on my paper route that you must follow. Firstly, deliver newspapers every day. Know your customers so you can bill for paper delivery. Third, and most importantly, don't get robbed.

Zhang: That's a good thing. Yes.

Cannon: Exactly. How do these principles translate to Hollywood? I'm in the mailroom right now delivering emails to Hitchcock, Paul Newman and Hal Wallis on set. And the same: timely and timely delivery of the mail. Get to know the person you are shipping to as you may need a letter of recommendation. Third, don't let anyone steal your dreams.

Zhang: Oh.

CANNON: So the mailroom really was an opportunity to learn how a studio works from the ground up.

Zhang: Well, you've become a casting director step by step in this studio. I'm curious Ruben. What do you think of yourself personally and the way you deal with the people who make the casting fit you so well?

CANNON: Well, the guy who hired me to do the casting was a gentleman named Ralph Winters. Ralph Winters is the casting director for Universal Television. Ralph Winters gave me a mantra I use all the time: Reuben, always hire better actors than the roles they're going to play.

Zhang: What does he mean by that?

CANNON: Well, that means if you're looking for an actor to play Cop One, he should be good for the lead, because everyone starts somewhere. You know, Denzel played bit parts before he became a star. Everyone starts - so the casting director's job is to set your casting - you know, for the future. So, you know, they gave this actor the first job. A few years ago I hired John Travolta to play a role on the TV show Emergencies, which I cast. It had two lines - an actor fell and sprained his ankle.

(Excerpt from the original soundtrack of the TV show "Emergency")

John Travolta: (as Chuck Benson) I never thought anyone would find me here.

UNIDENTIFIED actor: (As a character) Do you have any other questions besides this leg?

Travolta: (as Chuck Benson) Yeah, my shoulders.

UNIDENTIFIED actor: (as a character) Let's see.

CANNON: You know, he gave it his all again for the role.

Zhang: Wait, wait. Was that before Grease and Saturday Night Fever? Before that, for example, did you meet John Travolta?

Canon: Oh, of course.

Zhang: Wow.

CANNON: He's not just an atmosphere player. He is currently an actor.

Stewart: The point Ruben made is very instructive. For me, this is where the discipline of the casting director and the nuances of knowledge are so important, because part of your job is realizing that what the producer doesn't necessarily see is what the director might not see. I'm genuinely shocked that you and other casting directors so often talk about casting a particular actor and insist, "No, you have to look at this guy because you're thinking about craft and skill and you're open to the possibility." It really can change a project.

CANNON: Well, the exciting thing about casting is that you don't really know until you see it, and that's the exciting thing. Maybe you have an idea in your head and then an actor comes along and gives you the Ray Charles moment. They say I never thought about it like that, but wow how exciting is that? I've told the Bruce Willis story on Moonlight many times -- you know, on the cast of that show.

(Soundtrack from the TV show "Moonlight")

CYBILL SHEPHERD: (as Maddie Hayes) What are you doing now?

Bruce Willis: (as David Addison) Searches for the word "evil". He said his son might be involved in something evil, so I'm - evil - something unspeakable evil.

CANNON: I've heard this character many times. But suddenly Bruce came along and gave the whole thing a whole new look, because he didn't fit the station's definition of a leading actor. In fact, I got fired because I kept bringing him back to the studio for lead roles. They said: Ruben, obviously you don't know what a protagonist is.

Zhang: But it's good for you to stick to your beliefs. And see, he had "Moonlighting" - I mean, with Cybill Shepherd. They are amazing.

Cannon: Of course. surely. Exactly. Exactly. But they - as Jacqueline said, that's not their definition, the archetypes of what these so-called networks believed in at the time.

Zhang: Well, given all the nuances that must be considered when selecting actors, how important is it for casting directors to reflect different life experiences and identities?

CANNON: That's the only way to get some level of social reflection when there aren't people in the room that really reflect society. Personally, I know I've cast enough shows for myself that if I hadn't been in it as a black person, the role wouldn't have gone to black actors, women - especially when it comes to black actors. You know, I was there – so I could come up with a name and the producers and directors would say yes, whether it was out of fear or my powers of persuasion. Again, I give them better actors than characters. This is not symbolic. It's no use to anyone. This will be an asset to the project.

Zhang: Yes. Jacqueline, I want to get in touch with you because we're talking about the discriminatory way in which Hollywood has long operated. Earlier you mentioned the unique challenges women face in acting. Can you talk about how that has changed over the years, or maybe not?

Stewart: Well, the number of women in leading roles has increased over time. It still does not reflect the demographic development. We're not there yet, mainly for the reasons Ruben gives in relation to the race. There still aren't enough women running studios, making decisions, setting the content agenda and insisting that women have multiple opportunities in front of the camera. In our episode, we focus on the case of Meg Ryan, who appeared in Jane Campion's erotic thriller In The Cut.

(Soundtrack-Clip, „In the Cut“)

Meg Ryan: (as Franny Avery) I would like to point out that stream of consciousness is not the same as stream of conscience, some of you have mistaken it for stream of conscience. In some respects logical errors.

STEWART: Because Meg Ryan is being relegated to the queen of romantic comedy in the eyes of many studios...

Zhang: America's treasure. Yes.

Stewart: Yes, yes - "When Harry Met Sally" and "You Got the Mail". When she teamed up with an incredible filmmaker, Jane Campion, she was dying to do something different, but she had a very bad reaction, especially with men who welcomed film critics. I believe it was many years later that the film received the critical reappraisal it deserved. You know, it was a very difficult and devastating time for her career.

Zhang: As you both have repeatedly pointed out, there is still a lot of room for growth and development in Hollywood. Discrimination still occurs. A question for you both. You know, you've noticed that casting directors are often not under contract. Her work often goes unnoticed by the academy in Hollywood. I mean, to this day, the Oscars don't have a casting director category. Why do you think that is? Why do you think the role of casting director is still so neglected?

CANNON: So if the directors get better at recognizing casting directors, the standing of the casting directors in the academy will improve. That's why it's underestimated, because in a movie, the director has the most influence. If the director agrees with the casting director, we will see a change in attitude towards the casting.

Zhang: Jacqueline, how about you?

STEWART: You know, I realize that the work of the underappreciated casting directors actually holds many lessons for us about how we should serve and empower people in all walks of life -- academia, American business. If we really focus on training and finding ways to break through our inherent biases and give a wider range of people the opportunity to show what they are capable of, then those are very valuable lessons that I believe will create a more inclusive environment in the community Board will open directors.

CHANG: Ruben Cannon - he was the first black casting director in Hollywood and is now a film producer. Jacqueline Stewart is Curator and Curator at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and host of the museum's podcasts, including this season's "Casting Features." Thanks to both of you.

Stewart: Thank you.

Cannon: Thanks, Elsa.

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