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Casting Directors Recognized During Special AMPAS Event

The Academy presented “Perfect Choice: the Art of the Casting Director” on Wednesday, April 13, 2016. Pictured (left to right): Norman Jewison, Juliet Taylor, James L. Brooks, Richard Donner and Mike Fenton.

credit: Todd Wawrychuk / ©A.M.P.A.S.

By: Marjorie Galas

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has long offered educational programs highlighting their creative art branches. Whether it’s the art of costume design, the magic of visual effects, the craftsmanship behind animation or the storytelling behind cinematography and editing, all disciplines from pre- to post production have been featured.   For the first time in the academy’s history, the educational programming turned a spotlight on the craft of casting.

Held at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater April 13, 2016, “Perfect Choice: The Art of the Casting Director” attracted an enthusiastic and capacity crowd, dotted with members of the Academy’s Casting Director branch. The atmosphere at the pre-event reception was nothing short of jubilant.  Guest recounted stories of the early days of casting: one fifty year vet who got his start working with Frederico Fellini recalled the legend’s early penchant for pretty faces.

“It was all about the look, not about the acting. He would tell them where and how to look.”

As Leonard Maltin and his wife joked with Patricia Ward Kelly about casting directors’ awareness of her late husband Gene Kelly, Emmy winning casting director David Rubin kicked off the festivities. Rubin has worked on a variety of Oscar nominated films, including “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Gravity” and last year’s “Trumbo.”  Before highlighting the work of Lynn Stalmaster, one of the evening’s three featured casting directors. Rubin gave a dedication to the craft of casting.

“The casting process does not occur on a sound stage. There is no technical equipment.  It occurs behind closed doors,” said Rubin.  “It’s an intimate collaboration between the casting director and the director. It is their time to experiment.”

Rubin had intended to call ground-breaking casting director Lynn Stalmaster to the stage. Unfortunately Stalmaster took ill the day before and was unable to attend.  While the crowd gave him a standing ovation all the same, Rubin described Stalmaster’s contribution.  Based on the west coast, Stalmaster’s entry into the Hollywood system began as an actor.  In his early twenties he became a production assistant.  While working on “Gunsmoke” he was asked to find some actors and with this his legacy took off.  Working at the tail end of the contract system – which ensured actors were attached to projects regardless of auditions – Stalmaster turned towards talents.  The casting process became less about the look an actor would bring to the role, but rather the emotion and humanity.  This sentiment was reflected in his favorite industry word: “open.”  He despised the word “type.”

Joining Rubin on stage were director Norman Jewison and actress Geena Davis, who received her breakout role in “Tootsie” through Stalmaster. Jewison reflected on Stalmaster’s insistence on working on location for “In the Heat of the Night.”

“He loved to travel. He had an obsessive pursuit to make sure the mosaic (of characters) was complete,” said Jewison.

Bernard Telsey presented the evening’s second recognized casting director, Juliet Taylor. Taylor was part of the New York casting scene that has broken the casting model by hiring theater actors who could translate their talent onto the screen, such as Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate.”  She described her formative moment in her career when she was working on “Midnight Cowboy.”  She had rounded up some talent she thought the director would enjoy seeing for a prostitute role.

“John (Schiesinger, the director) wanted a different dimension to the character.   He didn’t want to go with the stereotypical character.  He brought in all these very complex (women) to read for the part,” said Taylor.

She also worked extensively with Woody Allen, and continues to cast his films now.  Allen sent a video message to recognize the casting director who credited Allen for always being willing to hear any opinions – including the negative ones – about the project or his decisions.  In addition to Allen’s tape, director James L. Brooks, and actress Annette Benning, whom Taylor cast in her Oscar nominated turn in “Grifters.”

Lora Kennedy presented the evening’s final recognized casting director, Mike Fenton. Fenton began casting for television, and was instrumental in the creation of the Casting Society of America. Fenton spoke about casting against type as well, recalling the resistance the film community had against him casting Robert Downey Jr. his Oscar nominated turn in Charlie Chaplin in “Chaplin.”

“No one knew he was a student of Chaplin. He did this backwards flip when he left stage and I was sold,” said Fenton.  “It was his first big role.”

Fenton also spoke about casting ensembles as well as children. Joined by the film’s direct Richard Donner on stage, Fenton recalled his partnership with the director on “The Goonies” – a film that married casting children and ensemble casting.   He recalled how stiff the young actors would get during a read.  He encouraged them to speak with each other as friends to warm them up and make them comfortable.

Director Steven Spielberg sent in a special video to commemorate Fenton.

“Part of good casting director is to make people comfortable so they don’t freeze in front of a director and this team that already feels so comfortable, to give them their 17 minutes to put their best foot forward. Mike Fenton is the most humane person I know, and could make people feel at ease immediately,” said Spielberg.

Spielberg recalled Fenton’s work with Henry Thomas, then eight years old auditioning for “E.T.”. Fenton created an improve scene that not only allowed Thomas to feel comfortable but also become emotionally vulnerable during the audition.

“I immediately said ‘you have the job’ – you can hear it on the tape. It was the most incredible audition I have ever seen,” said Spielberg.

The audition tape was shared with the crowd. After the scene concluded, Thomas came to the stage to thank Fenton for give him the opportunity.  Prior to the event’s conclusion, Donner recounted a pivotal moment during the casting process of “Lethal Weapon.”  After Fenton suggested Danny Glover and Mel Gibson for the roles, Donner recalled his initial reaction was the reflection on the two men’s race.

“The script did not (give any indication to skin color). Mike Fenton changed my perspective on casting forever, exposing me to color blind casting,” said Donner.

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