Parker Posey in "Party Girl" casting director Ellen Lewis
ManOfTheCenturyMovie Film Throwing a dinner party: the art of casting from the experts

Throwing a dinner party: the art of casting from the experts

Parker Posey in "Party Girl" casting director Ellen Lewis

“There’s nothing worse than a casting mistake,” casting director Laura Rosenthal told IndieWire. Not that you’re speaking from personal experience. As Todd Haynes’ casting director since “Far From Heaven,” Rosenthal has assembled some of the most memorable casts of decades, including “The Kids Are All Right,” “A Quiet Place,” “Chicago,” and “Analyze this”.

Now she and fellow acclaimed casting director Ellen Lewis — longtime casting director of Jim Jarmusch and Martin Scorsese and the woman behind the casting of everything from ‘A League of Their Own’ to ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ — have been awarded by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) with the series of retrospectives The Craft: Casting directors Ellen Lewis and Laura Rosenthalfrom 1 to 16 June.

The series highlights some of their most acclaimed work, as well as some films that may not be as well known. Films screened include Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” Stanley Tucci’s “Joe Gould’s Secret,” and Daisy von Scherler Meyer’s “Party Girl,” with Parker Posey in one of his starring roles.

Lewis and Rosenthal spoke separately on the phone with IndieWire about their careers and the fine craft of casting.

Casting in the age of zoom

As with so many other aspects of life, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the reliance on technology in the casting industry.

While many actors worry that Zoom auditions and tape presentations might reduce the intimacy of being in the room, Lewis thinks the process has simply changed. “I think you can still make a very strong connection with people as long as you look out for each other,” she said. “They can see you, you can see them. You’re making sure they’re not just logging into Zoom when you immediately start reading with them.

This attitude recalls a lesson Lewis learned as Juliet Taylor’s assistant, which Taylor passed on from Marion Dougherty, who co-invented the casting director role with Lynn Stalmaster: create a welcoming environment for all actors. “It’s very difficult having to audition for roles and deal with constant rejection. And you want people to be the best they can be,” Lewis said. Some of it is as simple as remaining receptive to an actor’s requests: “Ask if they need anything or answer questions if they have any.”

As Rosenthal pointed out, “If (COVID) had happened ten years ago, I think the whole business would have been shut down. I don’t know how we would have done it. That’s the good thing about technology, understand that. For me, I miss so much and long for a certain persona (casting process). I’m so thankful that we’ve found a way to keep doing this.

All about relationships

Director-actor combos have defined and elevated careers for decades, from John Ford and John Wayne, Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, to Haynes and Julianne Moore. But similar relationships exist between actors and casting directors.

“It’s a compliment when you have a really exciting relationship with an actor and you continue to work with them,” said Rosenthal. Both Rosenthal and Lewis often bring in actors based on long-term personal relationships. “Each of the films has its own world. You’re always exposed to new actors who seem right for a time or a world they’re creating,” Lewis said.

“If you read a script and the part is great, you think of really good actors who would embrace it,” Rosenthal said. “It’s often like, ‘Damn, I haven’t seen them do exactly that. Maybe that would be tempting.’” It’s important that casting directors are open to the needs of actors. Rosenthal thinks about “what do they gain? Why didn’t they try it sooner? Maybe this is the right time to do it? Maybe they feel safe? Maybe who is directing? And he’s like, ‘Wow, I’ve never tried this before, but I feel safe with this director, and now is the right time to do it.’”

“I tend to keep my imagination open,” Lewis added. Ray Romano was best known for his sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond” when his agent approached Lewis about the record company’s promotions on HBO’s “Vinyl.” Initially unsure, she ended up casting Romano after he sent her a videotape and nailed her role. Since then, Lewis has cast him as the head of a school board in ‘Bad Education’, Jimmy Hoffa’s lawyer in ‘The Irishman’ and NASA Deputy Director in Greg Berlanti’s upcoming film ‘Project Artemis’.

What makes a great casting director

According to Rosenthal, one of the key traits of a great casting director is the ability to find “true intimacy” and “a language with the director” to realize his or her vision. “My job is to help realize the vision of the film with my palette,” he said. “My canvas is people, so I want to pitch it so you (the audience) are emotionally engaged and the movie works.”

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