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how to make a movie

How Casting Directors Find (and Make) New Stars

Often a director gets all the credit for a great movie. But as we’ve explored this week with our "How to Make a Movie" series, many important jobs contribute to the making of a masterpiece. Which brings us to casting directors, the people whose job it is to know the strengths and weaknesses of an entire landscape of actors, both discovered and un-, and then convince a director that one of them is perfect for his or her film. To find out how to do the job, we talked to two veteran casting directors: Ellen Lewis, who has cast such movies as Forrest Gump, The Devil Wears Prada, and every Martin Scorsese movie since Goodfellas; and Lora Kennedy, executive vice-president of feature casting at Warner Bros., whose extensive credits include Argo and Man of Steel.

Different directors, different jobs.

Kennedy says that the scope of the job can change depending on the director: Some want hundreds of choices to fill roles, while some only want three or four. Ben Affleck wanted a lot of suggestions for Argo, so Kennedy saw thousands of actors. Zack Snyder, on the other hand, only wanted the top candidates for his Man of Steel. "Ideally, you want to bring to the director four actors — different ways to see how the role could be played," Lewis said.

Play the long game.

In the case of Man of Steel, Kennedy had someone in mind for Snyder: Henry Cavill, who she’d been trying to cast as Superman since she worked on Superman Returns back in 2006. "Bryan Singer ultimately went with someone else, [Brandon Routh]," she said. " So it took me seven years to get Henry Cavill that role." 

When convinced that an actor can be a star but directors aren’t yet considering him or her as a lead, a casting director should build the actor up in supporting roles to create plenty of exposure. "Those are the opportunities you look for," Kennedy said. "Get them in a movie in a smaller role, bring them back, bring them back, and then just slowly move them up."

And when that actor finally gets his big chance and scores, the casting director wins, too. After a favorite of hers, Josh Brolin, got such great notices for No Country for Old Men, Kennedy brought in him in to meet a director for another movie, and Brolin turned to her and said, "Well! I've made things a lot easier on you now, haven't I?" And Kennedy said, "'Yes, you have. Thank you very much.' Because before, it was always a struggle to get him in, and he knew it. My job was easier now."

Don't rule out TV.

“He’s a TV star, not a movie star” isn’t the self-fulfilling prophecy it used to be. In fact, now movie casting directors often pull actors out of premium cable TV shows, where they’ve already become stars. "People know who [future Fifty Shades of Grey star] Charlie Hunnam is because of Sons of Anarchy," she said. "People know who Bryan Cranston is because of Breaking Bad. People know who Jon Hamm is because of Mad Men. Television is breaking a lot of people."

Before, when the rare TV actor would break into films, they often never looked back (à la Bruce Willis). And if they ever found themselves back in TV after getting a shot in movies, they could consider themselves permanently barred from the big screen. But today, actors go back and forth, and often good TV work can be a great weekly platform to remind movie studios why an actor deserves more film roles. Take James Spader, Lewis said. He started in films, then starred on TV's Boston Legal, then did Broadway, then went back to television for The Office, then returned to film for Lincoln — and now he has both a new TV show (The Blacklist) and a starring film role in the next Avengers movie. "I think that work in TV has opened different doors for him," Lewis said. "The Avengers: Age of Ultron will be a blockbuster, but I think they were just looking for a really good actor."

Get personally involved.

Hollywood has a reputation for being a land roamed by heartless executives who thrive on crushing dreams. While that label isn’t entirely unfounded, casting directors do actually get personally invested in up-and-coming actors. For example, when they come in to read for a part, Kennedy likes to give them plenty of time, "until they feel they've done what they've come in to do." And she'll occasionally give actors a second chance — though "you don't want to be overly indulgent.” The reality is, most people aren’t gonna get the job: As Lewis notes, “99.9 percent of them are being rejected.”

When a casting director finds someone they just know is going be a star, it becomes a personal crusade to get them their big break. "You're like, 'I've got to get them first!'" Kennedy said, noting that she felt that way about Australian actress Margot Robbie, who briefly had a starring role on the very short-lived ABC show Pan Am. "We tried her on a movie, but she wasn't ready yet. Then, on the next go-round, Ellen Lewis, man, snagged her up [for The Wolf of Wall Street]!"

Lewis had no pressure to cast a big-name actress in that Wall Street role, so the door was open to new talent. "Margot did a phenomenal audition," Lewis recalled. "She knocked their socks off. And Margot Robbie will hopefully become known for that film." Kennedy laughs: "I'll be forever pissed off. But I got her on the next one" — the Will Smith heist comedy Focus

It's all about chemistry.

Sometimes casting is about finding two or three actors who can spark off one another at the core of the movie. This isn't easy. "Chemistry is a very, very hard thing to audition," Kennedy said. "It's a crapshoot. Sometimes it seems to be there, but then, on the screen, it's not. And sometimes it's not there in the audition, but something magical happens on the screen. It's just one of those things."

Lewis said that they seriously narrow down candidates before a chemistry test happens. "It's not like you're bringing in ten people," she said. "On Hugo, we flew in two boys and two girls, and it was kind of obvious which of the kids would work together." During the casting for Get Smart, there was some hesitation about hiring Anne Hathaway — the filmmakers thought she might be too young for Steve Carell. "But the minute you saw them together, she was no longer too young," Kennedy said. "She was so funny and so good with him. They just fed off each other in a way that made us say, 'We're done.'"

Sometimes you've got to work with the star you're given.

Often a studio will build a project around a major star before casting gets involved, even if it’s clear that the actor is not right for the material. When Kennedy once faced that situation, she surrounded her not-quite-up-to-snuff star with "the most credible, stage-trained, versatile, well-loved actors," which made the actor "a lot better … It's possible to help somebody and elevate somebody with the rest of the cast. If I were to go out and hit a ball with my son, I'll play okay. But if Chris Evert's out there, I might raise my game."