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How to Cast a New York City Movie, According to the Legendary Juliet Taylor

Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster filming Taxi Driver. Photo: Steve Schapiro

When Juliet Taylor arrived on the steps of the East 30th Street brownstone owned by “queen casting director” Marion Dougherty, her new boss was working on Midnight Cowboy, the 1969 Oscar-winning buddy drama of “I’m walking here!” fame. Taylor, a Smith College graduate, moved to New York City to work in theater but found herself at the center of a reinvigorated East Coast film industry instead. She went from being the secretary in an office that saw young Christopher Walken, Diane Keaton, and Carol Kane roaming its halls, to running that office and casting the actors who made their way through it in films like Taxi Driver and Working Girl and Annie Hall. Perhaps no one is better at spotting talent in a city filled to the brim with it, and over a decades-long career she’s amassed a titanic list of credits including giving Meryl Streep her first movie role. How’d she do it? Through a combination of professional-level people-watching, gut, and luck. Here’s how to cast a New York City movie, according to Taylor:

Be a theater buff.

Theater is a huge resource for New York casting directors. I mean, I’m much more of a theater buff than a movie buff. I think that is one of the big resources for finding people, and new people particularly. Like I remember seeing Corey Stoll in A View From the Bridge, the one with Scarlett Johansson and Liev Schreiber. Remember the two Italian brother characters? I’ve always thought they were dated, hammy parts that didn’t really come off that well. But I saw Corey in the part and I thought, “Whoa, this guy is for real. He is just making this work.”

Don’t be afraid to stand in line at movie theaters.

One of the really fun and juicy things about casting in the ’70s was that we used real people. One of the first movies that I basically did on my own was The Panic in Needle Park. We used real people, lots of real people in tiny parts, just for the color of it. To locate it, to give you a sense of where it was taking place. We’d see people standing in lines for the movie theater who looked funny, and we’d pick them out. I remember my associate and I found these absolutely hilarious-looking identical twins, grown men, standing in line at a movie theater, and they’re in Stardust Memories. Many of the people in Broadway Danny Rose were real people that we found in social clubs in Little Italy. I did so much of that.

Scout at public schools.

What I remember very specifically about Taxi Driver was that I spent a lot of time worrying that we were not going to be able to use Jodie Foster. I remember that social services were being very conservative based on all the abuse of child actors over the years in terms of their hours. And they were very, very wary of the nature of the movie for a child. So we went through a long period of being in jeopardy that we might lose her, and I spent a lot of time looking for backups. That was another thing that I guess all of us did back then: we used to go into schools all the time, and they would just let us come in and sit in on drama classes, go into the lunchrooms. The drama teacher would take us around. All of our backups were kids we found at public schools.

Let Mike Nichols cry at auditions and be honest with Woody Allen.

Every director is so different. I worked with Mike Nichols a lot, and he comes from more of a theater background and the whole process of reading an actor is a very complete thing. He loved that process. He would cry in auditions. It was unbelievable. He was just so engaged by it, and some directors really aren’t. They’re much more interested in the look and the feel, and the grittiness of it or the street-y-ness of it. Like Martin Scorsese. Or in the case of, say, Woody Allen, he used to be very shy, and he didn’t like reading people. So you were really the one making sure that he knew which actors had limitations. You have to really be honest about what you feel an actor’s range is.

And call them all out on their clichés.

That’s another interesting thing about casting in New York. Directors don’t always know the community. It’s not like they’re a part of the scene. You have to bring them up to date just as much as you have to bring the actor up to date on the material. This can happen even with English-speaking directors who weren’t from the United States, but it definitely happens with European directors in my experience, that they don’t always know what’s a cliché in our culture. And they can be drawn to it, to the most obvious solution for a part, because to them it’s sort of emblematic of what American society looks like. But for us, it’s a tired image. Like, for instance, I worked on a number of movies with Louis Malle, one of my favorite directors. But sometimes in America, particularly if he was doing something very American, you’d have to say, “I think everybody’s sort of seen that before. I think we need to take it one step to the left, or one step to the right.” And he was incredibly receptive.

Bet on the funny-looking kid.

I remember seeing Adam Driver in a part at the Classic Stage Company, doing a Chekhov play with Dianne Wiest, and thinking, “Oh, my God, that funny-looking kid is so good.” I had Woody Allen meet him. I said, “This guy is so up your alley.”

And Melanie Griffith.

Most of the directors who were afforded the privilege of making movies in New York, the studios didn’t bother them. We were like this little cottage industry. Working Girl was the first time I really came up against the studio. I remember that we were very excited about Melanie Griffith and Alec Baldwin, who was the new hot theater actor who was just breaking into movies. We thought we might use them as both of the leads, and the studio had a nervous breakdown that two unknowns were being considered. Mike Nichols adored Harrison Ford, so it was fine, and Alec Baldwin played the second guy role in it. Sigourney was great, and it was just terrific that she did it, but they really insisted on us using a name. They were still very wary of Melanie Griffith. She came in to read for it. She arrived off the plane and we had to really straighten her out before she went into the reading. Few cups of coffee, a good face wash. And then of course, she gave a great reading. She made the movie. It was kind of the perfect romantic comedy, really. A great New York movie.

Know when Robert De Niro isn’t working.

He would always try to transform himself for every part. He’d come in and go into the bathroom and come out looking like a different person. It was hilarious. It was very kind of Actors Studio. He would really, physically, get into every part he played. Big casting went on for a very long time, because originally he was going to play the lead. And then it just became apparent that really wasn’t going to work out.

Be an Anglophile.

Unmarried Woman was an interesting casting situation. Well, more of a show business dilemma, which was that nobody really used English actors back then. But we had this part, this romantic lead, that didn’t come in until page 81 in the script. And no American actor would take it. We tried everybody, and then finally, I thought, well, gee, Alan Bates is so divine. We all had a big crush on Alan Bates back then, and he was thrilled to come in and do it. That was really exciting and kind of a coup. It was funny because when I cast Arthur and I brought up John Gielgud for the butler, the studio said, “Who’s that?”

Do your cousin a favor.

I remember meeting, as a favor to my cousin, Oliver Platt. He walks in the door, and I go, “Oh, my God, are you kidding me? This is hardly a favor to my cousin. This is like the greatest. Who is this guy?” No one knew him. He just hadn’t been in New York very long. I don’t know if I cast him in the very first thing he’d ever done, but he was in Working Girl. He was in a lot of those early movies, those early New York-y kind of movies in little parts.

Cast Meryl out of Yale.

As soon as she graduated from Yale Drama School, it was like, “Stand back.” Everybody wanted Meryl. She did two on-Broadway plays, and the whole town was talking. I mean, she was so fantastic, and I was just lucky to have something for her.

Stay young.

I mean, I know I’m not a neurosurgeon, but it is pressure. Casting directors have to do all the financial stuff, too. We have to bring the cast in on a budget. You are constantly trying to please a director and make everything work. And every project is their blood. It’s what they care about, and they want it so right. If you do that multiple times a year, with different people, you kind of run out of steam. And I think if you start to sort of cut corners, you’re not really good at it anymore. I feel show business in general, you shouldn’t outstay your welcome. It’s a young person’s business in a way.

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How to Cast a New York Movie, According to Juliet Taylor