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The art of casting in Hollywood

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Every now and then, I'm watching a movie that pulls me in so deeply I totally forget that the people on screen are actors. Well, you know, every film crew has a person whose job it is to pick those actors, the ones who bring to life and make us believe what we're watching. You see, behind every great character on screen is a casting director. A casting director's trained eye finds just the right face, the right voice, the right soul of a character within an actor.

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

CHANG: That was former casting director Reuben Cannon, who appears in the latest season of the Academy Museum podcast. It's called "Close Up On Casting." It looks at the art and history of casting in Hollywood. It's hosted by the director and president of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, Jacqueline Stewart. She joins us now, along with former casting director and now film producer Reuben Cannon. Welcome to both of you.

JACQUELINE STEWART: Thank you.

CANNON: Thank you.

CANNON: So, Jacqueline, I want to start with you. This particular season traces, you know, the history behind casting in Hollywood, which began with the studio system in the 1920s, before the actual job of casting director even existed. Can you talk about how casting worked in those earlier days?

STEWART: Sure. I mean, we have to think about the way that the classic Hollywood studio system really worked as a factory operation, you know? Directors were assigned to particular projects, as was every other crew member, and that was true for actors as well. So the studio heads were really making these decisions. The producers were making these decisions. And for the most part, they were casting actors to play the same kinds of types that were dictated by the way that they looked. So your age would dictate the kinds of roles you would get. Your gender would dictate the kinds of roles that you got. And that was really confining in terms of the kind of choice that actors had. There really wasn't a whole lot of choice, and many actors were punished for refusing or offering resistance to playing particular roles. So it was very rigid, an assembly line kind of operation.

CHANG: Totally. Talk more about that rigidity because actors were typecast so tightly back then. The descriptions that studio executives and some big-shot directors would use to describe, especially women actors, they were so flattening. Like, can you give us some specific examples?

STEWART: Absolutely. We look at the casting of "Rebecca," the 1940 Hitchcock film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "REBECCA")

JOAN FONTAINE: (As Mrs. de Winter) I try my best every day, but it's very difficult with people looking me up and down as if I were a prized cow.

STEWART: And look at some of the screen tests for various actors who were up for the role, like Vivien Leigh and Anne Baxter. It's hard to imagine anybody else but Joan Fontaine playing that role, but others were being considered. And there are a series of memos that Alfred Hitchcock was writing to the producer, David O. Selznick, that give you a sense of how crass sometimes and superficial these evaluations could be. So, for example, Alicia Rhett is described as being homely and a bit too old. Betty Campbell is described as being too ordinary, too chocolate box.

CHANG: And wasn't someone compared to porcelain or china?

STEWART: Yes. Yes. Miriam Patty (ph) is described as too much Dresden china.

CHANG: Dang.

STEWART: These - the shorthand ways of characterizing these artists clearly is not thinking about, oh, here is how we might cultivate this person. Here's how we might, you know, reveal different layers of what they can do, which, fortunately, is what happened later on as pioneering casting directors really began to work in a more nuanced way.

CHANG: Exactly. Let's talk about that. The whole studio system started to get dismantled in 1948, and casting directors started to come about. And I want to go to you, Reuben Cannon, because you are, yourself, a casting director pioneer. You were the first African American casting director in Hollywood. You casted for films like "The Color Purple." You were the head of television casting for Warner Brothers for some time. And I just love the story of how you got into this business. You literally started in the mailroom at Universal Studios, right? I mean, that almost reads like a screenplay already.

CANNON: Well, actually, it's pretty common 'cause they'd give these fancy names to these departments. Universal referred to the mailroom as the executive training program.

CHANG: (Laughter).

CANNON: And that's - you know, and you had to - you were required to wear a shirt and a tie and a suit, and you delivered mail throughout the lot. I tell the story that everything I need to know about Hollywood, I learned in Chicago on my paper route. And on my paper route, there with three rules that you need to follow. One - deliver the newspaper every day. Get to know your customers so you can collect your fee for delivering the paper. No. 3, the most important - don't get robbed.

CHANG: That's a good one. Yes.

CANNON: Exactly. So how did those principles apply to Hollywood? So I'm now in the mailroom delivering mail to Hitchcock, Paul Newman, Hal Wallis on the studio lot. And, well, the same thing - deliver the mail promptly, on time. Get to know the people you're delivering to because you may need a letter of recommendation. And No. 3, don't let anyone rob you of your dreams.

CHANG: Aw.

CANNON: And so the mailroom, you know, it was truly - it was an opportunity to learn from the ground up and how a studio functions.

CHANG: Well, you eventually worked your way up in this studio to become a casting director. And I'm curious, Reuben, what do you think it is about you, personally, and the way that you relate to people that made casting such a natural fit for you?

CANNON: Well, the person that hired me to work in casting was a gentleman named Ralph Winters. Ralph Winters was the head of casting for Universal Television. And Ralph Winters gave me the mantra that I've used, which is that - Reuben, always hire actors that are superior to the role they have to play.

CHANG: What did he mean by that?

CANNON: Well, meaning that if you're casting an actor to play Cop No. 1, he should be capable of doing the lead because everyone starts somewhere. You know, Denzel, you know, was doing small roles before he became, you know, a star. Everyone starts - so the casting director job is to identify your casting for - you know, for the future. So they, you know, give the first job to that actor. Years ago, I hired John Travolta for a role in a TV show I was casting called "Emergency!" He had two lines - an actor who had taken a fall and sprained his ankle.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EMERGENCY")

JOHN TRAVOLTA: (As Chuck Benson) I never thought anybody would find me here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Is there anything wrong with you beside that leg there?

TRAVOLTA: (As Chuck Benson) Yeah, my shoulder.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Let's see.

CANNON: You know, once again, he was far superior to the - what the role required.

CHANG: Wait, wait wait. This is before "Grease" and "Saturday Night Fever"? Like, way before that, you saw John Travolta?

CANNON: Oh, absolutely.

CHANG: Wow.

CANNON: He's not just there as a background atmospheric player. He's there, at present, as an actor.

STEWART: And this point that Reuben is making is so illuminating. It was for me because this is where the discipline and the nuance of knowledge of a casting director becomes so important because part of what you all do is you recognize things that the producers don't necessarily see, that the director may not see. And I was really struck by how often you and other casting directors talked about going to bat for particular actors and really insisting, no, you've got to look at this person, because you're thinking about craft and skill and open to possibilities that can really bring something transformative to a project.

CANNON: Well, what's exciting about casting is that you really don't know it till you see it, and that's the exciting part. You may have one idea in mind and an actor comes in with that - and gives you that Ray Charles moment. You say, I never thought about it that way, but, wow, how exciting is that? And I've told the story many times about Bruce Willis in "Moonlighting," that - you know, when casting that TV series.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MOONLIGHTING")

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

BRUCE WILLIS: (As David Addison) Looking up the word nefarious. He said his son might be involved in something nefarious so I - nefarious - something unspeakably wicked.

CANNON: I had heard that role read so many times. But then all of a sudden, Bruce comes in and gives it a whole new spin because he was not the network's definition of a leading man. In fact, they - I was fired because I kept bringing him back to the studio as the lead. And they said, Reuben, obviously you don't know what a leading man is.

CHANG: But good for you for sticking to what you believed. And, look, he carried "Moonlighting" - I mean, with Cybill Shepherd. They were great.

CANNON: Of course. Of course. Exactly. Exactly. But they - that was not their definition, as Jacqueline talked about, the prototypes of what these so-called networks believe at that time.

CHANG: Well, given all the nuance that you have to consider when you are picking an actor to fill a role, how important is it that casting directors reflect a diverse array of lived experiences and identities?

CANNON: It's the only way you're going to ever achieve any degree of reflection of society, if you don't have people in the room that does reflect society. I know personally, for me, I've cast enough shows that if it were not for my presence there as a Black man, the role would not have been cast to Black actors, women - but particularly when it comes to Black actors. You know, my presence there - so I could bring up a name and either out of fear or my persuasiveness, you know, the producers and director will say yes. Now, once again, I'm offering them actors that are superior to the role. This is not tokenism. This is not doing anyone a favor. This is going to be an enhancement to the project.

CHANG: Yeah. Jacqueline, I want to come back to you because we're talking about the discriminatory ways in which Hollywood has long operated. And earlier, you know, you were mentioning the unique challenges that women face when they're being cast in roles. Can you talk about how that has changed or maybe has not changed over the years?

STEWART: Well, the number of leading roles for women has increased over time. It's still not reflective of the population. We're not there yet, and largely because of the reasons that Reuben was pointing to with regard to race. There are still not enough women who are helming studios, who are making the decisions, who are crafting the agendas for what the content is, and insisting that there are women who have a variety of possibilities in front of the camera. In one of our episodes, we look at the case of Meg Ryan, who appeared in an erotic thriller directed by Jane Campion called "In The Cut."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE CUT")

MEG RYAN: (As Frannie Avery) Stream of consciousness, I'd like to point out, is not the same thing as stream of conscience, from which some of you have mistaken it. A logical error in some ways.

STEWART: And because Meg Ryan had been sort of pigeonholed in many studios' minds as a kind of rom-com queen...

CHANG: America's sweetheart. Yeah.

STEWART: Yes, yes - "When Harry Met Sally" and "You've Got Mail." When she, in collaboration with an incredible woman filmmaker, Jane Campion, really wanted to stretch and do something different, it was received very badly, particularly by male film critics. And it's only after many years that the film is now, I think, getting the kind of critical reappraisal that it deserves. And it was, you know, a really hard and damaging moment for her in terms of her career.

CHANG: As both of you have been pointing out over and over again, there is so much room for Hollywood to still grow and evolve. Discriminatory behavior is still happening. A question for both of you. You know, you have noticed how casting directors often go uncredited. Their work is often unnoticed in Hollywood by the Academy. I mean, to this day, there still is not a category in the Academy Awards for casting directors. Why do you think that is? Why do you think the role of casting director is so overlooked still?

CANNON: So if the directors did a better job of acknowledging the casting directors, the casting director status in the Academy would increase. So it's undervalued because the - in film, the director is - has the most leverage. If the directors acknowledge the casting directors, we will see a change in the attitude toward casting.

CHANG: What about you, Jacqueline?

STEWART: You know, I've been really recognizing how the work of casting directors that goes underappreciated actually has a lot of lessons for how we should be approaching opening up opportunities for people across industries - in academia, in corporate America. If we were to really look at training and find ways to get around our inherent biases to give a wider range of people opportunities to show what they are capable of doing, those are really valuable lessons that I think would open up a more inclusive environment across the board.

CHANG: Reuben Cannon - he's Hollywood's first Black casting director and now a film producer. And Jacqueline Stewart is director and president of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and host of their podcast, including this season, "Close Up On Casting." Thank you to both of you so much.

STEWART: Thank you.

CANNON: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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