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The Casting Couch

thecastingcouch1Two of Hollywood’s biggest casting directors
share their stories with Santa Cruz at the Capitola Book Cafe


When Julia Roberts glided into her Mystic Pizza audition, she was completely unprepared, and a little rough around the edges. But nonetheless, the divine Ms. Roberts was imbued with magic—the type of stuff that stars are made of. Casting director Jane Jenkins sent the pretty woman home and told her to come back the next day, better prepared and dressed for the part. Roberts did just that. And she landed the role, which ratcheted her up a notch in Hollywood. While Steel Magnolias gave her an Oscar, and Pretty Woman made her a bonafide star, Mystic Pizza was unarguably Roberts’ breakthrough role. She might want to send a thank you note to Jenkins and her casting partner, Janet Hirshenson.
The pair is two of Hollywood’s most profound behind-the-scenes people. They run The Casting Company in Studio City, in the Los Angeles area, and for the last 28 years they’ve been casting some of Hollywood’s hottest and biggest films, including pictures like A Beautiful Mind, The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Apollo 13, Home Alone and others. With their sharp eyes that can zero in on talent, they’ve been hired to cast films for such heavyweight directors like Ron Howard, Wolfgang Petersen, Nancy Meyers and Rob Reiner. And they’re the women who gave some of today’s big stars their first break. Besides delivering Roberts the Mystic Pizza gig, these women helped launch the careers of Winona Ryder, Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Meg Ryan and many others. They are, in essence, Godsends to the unknown actor, and God-sends to the giant machine that is Hollywood. And, refreshingly, they’re nice people, too—easily breaking any stereotypes that someone might have about big players in Tinseltown.
Santa Cruzans will have a chance to hear stories about the aforementioned celebs and the moment they went from “unknown” to “name” actors, thanks to Hirshenson and Jenkins, who will be in town, speaking at the Capitola Book Café at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10. This dynamic duo has a page-turner out this month, “A Star is Found: Our Adventures Casting Some of Hollywood’s Biggest Movies.” The book is fun. Not in the splashy, dirty, gossip magazine style, but in good old-fashioned, educational, inspiring and classic fun. Imagine people sitting around telling you about how your favorite actor “made it,” minus the personal stuff you’ll read about in US Weekly. Here is a book that shares the kinds of stories you probably haven’t heard. As an actor, you’ll find it inspiring to know that these two casting legends are always looking for someone new and fresh, and it’s educational to learn how the casting process truly works; as a filmmaker, “A Star is Found,” is a lesson in what to look for when casting your film; and for everyone else, who simply love going to the movies, this is a charming and insightful read.
You can get through the 294-page book in no time, and my guess is that “A Star” will take off in the movie-making industry, gaining appreciation from Hollywood types across the board, as well as from the common moviegoer.
While Jenkins and Hirshenson might be responsible for giving people like Tom Cruise their first break, the women continue to do the same for today’s up-and-coming stars, while at the same time they work with current stars and name actors, creating casts for impeccable movies like A Beautiful Mind. For that Academy Award-winning film, these women at The Casting Company sealed Jennifer Connelly and her future hubby, Paul Bettany into their roles. Likewise, they brought Josh Lucas and a horde of other various speaking parts to the big screen in that powerful film.
After doing this for 28 years, you might think they’d get bored. Hardly.
“Two weeks ago Toby Jones was in town,” Hirshenson says. For those out of the loop, Jones is making a huge splash in America right now with his turn as Truman Campote in Infamous. “When people like that come into town, agents will call Janet and I.” Meeting with an actor of Jones’s caliber and having a “fabulous conversation” keeps life exciting for these two women. “He’s fixed in our minds,” Hirshenson says, reflecting on their recent meeting with Jones, and she adds that they’ll remember him when casting upcoming projects.
While there is no Academy Award for the work that people like Hirshenson and Jenkins do, their union, the Casting Society of America does hand out kudos, and the women have been awarded three times for their work in the movie industry. One of those awards went to honor their work casting the three noteworthy children in the Harry Potter movies: those parts being Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint). In “A Star is Found,” the women explain about the casting process that resulted in bringing cinematic life to J.K. Rowling’s beloved novels.
“Casting kids is never easy, but casting the three top kids for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was an even bigger challenge than usual,” Hirshenson writes in the book. But after a daunting process, the women scored the leads for the series of movies, and they made stars out of the three youngsters. And, as anyone who’s a fan of the books can attest to, the actors who play Harry, Hermione and Ron, were impeccably cast.
Another film that these casting goddesses are particularly proud of being involved in is the whimsical fairy tale, The Princess Bride. Before that film hit screens and gained cult-like fans, Robin Wright (before she was Mrs. Sean Penn) was just a soap star. But her role as Buttercup, “the most beautiful girl in the world,” gave her new footing in Hollywood. The story of how she came to land that role is one of those tender types of tales that you might expect to see in a Hollywood film.
Yet, don’t be fooled, the casting business isn’t always full of sweet stories. Sometimes they are bizarre, like when Jenkins was casting a Ron Howard film and she was auditioning an actress, who crossed a few boundaries.
“I was reading the guy part and all of a sudden there’s an arm around my shoulder and she unbuttoned the top button of my blouse,” Jenkins says. (It was a seduction scene. And, well, the actress didn’t get the part. There are, after all, some rules to abide by when auditioning.)
But mostly, there are the highs—like the James Bond hunt (Daniel Craig won the role), or Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, or Jennifer Connelly’s Academy Award-winning performance in A Beautiful Mind.
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