Studio-t Casting

Casting Directors Get Their Due in HBO’s Film ‘Casting By’ –

The casting director Marion Dougherty with the director George Roy Hill.


If you happened to catch Jon Voight in a 1963 episode of the television crime series “Naked City,” you may find it surprising that he went on to a successful career for the next 50 years. Yup, it was pretty bad. But today Mr. Voight has a long filmography, an Oscar on the shelf (for “Coming Home”) and is still working, most recently in the Showtime series “Ray Donovan.”

To some extent, Mr. Voight has a casting director to thank. In “Casting By,” a documentary being shown Monday on HBO, he says Marion Dougherty, that casting director, forgave his early overacting and pushed the director John Schlesinger relentlessly to hire him for the role of the aspiring hustler Joe Buck in “Midnight Cowboy” (1969). Mr. Schlesinger gave in, and Mr. Voight went on (along with his co-star, Dustin Hoffman) to an Academy Award nomination.

While Ms. Dougherty, who died in 2011, helped many actors into career-boosting jobs — Al Pacino, James Dean and Robert Redford among them — she was never a household name herself. Casting is, after all, a behind-the-scenes endeavor.

As Ellen Lewis, Martin Scorsese’s go-to casting director, put it in an interview: “We want nothing more than for an actor to walk in and do a great job. That is our goal.” And in some ways, it’s a thankless one. As the documentary details, the casting director’s is the only job listed in a film’s opening credits that does not have an Oscar category of its own. Even a movement to award Ms. Dougherty an honorary Oscar in 1991, with Clint Eastwood and others writing letters on her behalf, failed when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences denied the request.

On the eve of the HBO premiere, Steven McElroy spoke to a few big names in the casting world about their job, their own career highlights and the Oscar controversy. One piece of advice for actors: Do not bring a friend with you to an audition. How many times do we have to tell you? The person not trying to get the job often gets the job.

Left, the casting director Lynn Stalmaster. Right, a scene from "Superman" (1978) with Christopher Reeve.
Left to right: Lance Dawes/HBO; Warner Brothers, via Reuters

Left, the casting director Lynn Stalmaster. Right, a scene from “Superman” (1978) with Christopher Reeve.


Lynn Stalmaster

HIS OWN CREDITS In a career dating to the 1950s, he helped cast John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino in “Welcome Back Kotter,” and Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock, conceived as a “a tall handsome, kind of waspy character,” in “The Graduate.”

A PROUD MOMENT “I’m particularly proud of casting Christopher Reeve in “Superman” (1978), because I had seen him in theater in New York,” he said. The director, Richard Donner, was not familiar with Reeve and kept searching as Mr. Stalmaster placed Reeve’s head shot on the top of a pile of photos at each casting session, he said. Every day, it ended up back at the bottom until the casting director got his way.

THE OSCAR CONTROVERSY “I totally agreed with all of those great actors and directors and producers that” Ms. Dougherty “should have received a special Oscar,” he said.

Left, the casting director Ellen Chenoweth. Right, a scene from "Diner."
Left to right: Lance Dawes/HBO; MGM

Left, the casting director Ellen Chenoweth. Right, a scene from “Diner.”

Ellen Chenoweth

HER OWN CREDITS “Diner” (1982), “Broadcast News” (1987), “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995), “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) and “The Bourne Legacy” (2012) and many others.

A PROUD MOMENT Paul Reiser never intended to try out for “Diner,” Ms. Chenoweth said. She was auditioning comedians, and her assistant called the New York comedy club the Improv looking for suggestions. “They kind of misunderstood and sent some very preppy guys.” Frustrated, she saw Mr. Reiser in the waiting area and thought he looked right for the part. “Paul was, like: ‘No, I don’t have an audition. It’s my friend. We’re just going shopping.’ He protested, but we dragged him in.”

THE OSCAR CONTROVERSY “I can’t say that I understand the strong feelings about it, against it. I don’t understand why people are so dug in about it, but it’s hard to change these things. We’ve been academy members for, like, 30 years now, and we’re still called members at large. It’s a little sad.”

[After Ms. Chenoweth was interviewed, the Academy announced the creation of a new casting directors branch, elevating casting directors to full membership with three seats on the board of governors.]

Left, the casting director Kerry Barden. Right, a scene from "The Help" with Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer.
Left to right: Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging; Dale Robinette/DreamWorks Pictures

Left, the casting director Kerry Barden. Right, a scene from “The Help” with Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer.

Kerry Barden

HIS OWN CREDITS Helping cast the movies “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999), “American Psycho” (2000) and the TV series “Sex and the City.” With his business partner, Paul Schnee, Mr. Barden has worked on “Winter’s Bone” (2010) and “The Help” (2011), among others.

A PROUD MOMENT Pushing hard for Jessica Chastain to be cast in “The Help.” “WhenJessica Chastain came in, she blew us all away,” he said. “She had us in tears, and she had us howling with laughter.” He later added, “We really fought hard for her to get that, because there were other choices that were at the moment a little more famous.”

THE OSCAR CONTROVERSY “I feel like in the best of circumstances we are a very integral part of the filmmaking process,” Mr. Barden said. “There’s an argument that ‘Well, they don’t make the final decision,’ but it’s the same thing with a production designer. They bring choices to the director, and the director says, ‘I like that table,’ ‘I like that fabric.’ But the production designer didn’t weave the rug or build the table. So it’s one of those things where, to me, the argument is not very strong.”

Left, the casting director Juliet Taylor. Right, Meryl Streep.
Left to right: Lance Dawes/HBO; Jack Manning/The New York Times

Left, the casting director Juliet Taylor. Right, Meryl Streep.


Juliet Taylor

HER OWN CREDITS More than 40 Woody Allen films, beginning as part of the team on “Love and Death” (1975). “I always thought it was because he was too afraid to meet anybody new,” Ms. Taylor said in a telephone interview. “He just figured he felt safer with someone he knew, even if she was only 25 years old.” Among her non-Woody Allen credits are “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993).

A PROUD MOMENT “There are casting directors or people who expect casting directors to say: Oh, I discovered this person,” Ms. Taylor said, explaining that she was resistant to that concept. But she did cast Meryl Streep in her first feature, “Julia” (1977), even if Ms. Taylor didn’t quite discover her. The director, “Fred Zinnemann, was living in London at the time, and he didn’t know who she was, so that was a good push,” she said. “I was just the lucky person to be able to find the right thing for her to do in her first movie. In the New York theater, everybody here knew that she was fantastic.”

THE OSCAR CONTROVERSY Ms. Taylor said an Oscar category would be great and is especially disappointed that Ms. Dougherty was denied an honorary award. “It was just stubbornness on the part of the Academy that they were afraid if they opened the door a little, they would be in a fix and would have to do more for the casting community,” she said.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: August 4, 2013


An article on Page 12 this weekend about the HBO documentary “Casting By,” which examines the contributions of casting directors, includes a quotation lamenting the fact that for more than 30 years these directors have been “members-at-large” of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but have never had a presence on the Academy’s Board of Governors. After the article had gone to press, the Academy announced the creation of a new casting directors branch, elevating these directors to full membership, with three seats on the board.


This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: August 11, 2013


An article last Sunday about an HBO documentary on casting directors misstated the location of the comedy club that Ellen Chenoweth’s assistant called when she was looking for actors for the 1982 movie “Diner.” It was the Improv in New York, which is now closed, not the Improv in Los Angeles.


A version of this article appeared in print on August 4, 2013, on page AR12 of the New York edition with the headline: Faces of Those Who Pick Faces.

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