Roundtable: Why Do These Casting Directors Get No Respect?

9:00 AM PST 12/13/2013 by Stacey Wilson
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Five women who put the stars in a slew of this year's hot awards-season projects open up about actors' auditions and why Oscar won't acknowledge them.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue. 

Writing, directing, cinematography, editing and other male-dominated areas of filmmaking -- which, let's face it, are almost all of them -- have never struggled for recognition by Oscar. Yet casting, a craft populated largely by women (the Casting Society of America estimates that more than 73 percent of its 600 members are female) has yet to see its top artists eligible for Hollywood's biggest award. (An Emmy for television casting, however, has been given out since 1989.) It was the inequity in film casting that inspired filmmaker Tom Donahue to make his 2013 documentary Casting By, about the life and career of pioneering casting director Marion Dougherty. The film, which screened in New York and Los Angeles before premiering on HBO in August (it was ultimately not among the docs shortlisted by the Academy), explores casting's roots and how the star-obsessed era of Hollywood's early studio system placed good looks above any other hiring criteria. It also shows how Dougherty changed the scope of her low-paying craft (casting directors often earn less than most other craftspeople) by giving New York-based talent such as Robert Duvall, Christopher Walken, Glenn Close and Robert De Niro their big breaks. The film also exposes the lingering lack of respect for casting directors among some helmers -- former DGA president Taylor Hackford says in Casting By that they don't merit Oscar recognition because "they don't direct anything" -- and puts into sharp focus why Dougherty, who fought for years for her work to receive a formal onscreen credit, is held up as casting's biggest hero.

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Despite being Academy members for 30 years, casting directors only got their own official branch in the summer -- the Academy had rejected motions for one three times since 1996 -- allowing, finally, for at least three casting directors to sit on its board of governors. But for the five women who gathered on a fall afternoon in Brooklyn to reflect on Dougherty's legacy -- two of them, Ellen Lewis and Juliet Taylor, were apprentices under the late Dougherty and appear in Casting By -- the long-gestating recognition still isn't quite enough.

In a frank and often funny discussion, Taylor, Lewis, Patricia DiCerto, Laura Rosenthal and Jennifer Euston reveal their reactions to Hackford's comment, why casting is something you can only learn on the job, what actors should never do in auditions (bringing a gun is at the top of the list) and why casting is dominated by women. (Hint: "Our gender is just smarter.")

Casting By has become a piece of activism for your craft. What's the reaction been for you personally?

JULIET TAYLOR: I thought the film was mainly going to be an homage to [Marion], but Tom made it into something about politics in Hollywood and the problems with the regard in which casting directors are held. The reaction's been fantastic, even from people not in the business.

LAURA ROSENTHAL: It's definitely made what we do more three-dimensional. Even people who work with us every day have sent emails and phone calls saying, "Congratulations, I'm so proud to do business with you."

PATRICIA DICERTO: Honestly, it should be required viewing for anyone entering the business -- especially actors. We are their champions.

TAYLOR: But they don't think that's true!

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JENNIFER EUSTON: Somebody once told me I was a dream killer. I almost fell over. It was the most awful thing I'd ever heard in my life! I'm like, "I'm a dream maker!" (Laughter.) But the movie is good for laypeople. It took years for my parents to get what I did for a living.

What did they think you did?

EUSTON: They thought I was working for no money, no health insurance, 12 hours a day …

TAYLOR: Which you were. (Laughter.)

ELLEN LEWIS: For years people have seen this credit in a movie or TV show -- "Casting by" -- as this mysterious thing, like the actors just appeared on the screen. Or the director just discovered them.

How did it feel to hear former DGA president Taylor Hackford say in Casting By: "Casting directors don't direct anything," and therefore don't deserve to be recognized with their own Oscar.

LEWIS: It's funny, in a way, because what he's saying is this: Nobody knows what goes on behind a closed door. And that's true. Casting is very private. It's between the casting director and the actor. Of course what [Hackford] doesn't address is why he's meeting the actors that he's meeting. And that's because his casting director has done her job! He's also leaving out that the reason it's behind the closed doors is to protect the actor who's doing something vulnerable. Nine times out of 10 it ends in rejection.

ROSENTHAL: I was going to say [he] is the perfect villain. We needed him, you know?

TAYLOR: Another part of the argument against casting directors being acknowledged by the Academy is: Who knows where a casting director's job ends and the director's begins? You could say the same thing about editors.

EUSTON: That disparages cinematographers, too.

ROSENTHAL: Yes. It's evil and reductive. We are really, really important to the process.

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