A "Favor" for Leslie Moonves: Casting Directors Speak Out on Hollywood's "Compromising" Culture
Stories like those centering on the former CBS mogul have revived the decades-old metaphor of the "casting couch" as a site for abuse, to the chagrin of many people who work in the profession.
In a town that runs on favors, it's the kind of request casting directors field routinely: Can you see if you have anything right for her? Maybe it's a role for a director's niece or an agent's new client. Or maybe, as allegedly happened when Leslie Moonves mentioned a little-known, 50-year-old, Toronto-based actress named Bobbie Phillips to CBS casting director Peter Golden in July, the motivation for the favor is less innocent.
Moonves was not just passing along another casting suggestion, something the executive did often, according to multiple people who have worked for him. Instead, he was trying to find a job to placate a woman whom he feared might speak publicly about a troubling encounter in his office 23 years earlier, according to The New York Times. The Nov. 28 exposé ran as CBS is in the midst of investigating its former CEO over multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. (On Dec. 4, a draft of the investigator's report alleging "multiple acts of serious nonconsensual sexual misconduct in and outside of the workplace" was leaked to the Times.)
It also shed light on a segment of the business that has been a key part of many Hollywood #MeToo stories — casting. Like other men accused of misconduct, Moonves, 69, allegedly tried to use the promise of an acting job to get what he wanted from a woman — in this case, her silence — and to do so he reportedly enlisted casting director Golden. (Golden tells The Hollywood Reporter he did not know the casting was intended for the purpose reported in the Times piece.)
Several casting directors say they receive the kinds of queries Golden got from Moonves with regularity, and they see them as a kind of occupational hazard. Stories like Moonves' have revived the decades-old metaphor of the "casting couch" as a site for abuse, to the chagrin of many people who work in the profession. "That’s not who we are, but it is part of this culture," says Heidi Levitt, who cast The Artist, JFK and The Joy Luck Club. "Are casting directors put in compromising situations? Absolutely, yes we are. But so are people in banking, politics, journalism and practically every field that has a power structure of gatekeepers."
Among casting directors, Moonves, a former actor, was known for taking a particular interest in their work, "for the right reasons," as one casting director who has worked for CBS says. "His casting gut was second to none," says another casting director who worked with Moonves. In the Times, Phillips said that Moonves, while president of Warner Bros. TV in the 1990s, met with her in his office, promising her parts on TV shows if she would be his "girlfriend." "I'm going to set you up with John Levey," Moonves allegedly said, referring to the casting director for ER, and placing a call to Levey before forcing himself on the actress. (Moonves maintained to CBS investigators that the encounter was consensual).
Levey, speaking to THR, disputes the account in the Times. "Les Moonves didn't call me to ask me to meet Bobbie Phillips," he says. "I never met Bobbie Phillips. That kind of request would have gone to [deceased former Warner Bros. casting executive] Barbara Miller. It's so disturbing to even be tangentially associated with this."
Levey added, "I’ve spent my 30-plus-year career trying to develop a reputation as a person of principle. And I hope that all of the casting requests that have come to me over the years have been good-hearted efforts to help somebody get going and not repulsive bribes [to cover for] heinous behavior."
This summer, more than 20 years after Moonves and Phillips' meeting on the Warner Bros. lot, concerned about whether the actress would speak to New Yorker journalist Ronan Farrow, Moonves called Golden, his casting director at CBS, and asked him to find her a part. Golden says that Moonves' request did not seem different from any other casting query he has received from colleagues. "We get those calls all the time," says another casting director who has cast projects for CBS under Moonves. "You take the meeting. You do the audition. I find it annoying, but it's a part of the job."
More rare and outwardly troublesome, casting directors say, are the occasions where powerful men have tried to use the casting process to meet and potentially exploit actresses. Margery Simkin, who cast Avatar and Star Trek: Discovery, recalls an incident early in her career when a director auditioned an actress twice, decided not to cast her, but asked Simkin for her phone number. "I just looked at him and said, 'I'm not your pimp, I'm your casting director,' " Simkin says. "'You’ve met her twice. If you can’t get her phone number yourself, she doesn’t want to give it to you.'"
Another casting director recalled working for a director obsessed with auditioning Maureen McCormick, the actress who played Marcia Brady in The Brady Bunch, for reasons that seemed to have more to do with a childhood crush than a match between actor and part.
Some casting directors say they have lost work when they drew a firm line with a powerful person, a painful sacrifice in what for some is an already tenuous profession. One casting director describes a TV project where a producer asked her to leave the room while he was auditioning young women for a topless scene. The casting director says she refused to do so and was fired. "I wanted to protect my actors," the casting director says. "I've lost jobs because of that. I’ve lost friendships and I’ve lost respect for people in the industry who I thought were really dear associates. As independent contractors, we’re scrounging for our work. We’re hustling. This stuff is finally coming to light, but it’s been going on for a quite a while."
Casting directors say tech changes that have led to actors submitting video auditions rather than coming into an office have cut down on potential abuses. "Where the industry is now, there's not a lot of opportunity for [misconduct in casting]," says Mike Page, Turner's director of casting.
In Golden's case, he was not an independent contractor but an employee of CBS, and one who had worked for Moonves for more than 20 years. In July, within days of The New Yorker contacting Moonves for comment on a story that would be the first to reveal allegations against the executive, Golden called Phillips’ manager, Marv Dauer, with an offer for the actress. The casting director suggested a guest spot as a character named "Erica" on a new action-adventure show shooting in Canada called Blood & Treasure. According to the Times, Dauer was not impressed by the size of the role, described as a "master forger ... a kind woman and a good friend," or by the salary: $1,500 for one day of shooting. CBS raised the offer to $5,000, but Phillips, who wasn’t interested in the part, turned it down. (A representative for Phillips has not returned a call for comment).
CBS declined to comment on the Times story or the Moonves investigation, including whether investigators had spoken to Golden or widened their probe to include him. For Golden's fellow casting directors, their inclusion in this chapter of Moonves' saga is disturbing. "The whole casting couch has always been producers and directors, not casting directors," says Levey. "It should be called some other kind of couch."
A version of this story appears in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.