Saturday, February 9, 2008

Casting Part V: The Natural

Large post, get ready...

Let me tell you a little story about Fairuza Balk, by way of our casting process:

Danny and I, over the course of casting Humboldt County, were fortunate enough to receive some advice on how best to audition actors. Being actors ourselves, we've always despised the traditional structure of auditions...
  1. Actor enters a plain, well-lit room, shakes hands with casting director, producer, casting assistant, director (whoever else might be there), hands over headshot and resume (mind you this all typically occurs after actor sits in a waiting area with other actors, nervously running lines and quietly doubting self).
  2. Actor performs a scene or two (the "sides") with the emotionless casting director/assistant; actor desperately tries to bring some semblance of reality to this absurd setting.
  3. Actor receives notes from said casting director or producer or director, and actor performs again, demonstrating actor's ability to take direction.
  4. Actor smiles, thanks everyone, leaves room and returns to car filled with self-doubt only to call agent and say "it went OK."
Our auditions were more fluid. We performed the scenes with the auditioning actors, and whenever possible we had the already-cast actors from the other parts available to read in the audition. We encouraged improvisation, suggesting the words on the page were merely a springboard upon which to build a character and a scene. Our auditions often lasted 20-30 minutes or more, and many actors later told us it was one of the most enjoyable (if not bizarre) auditions of their careers.

For many of the actors, it was initially a bit of a shock to the system. They came in prepared to perform the script as written; they had already made choices and were ready to demonstrate their ability to bring truth to the words on the page. For many of these extremely talented actors, it took a little time to warm up to this bizarre audition.

But then there was Fairuza Balk. Fairuza is a pro. She started acting professionally before she was 10 years old, so she has been working steadily for over two decades. When Danny and I were 11, we thought it was cool that we each had a line in the elementary school play about the American Revolution (my line was early in the show: I walked across the stage and said, "8 o'clock and all is well!" All wasn't well for long...). Fairuza, at 11, was cast as Dorothy in Walter Murch's Return to Oz. In other words, this woman has a thing or two to teach us.

After our initial meeting went swimmingly (more on that in a moment), we brought Fairuza in to read for the part. We told her about our audition method. She didn't flinch. In fact, there was a twinkle in her eye (but then again, anyone who has met Fairuza knows there's always a twinkle in her eyes). And when the scene started, she took off. It was like watching a masterful musician in concert, an apt analogy for Fairuza (who is a wonderful singer as you will all see in the film). Her audition must have lasted 45 minutes, and the scene she created was epic, beautiful and always 100% truthful. We were blown away.

Truthfully, for the part of Bogart, we probably saw more talented actresses than for any other part in the film. We had to make an agonizing decision. And we were not able to make the decision right away. Fairuza did not flinch when we asked her to come back for a second reading, this time with Jeremy Strong, our lead actor. Again, she blew us away. It was becoming quite evident who our Bogart was to be. To be honest, I look back now and remember that there were other brilliant performers in line for Bogart, but it's difficult to imagine the part in anyone else's hands. Fairuza is mesmerizing, making the most of every minute of screen time, and I have a feeling many will see her in a very different light after watching Humboldt County.

Bogart is a character who at once entices and frustrates you; she compels you to reach out and try to hold her close only to realize she has slipped away before you can reach her. We tried to write her with great complexity and realism, and where we failed Fairuza filled in the gaps to make her a human being.

I recall our first meeting with Fairuza - sitting on the patio outside of one of her favorite restaurants nestled in Topanga Canyon - where we discussed at length the kind of seemingly contradictory woman that Bogart is, and Danny and I listened in awe as Fairuza used many of the same words to describe her that we had used in conceiving of the character. When you meet an actor of Fairuza's talent who has such a complete connection with a character you've written, well, I guess you've got to count yourself among the fortunate.

And I can tell you today that casting Fairuza was one of those great fortunes that we look back upon with appreciation and humility.

See you and 'Ru in Austin,



Josh said...

Giovanni DiVerazano!

Mike the Logger said...

Unfortunately I didn't realize that was how you were doing the casting until it was over. I think you guys forgot to explain that part. Silly me just kept trying to stick to the script so as not to make the important director people think I was some illiterate who couldn't read.

But don't worry about it, I've only spent the last year or so kicking myself for not taking full advantage of that opportunity.

TheSurfaceNYC said...

This was the best post ever... It made me so happy.

Darren Grodsky said...

Dear thesurfaceNYC--
Very glad you enjoyed it. Keep reading for more info. and insight on Fairuza and everyone else in the coming weeks as we gear up for SXSW!

Anonymous said...

I'm with thesurface... thank you so much for this post :^)