Casting a motion picture, says Janet Hirshenson, requires a “Zen-like balance between two polar-opposite principles: Know exactly what you want, and Prepare to be surprised”. In A Star is Found, written with Casting Company partner Jane Jenkins, she outlines these key principles, with references to casting jobs from the early (The Outsiders , The Sure Thing ) to the brand new (this year’s The Holiday and Casino Royale). Casting, just like all other filmmaking ingredients, we learn, has a set of key rules. It’s something that must be “invisible” in order to rightly succeed. An audience must be moved, thrilled, or relate to a performer on a near subconscious level. Jenkins and Hirshenson reveal here the planning, procedure, and stress involved in creating that invisibility.
The book is divided into sections detailing the finer points of the ladies’ job. Briefly, they discuss their histories (both noted a keen sense of picking, not potential stars, but the best person for the part as young women, schooled, they say, at Francis Coppola’s “Zoetrope University”), before revealing their processes from auditioning unknown performers and child actors to selecting top Hollywood stars for big budget pictures. Along the way we learn not only what casting directors look for when searching for stars, but also just how difficult certain casting choices can be. Paul Bettany’s role in A Beautiful Mind (2001) was one such struggle, as was final selection for Buttercup in The Princess Bride (1987).
In an exuberant, faultlessly pleasant manner, the authors take us behind the Hollywood curtain and into a world often misunderstood. Reading these stories, we can’t help but question how responsible actors are for poor performances. Or great ones. The casting agent must know well the script, the characters, and the eventual film’s potential audience. Their job means working with those elements to find the right actor for the right part that the audience will champion, fear, or in some other way feel moved by.
A good actor, Janet writes, will “make us identify with the character, rooting for her as though she was our own daughter, sister, girlfriend—as though she were some how standing in for us, ourselves.” If an actor fails to do this, who is really at fault? The casting agent selects them, after all. And in discussing their triumphs—Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind, for instance—the women aren’t shy about accepting at least partial credit. The reasons for the failures (and there have been some) are investigated far less, which is a slight problem here. Why choices don’t work is just as important in learning about casting, if not just as interesting, as those that do. The writers drop an anecdote or two about some bad choices (such as casting an unnamed someone’s unnamed buddy in an unnamed film), but mostly we hear the good stuff, the “magic”. Casting The Da Vinci Code (2006) had its problems, sure, but what about Freddy’s Dead (1991)? Or Side Out (1990)? If you can talk about School Ties (1992) and 1992’s Jersey Girl, surely a moment can be spared for T Bone N Weasel (1992)? But, no.
Review those casting rules, though, and one has to wonder how casting agents ever get anything done, let alone Jane and Janet’s 150-odd productions. The casting hierarchy, around which all choices are based, begins with Stars, big names like Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts whose presence in a film should guarantee bums on seats. Next up are the Names, well known actors like Connelly and Josh Lucas who can headline films and are almost always snapped up to play wives, boyfriends, or other second stringers to the Stars. Then there are the Working Actors (Troy Evans, Edie McClurg) and the Unknowns. Male Stars, say the rules, won’t play under females in leading roles; a Name cannot have a bigger role in a film than a Star; two Stars can co-anchor a film if the screen time difference is minimal; male Names can headline films, but only females Stars can; leading actors rarely have the same hair color; the best friend will never be sexier than the lead; opposing characters (good girl vs. bitch) will be physically separate in every way; and on and on and on.
It’s a battle, and one these women fight with veracity and zeal. So much so that casting their films becomes sort of a war-like mission. There are heroes (approachable directors like Ron Howard), villains (apparent upstarts like Miracle on 34th Street  director Les Mayfield), and a sea of casualties who almost very nearly get the role of their dreams (the agents discuss some now famous casualties as Dylan McDermott and, if you believe these star-makers, the soon to be huge Sam Worthington and Alex O’Loughlin, both of whom just missed out on playing the new Bond). The victory is in finding, as they did, real Stars (they gave us Roberts, Leonardo di Caprio, John Cusack, Val Kilmer, and others). Both agents note that finding the right performer for a role is “the closest thing we’ll ever know to magic”.
The ladies’ respect for actors in each of Hollywood’s ascribed categories is the book’s finest element. There’s a sense, though, that Janet and Jane have gone to great lengths not to offend any of their future clients. Today’s has-beens, after all, could be tomorrow’s John Travolta. But then dishing the dirt is not their purpose. Aside from a few digressions on actors who touched the women personally (Roberts is one, Corey Feldman another), Jane and Janet stick to craft discussion. Their resumes, too, make their insights all the more credible (if, however, a few factual errors appear such as Jane’s incorrect assertion that Julia Roberts won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Steel Magnolias ). I yearned briefly for some “it should have been me up there” gossip, but as I read on, the stories about Brendan Fraser’s near-miss appearance in School Ties, Dylan McDermott’s miss-miss early career, and Robin Wright’s image-shattering audition for The Princess Bride made for much more remarkable reading.