Summer 2018

Class Acts

When it comes to casting, Barry Levinson and Ellen Chenoweth rely on a combination of expertise and instinct


Director Barry Levinson and Casting Director Ellen Chenoweth. (Photos: (L-R) Miller Mobley; Michael Mason )

In a way, the director Barry Levinson and casting director Ellen Chenoweth have enjoyed parallel career trajectories. Their first claim to fame was Diner (1982), which also launched the careers of several young players into leading-role status. The Baltimore-based Levinson and the New York theater-savvy Chenoweth would subsequently work together on several projects marked by the richness of their ensembles, including The Natural (1984), Avalon (1990), Bugsy (1991), Liberty Heights (1999), Bandits (2001) and three HBO biopics: You Don't Know Jack (2010), The Wizard of Lies (2017) and Paterno (2018). The two recently discussed their process with DGA Quarterly.

DGQA: How were the two of you introduced to each other and how did that lead to your working together?

LEVINSON: I was at Fox and Ellen was casting some movie.
CHENOWETH: It was actually my very first movie, called Quest for Fire. I had this office at Fox for about a year, by myself, looking for caveman types. And, Barry, I think your office was right next door to mine. Weren't you working on Toys?
LEVINSON: That's right. I was trying to get that together, and so she used to just drop in the office and we'd just sort of talk periodically.

DGAQ: I'm thinking it must have been before that because, of course, you worked together on Diner, which was before Toys.

CHENOWETH: Toys was going to be his first movie.

DGAQ: OK. Talking about Diner, that movie ended up being a breakthrough film for almost the entire principal ensemble, including Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Ellen Barkin, Paul Reiser, Daniel Stern, Steve Guttenberg… What were you looking for in those roles and what had struck you about these performers?

LEVINSON: You are looking for people who seem credible enough to be this group that just knew each other for years and hung around and had a shorthand with one another, so that it felt the group would be sort of naturalistic. I think we saw like over 500 guys.
On the other hand, in terms of Ellen Barkin, she was the only person I think that ever came in for the role of Beth.

DGAQ: How do you hear about these actors? Was there buzz going in? Had you seen some of them perform in other venues?

CHENOWETH: In different ways. Some of them had done a few things. Kevin had already done Animal House. He had also done a lot of New York theater so I had seen him. The same with Ellen Barkin. I don't think Ellen had done a movie yet.
CHENOWETH: I knew her from a lot of theater she had been doing, and she sort of had this toughness and yet vulnerability that I thought she could hold her own with the guys.
I used to work at the Actors Studio and Mickey was around. He hadn't done too much, although he had done a little part in Body Heat, which hadn't come out yet. Daniel Stern had been in Breaking Away.
Reiser was the craziest find. I'm sure you've heard that story of how he just came along and was in the waiting room waiting for his friend to audition.
LEVINSON: And Ellen came in and said, 'You should see this guy out here.' So I brought him in and we started talking, and I think I might have brought him back at some point. I don't remember him actually ever really reading. I think I just liked his rhythm… and thought that he could be an interesting character for them to play off of.

(Top) Diner; (Above) Avalon. (Photos: Photofest)

DGAQ: There is a bit of an improvisational feel to that movie. Were you looking for actors who could think on the fly and be spontaneous?

LEVINSON: You needed guys who could be facile enough that they can play around with one another so it doesn't feel as if here's a line. It needed to have a fluidity of language. And it was written that way. Then, of course, I thought Paul had a quality that I think he could instigate certain things. We needed to have actors loose enough to have conversations with one another. That's why I didn't shoot the diner stuff until the end of the film so they have as much time as possible together.

DGAQ: There is some business in Wag the Dog where Dustin Hoffman's character complains that people don't know what producers bring to the table. Do you ever feel that way about casting directors, Ms. Chenoweth?

CHENOWETH: I think that there is kind of a mystery about it because we really do it behind closed doors for the most part. It's just me and the director and actors going through our process. Then it seems like all of a sudden, there's this whole cast. And a lot of times people don't really know the time and care we put into it. I think it's more visible now than when I started out. There are a lot more people doing it. I mean we have our own branch in the Academy now, and it's a career that's just taken more seriously now than it was.

DGAQ: It's assumed that the director takes the lead in casting the main players while the casting director plays a prominent role in filling out the rest of the cast. Is there truth in that or does it vary from project to project?

CHENOWETH: It varies. Sometimes there will be somebody attached. But on Diner, we started from scratch and put the whole thing together. It always changes. On the Madoff thing (The Wizard of Lies), when I got involved, Bob (De Niro) was attached but that was it. Michelle (Pfeiffer) wasn't on board yet.

DGAQ: Take me through the process if you don't mind. At what point do you two first huddle up on a project?

CHENOWETH: Well, with us, Barry will tell me about something he is doing, and we start thinking about people. Then, if there is a script, he'll send it to me, and we'll just start throwing names around. That usually starts several months before shooting, or more sometimes.
LEVINSON: Here's the thing about it all: You can't have a good movie with a cast that doesn't work. I don't care how amazing the cinematography is or even the script. If it basically has the wrong cast, the movie doesn't work. That's it, it's over. So, it's this building block of putting together a movie.
That's something we have always talked about even in some of the smaller roles. I mean, there was a very tiny role in Diner—the guy in the appliance store who doesn't like color television. Ellen found Ralph Tabakin, and he was as peculiar as they get, a lovely man, but his rhythms were so unusual, the way he phrased things, that he made that scene come alive. I always think of it in terms of an orchestra, in terms of the sound of it all.
CHENOWETH: One of the things I really like about Barry is his attention to detail for these small parts. People still quote that scene with Ralph Tabakin in the appliance store with Daniel Stern because he was just so odd and hilarious. I think Barry ended up putting him in every movie until Ralph died. LEVINSON: Yeah, I did.

DGAQ: Do you go all the way down the line to the nonspeaking roles or at some point, do you delegate that responsibility?

CHENOWETH: Well, we usually have an extra casting person. But I will sometimes get involved with some of those. For instance on Paterno, we got pretty involved with the football players and some of the smaller parts and almost nonspeaking. I remember (filmmaker) Milos Forman saying you can ruin a scene with a million-dollar actor by having a bad extra next to them in a shot, and it's true. And you've got to keep the tone right. So, I like to work closely with the extra people. I don't do every little thing. I pretty much do the speaking roles, but I do like to keep a hand in on that.

(Top) Liberty Heights; (Middle) The Natural; (Above) Bandits. (Photos: (Top & Bottom) Photofest; (Middle) Everett)

DGAQ: Let's talk about Avalon. People have to be believable in a certain timeframe. Are you ever concerned about actors who just seem too contemporary?

CHENOWETH: I think you have to really be aware of a quality if an actor seems too contemporary. We had so many old Yiddish theater actors in that who… they're all gone now but, yeah, to create that period was really important to us.
LEVINSON: Ellen had mentioned Joan Plowright; she's a great actress, and I kept saying, 'Well, do you think that she can do the accent and that whole question?' Joan Plowright agreed (to read), so I flew over to London and we sat down at her house and she read maybe a page and I said, 'Joan, that's terrific.' I mean right away I could tell. And she says, 'Oh, well thank you. Well, let's read more' and she wanted to read it all out.

DGAQ: What about star power? I'm thinking of Robert Redford in The Natural. It seems if you take out that piece of the puzzle, everything else just kind of collapses. Would that movie have been made if he couldn't take that role for whatever reason?

LEVINSON: Probably not. It's all bound up with Robert Redford in that regard. Diner had just come out, and he liked it and invited me to come out to Sundance. We talked a little bit and, on the way back, we were on the plane together, and he said, 'You know, if you ever have a project, we should talk about it.' I said, 'OK,' thinking, 'Well, that'll be the last time I have a conversation with Bob Redford.' And I had an idea for this piece and I thought, 'Well, I'm going to give him a call,' and he said, 'Well, come on out.' He was out at the beach and I told him about it. He said, 'Nah, that doesn't seem to work for me.' Then we started talking baseball. I am a big fan of the Orioles. He said, 'I've got a script here somewhere' and he pulled it out and it was The Natural. He said, 'Why don't you look at it, see what you think.' Then I read it and I thought it was great.

DGAQ: Are there ever situations where you disagree about an actor and, if so, how do you resolve that?

CHENOWETH: We fight.
LEVINSON: [laughing] I don't know. Do we ever have a situation where we totally disagree?
CHENOWETH: I remember I brought in a couple guys on Bandits that I liked. I don't know if I should name names, but you didn't think they were right. I mean it was for the young sidekick.

DGAQ: The Troy Garity character?

CHENOWETH: Yes. I don't know if you even remember it, Barry, but there's been a couple things where I've liked people, and Barry's like, 'I don't quite get it.' But not really that much. I mean, we're pretty much in sync. I remember I had somebody in L.A. putting things on tape for a Liberty Heights part. We were looking for Adrien Brody's younger brother, and Ben Foster came in and Barry right away said, 'I like this guy.' I like it when directors know what they like.
LEVINSON: I don't remember anybody else. I just responded right away to him.

DGAQ: Is there a value placed on stage-trained actors versus those who maybe started out in television, whether it be in soaps or primetime? What are the pros and cons?

CHENOWETH: I think Alec Baldwin was on a soap. A lot of people have been on soaps, and I think the trick is to not stay on a soap too long because you start getting trapped. I get stacks and stacks of pictures and résumés and turn them over to see who they studied with and where they went to drama school. I do like that, but I don't think you can discount somebody just because they didn't study with Lee Strasberg or go to Juilliard. I do think there's some people who have a very natural talent. But I do like it when actors have trained.
LEVINSON: I never really looked at a résumé. Somehow you either respond or you don't. Even if they are doing it incorrectly, you can tell. And then you have to work with the person a little bit. So you don't discount somebody and say, 'Gee, they are terrific but they didn't read it right.' There is an instinct to it. I'll have an instinct, Ellen can have an instinct, and they mesh quite frequently.

(Top) Wag the Dog; (Above) Paterno. (Photos: (From Top) Photofest; HBO)

DGAQ: I saw The Wizard of Lies recently, and the actors who played Bernie Madoff's sons, Nathan Darrow and Alessandro Nivola, seemed equally capable of projecting a kind of integrity and shadiness simultaneously. Was this moral ambiguity key to their characterizations?

LEVINSON: I think it's all part of the character that you believe is there, and when you meet certain actors, you can see not only can they fit the role but there are other possibilities. I guess that is the simplest way to explain it.
CHENOWETH: We studied a lot of footage and read a lot about the (actual brothers), and both were sadly gone by the time we were working on it. We got to know the writer of the book (Diana Henriques) and talked to her a lot. I wanted to get a certain boy/man quality with these guys. You didn't ever really know what they knew. There was a kind of blankness or hiddenness to them that I think was really interesting. Those guys were very deft actors, and they were able to communicate that.

DGAQ: Robert De Niro pops up continually in your résumé, Ms. Chenoweth, and he appears in multiple projects the two of you have done together. Do you consider him a kind of repertory player for the both of you? And what is it about him that causes you to repeatedly return to his skillset?

LEVINSON: Well, normally he is a part of the project, not every time but certainly in [The Wizard of Lies]. He was there at the beginning of the project.
CHENOWETH: It is true, Bob is usually in on the beginning of things.
LEVINSON: The same thing with Wag.

DGAQ: It is interesting that in these two HBO movies, Paterno and Wizard of Lies, the lead characters are both marked by repressed emotion and a certain amount of denial. I would imagine these kinds of internal performances are hard to pull off.

LEVINSON: Well, you take the three HBO films, you are talking about two of the really great actors of our time (De Niro and Al Pacino) who have that ability. There is an interior motor going on that sort of draws you in. Some actors are much more to the surface. Those guys have a depth to them. That is a special talent that does not apply to all actors.

DGAQ: What is the longest time you have taken on the casting process?

CHENOWETH: I don't remember anything being longer than The Natural and Avalon, which took about three or four months, because they were so layered.
LEVINSON: On The Natural, I remember we had to have some of the actors we liked for the ballplayers up in Columbia on the ballfield seeing what they can do as athletes. Then we also had athletes up there playing around and talking (in) character. That was a long process trying to whittle it down. We ended up with actors who had been in the minor leagues. And one or two had actually been in the major leagues. So that was a time-consuming process. You have to be able to have these guys play.

DGAQ: Since we're talking baseball, what do you think your batting average is in terms of getting your first choice for a key role?

LEVINSON: I don't know, what do you think, Ellen?
CHENOWETH: I think it is pretty good. I would say 75%.


Our new series involves a three-way conversation between the interviewer and a director and his or her frequent collaborator—whether it be a cinematographer, composer, editor, costume designer or production designer—about their creative alchemy and the process by which they bring out the best in each other’s artistry.

More from this issue
The latest DGA Quarterly features a focus on television, including a DGA Interview with director Dan Attias, articles about crime comedies, late night talk shows, the documentary series American Masters, a Shot to Remember featuring Big Little Lies director Jean-Marc Vallée, and more!