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MOVIES | Getting it right: the cast

The people person

November 23, 2003|Mark Olsen

One of the unsung factors in the process of making both movies and movie stars is the contributions of the casting director. For Mary Vernieu, who has helped find the faces for such diverse films as "Training Day," "Three Kings" and "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," one recent project was "Bad Santa." When Vernieu came on board the latest film from "Ghost World" director Terry Zwigoff, Billy Bob Thornton was already attached in the lead role of a drunken department store Santa Claus, and it was up to her to find talent for such offbeat parts as the shrewd, scheming dwarf sidekick (Tony Cox), a kooky barmaid (Lauren Graham) and the helpless little boy who changes their ways (Brett Kelly). As Vernieu explains, the course of the casting process can lead to some unexpected changes.

"The character of Gin, who Bernie Mac plays," she says, "was originally written as an old cowboy, an old-timer in every sense of the word. Terry had certain people he felt would be right for sure. Then it just wasn't working.

"I think Terry knew that, so we said why don't we just talk about this, and then we just changed directions completely. Bernie's so talented and so funny he can just inhabit any role."

Explaining how such a seemingly radical shift takes place, she says, "You just brainstorm a little bit and see what comes up. At the same time you're simultaneously still pursuing your original idea, in case you're missing someone. Even if it's not working with the first couple of people that come in the room, it might not mean that's not the right direction. So you still pursue the original direction but try to expand your horizons."

Though Vernieu has resorted to just approaching people when out and about ("only when I'm desperate," she says, laughing), she mostly finds people by keeping her antennae out.

"I just pay attention. I read a lot of magazines, I see a lot of movies. Even the Enquirer and crazy magazines like that, because that's how you know who's up and coming. They photograph a girl on the red carpet and if you don't know who someone is, you figure it out. They're bound to emerge in some way."

"I always try to meet as many people as I can. Someone calls and says I've got this great person, it's like, sure, I'll meet them. It's 10 minutes. It's not magic as many times as you'd hope, but it's worth it. Down the line, I'll just know who a person is, or -- 'Oh, I've met that guy.' "

-- Mark Olsen

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