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WORKING HOLLYWOOD

A role in films to call her own

December 26, 2004|Susan King

Phyllis Huffman

Casting director

Latest assignment: Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby." She's been working with Eastwood for nearly 25 years.

Non-Clint credits: "Private Parts," "The Piano Lesson," "Superstar," the TV pilots of "Murphy Brown" and "China Beach."

The process: "We cast everybody who speaks. Then there is a whole different group of people who do extras casting. With so many things being done on location, you'll hire a location-casting director. With me, with Clint, I do all of it. Even when we hire a location-casting director, I go and see all the location people."

The usual situation: "Sometimes a script will come with actors attached, and sometimes it's a totally clean slate -- there's nobody. What we do is make a list and give it to the director. He tells you his ideas and then you talk back and forth. Obviously, with the big [stars] you just choose them. On the next tier [of actors], you set up auditions. Then when we finish that process, we are responsible for making all the financial deals."

The Eastwood way: "I have worked with him for 25 years. Sometimes it will be just one person we will talk about [for a role]. For example, when we did 'Bird,' it was Diane Venora, who played Chan, Charlie Parker's wife. Clint wanted me to come to New York and look around the jazz scene. Diane came in, we put her on tape, I sent the tape back to him, and he took one look at her and said, 'That's it.' That was the end of that. He is not a shopper. He knows what he likes when he sees it. He doesn't meet actors; we do everything on tape, and then I show him the tape. If he says, 'He's good, he's really good,' I know that this actor doesn't have the job. If he looks at an actor and goes, 'Show me that tape again,' that means a done deal; the actor's got the job."

The tale of the tape: "He always says the reason why he doesn't [audition in person] is because it was such a painful experience for him auditioning that he wants to spare the actor that."

Scouting: "I live in New York, so we are always covering the little theaters and the Broadway shows, and we are constantly being fed actors. For 'Million Dollar Baby,' we went to gyms. We were looking for fighters. [Hilary Swank] has that whole sequence where she fights one fighter after the next. I will tell you those girls were painstakingly cast. They were real fighters. We called a lot of the trainers and gyms in L.A. because it was going to be shot in L.A. All the girls came in ... and would do some kind of boxing routine as I taped them."

Star quality: "This is where Clint is so great. He isn't the slightest bit interested if anybody has a name or not. People are dying to work with him. Jude Law -- he was in 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.' He had come off [a Broadway play]. He hadn't done a thing [in American movies]. He came in and went on tape. That was another one I showed to Clint and it was a done deal.

"In the movie 'The Dead Pool,' we had Jim Carrey. I had this little part of this lounge lizard in 'Dead Pool.' Jim Carrey came in and went on tape; he was hilarious. He turned himself into a one-man band with his body. He had his leg up in the air and he was playing the guitar on his leg and the base on the veins of his neck -- all at once. I gave the tape to Clint. I think he still has it."

The casting call: "I was the tail end of the '50s generation that was going to get married and that was about it. And when I graduated from college, I got married as soon as I got out of school. My husband [the late David Huffman] was an actor. We came to New York and I got a job in an agent's office. Then we moved out to L.A. in 1975 because he was working all the time out in L.A.

"I knew I didn't want to be an agent anymore, but I liked working, so I went to work part time in a casting office at MTM. A friend of mine, [casting director] Juliet Taylor, said, '[Casting director] Marion Dougherty needs somebody. She's over at Paramount.' So I went over and worked with Marion. We hit it off. She said I am going to Warner Bros. ... Come work on my stuff at Warners. I went over in 1980 in the feature film department. That's when I first met Clint."

Residence: New York.

Age: "I just turned 60 in June!"

Union or guild: "There is the Casting Society of America; they are desperately trying to unionize, but it is a real uphill battle."

Salary: "You can do very well."

Problem solving: "I had one experience -- the nightmare to end all nightmares. It was a pilot for CBS [of the sitcom "My Sister Sam"] and we brought the whole cast over to CBS for their approval. This was on a Friday and the pilot was supposed to start shooting on Monday. They hated everybody. CBS said, 'We're not making this pilot.' And it was a half-million dollars, which was a lot of money in 1986. So we went back and we worked all weekend. We got [the late actress] Rebecca Schaeffer out of New York and we recast the whole pilot Saturday and Sunday. They went to work on Monday morning!"

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