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Amateurish? That can be a good thing

December 14, 2008|Chris Lee | Lee is a Times staff writer.

Baz Luhrmann, writer-director of the adventure epic "Australia," calls the decision his "biggest risk -- by far, the biggest risk -- in a film in which every risk was big."

Speaking from Rome, where he was premiering the $130-million historic action romance, which stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, Luhrmann wasn't talking about any of the set pieces that lend "Australia" its larger-than-life scope and sweep. He wasn't referring to the movie's cattle stampedes, its re-creations of World War II bombing raids, or even the movie's attempt to combine bodice-ripping romance with period western while tackling issues of social injustice.

No. Luhrmann's "risk" was casting Brandon Walters, who had never acted before, to portray Nullah, a central character around whom much of "Australia" is plotted and who also provides the movie's voice-over narration.

"I'm going to go hang the whole movie on an 11-year-old boy?" Luhrmann said, recalling the surprise at his decision among executives at the movie's distributor, 20th Century Fox. "We could have had a wholesale rejection. Really, there was a lot of concern about it. A lot of, 'That's madness.' The studio doesn't ever ultimately battle me on anything. But after the first thousand boys we auditioned, they began to get nervous."

Turns out Luhrmann is hardly the only prestigious filmmaker gambling on amateur talent these days. Whether in pursuit of greater authenticity, out of sheer necessity or in the blithe spirit of stunt casting, a number of this season's more high-profile films feature novice actors in leading roles. A boisterous pack of youngsters bring a hard-to-fake street verisimilitude to one of the year's best-reviewed films, "Slumdog Millionaire" (which came out last month). And director-star Clint Eastwood hired a cast of Hmong American teenagers, all but one of whom had never acted before, to appear with him in the provocative ethnic drama "Gran Torino" (which reached theaters in Los Angeles and New York on Friday).

Some of these movie neophytes were hired after extensive casting calls and nationwide talent searches, while others were simply in the proverbial right place at the right time. What distinguishes this new crop from the rank and file of indie-movie new jacks -- i.e., the kind of untested actors hired because of shoestring budgets more than for the quality of their "work" -- is context.

Cineplex screens have been crowded with amateur actors in independently produced festival winners and European hits such as "Ballast," "Gomorrah" and "The Class" all year. But nowadays, nonpros are turning up in studio-backed features with substantial budgets and share the screen with bona fide movie stars. In other words, they are nabbing roles in the kind of films usually reserved for established screen names.

"You can use the fragmentary nature of filmmaking hugely to your advantage with inexperienced people," explained Danny Boyle, director of "Slumdog Millionaire." "You get a freshness with them that more than compensates for any technicalities you have to teach them. The compensation for freshness and directness easily outweighs any of that."

Directing gets tricky

"Gran Torino" follows the story of Walt Kowalski (Eastwood), a take-no-bull Korean War vet grappling with a culture clash: His working-class Detroit neighborhood has become populated by Hmong people, a Southeast Asian ethnic group. But when Walt defies his racist tendencies to help out a teenage Hmong neighbor, he's thrown into conflict with a local street gang. Wanting to cast people from the ethnic group but faced with a relatively scant pool of trained Hmong actors, Eastwood had casting directors conduct open auditions in cities with large Hmong populations, such as Fresno, Detroit and St. Paul, Minn. The movie crew also put out the dragnet with fliers in local high schools, ads in Hmong newspapers and contacts through organizations such as Hmong National Development Inc.

"It's a very close-knit community," said "Gran Torino" casting director Ellen Chenoweth. "They heard Clint was doing this movie and realized a lot of people don't know what Hmong are. They were so eager to have their story told correctly and be involved, they embraced us and were very helpful."

Around 20 nonprofessional Hmong actors were cast. Minneapolis high school student Bee Vang read about "Gran Torino" on a Hmong Internet discussion board, contacted casting agents and was asked to audition. A novice actor, he was hired to play the movie's secondary lead, the neighbor Eastwood's character initially shuns before befriending him.

"It said, 'No experience necessary' on the ad," said Vang, 17. "When the camera first went on, it all came rushing to me: 'I'm here with Clint Eastwood, American icon.' It was not only scary, it felt like a dream."

To hear it from Eastwood, there is a trick to directing amateurs -- literally tricking cast members into giving a realistic performance.

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