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Hollywood nepotism, once removed: Say, son, who should star in my movie?

When Daddy or Mommy needs a new face for a big movie role, sometimes they find that Junior has just the right suggestion.

September 06, 2009|Chris Lee

They were words on which a young man's fate would soon hinge: "Dad, you should check this out."

Focus Features chief executive James Schamus was doing homework with his then-15-year-old daughter, Nona, one evening in 2007. As was their habit, when it came time for a break, the two began perusing YouTube videos. In particular, Nona wanted her father -- who heads the specialty studio known for making high-minded art-house fare such as "Atonement," "Lost in Translation" and "Brokeback Mountain" -- to watch a clip featuring a stand-up comedian Schamus had never heard of: Demetri Martin. Nerdily dressed, strumming a guitar and delivering deadpan one-liners, he performed a routine called "Jokes With Guitar" in the three-minute video. "I loved how gentle and observant and smart Demetri's voice was," Schamus recalled.

At Focus, Schamus has strenuously avoided what's known in Hollywood jargon as "taking generals." That is, scheduling general meetings: informal, getting-to-know-you sessions between a filmmaker and an actor. But he made an exception for Martin, 36. "I called up Demetri's agent and said, 'I have no movie to pitch. I'd just like to meet him,' " Schamus recalled. "The meeting was completely awkward and totally stilted. But it gave me about three minutes of street cred at home."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, September 17, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Jonah Hill: An article in the Sept. 6 Calendar section about how actors are cast misidentified the real name of actor Jonah Hill as Jonah Hill Goldstein. His name is Jonah Hill Feldstein.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 20, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Jonah Hill: An article in the Sept. 6 Calendar section about how actors are cast misidentified the real name of actor Jonah Hill as Jonah Hill Goldstein. His name is Jonah Hill Feldstein.

Half a year later, however, Schamus' frequent collaborator, Oscar-winning director Ang Lee, presented him the memoir he wanted Schamus to adapt for his next project: "Taking Woodstock." And as Schamus read the material, he found himself hearing Martin's voice in his head. "I realized I wanted a gentle but really funny kind of humor as the tone for the film," Schamus said. "And I really thought Ang should meet Demetri."

Fast forward to now. Martin stars as the central character in Ang Lee's Summer of Love-set dramedy "Taking Woodstock" (written and produced by Schamus), which reached theaters Aug. 28. The character, a closeted gay artist who shelves his ambitions to help his Jewish parents run their Catskills motel -- and incidentally enables an epochal rockfest -- is a breakthrough part for Martin.

To be sure, the gig came about precisely because of the pop-cultural discernment and tastemaker status of a certain teenage member of the Schamus household. "Of course, I'm going to do everything she tells me from now on in my career!" the studio boss joked.

Martin's casting exists as an Information Age counterpoint to Lana Turner's legendary "discovery" at the soda counter of a Hollywood drugstore. But the comedian is hardly the only up-and-comer plucked from obscurity by some clued-in child of a high-profile filmmaker, studio head or actor. These days, the scions of moviedom's elite have increasing sway; they are taken seriously by members of the establishment as sophisticated culture consumers with a keen eye for star power.

In Hollywood, where youth reigns supreme and the adage "It's not what you know, it's who you know" is gospel, the "my kid discovered you" phenomenon is hardly new. Joanna Colbert, co-founder of Colbert/Mento Casting who functioned as head of casting at Universal Pictures from 1994 to 2001, worked with studio executives who would regularly base important casting decisions on their children's recommendations. "I rolled my eyes at that," she said. "The insidious aspect of this business, the incestuousness of it, is that these kids go to private schools and get cast because of who their friends are."

But that was before Colbert had a child of her own. She admitted the influence of her 8-year-old son has changed her outlook. "He watches a show called 'iCarly' that I never would have heard of," Colbert said. "Do I watch it with a casting director's eye? Yes. Jerry Trainor from the show is adorable, and I had never seen him before. I brought him in to read for a movie."

The phenomenon can be seen as a pay-it-forward version of Hollywood's prevailing nepotism, reflecting an era in which an "audition" can take on myriad forms.

Sarcastic open-mike

Before he became a de facto muse to Judd Apatow and go-to guy on the comedy mogul's actor roster -- starring in 2007's Apatow-produced "Superbad" and appearing in such Apatow-anointed movies as "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and the upcoming "Get Him to the Greek" -- Jonah Hill was known as Jonah Hill Goldstein. Growing up in Los Angeles' Westside suburb Cheviot Hills, the future funnyman never had any childhood ambition to perform. And unlike so many of his classmates at his famously networking-crazy, enter- tainment-industry-connected prep school, Crossroads, the cherubic teenager never used his connections to try to get a leg up in Hollywood.

Instead, he moved to New York to study writing at the New School university. In his off hours, Hill frequented the Black and White, an East Village bar he describes as his "Cheers." Never mind that he was all of 18 at the time.

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