It’s no secret that Reese Witherspoon — who appears in two of this year’s Oscar-buzzing movies, Wild and Inherent Vice— had planned to add another juicy role with Oscar potential to her resume this year: the enigmatic Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, opposite Ben Affleck.
The previous best actress Oscar winner, who is a producer on the film, acquired rights to Gillian Flynn’s best-selling thriller with the idea of portraying Amy. But as the story goes, director David Fincher made it clear that he wanted someone else, saying it was “awkward” for Witherspoon to both produce and star in the movie. Witherspoon acquiesced to Fincher’s vision.
The question of who would be right for Amy was not so easily answered, says Gone Girl casting director Laray Mayfield. While every female star in the appropriate age group reportedly sought the role, Mayfield says it took months to zero in on Rosamund Pike, a 35-year-old English actress who crossed over into American films as Bond girl Miranda Frost in 2002’s Die Another Day.
Mayfield wasn’t the only casting director taking a chance on a relative unknown for an Oscar-hopeful, star-studded film. For Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, which opens next month, casting director Cassandra Kulukundis jumped at the chance to persuade Anderson to hire a longtime personal favorite of hers, Katherine Waterston (daughter of Sam Waterston), who is probably better known for her New York stage work than her occasional film roles.
And for Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, casting director Douglas Aibel and a virtual army of colleagues and assistants scoured the globe for just the right Arab teenager to portray Zero Moustafa, friend and ally of hotel concierge Gustave H (portrayed by Ralph Fiennes)—only to find the right teen in Tony Revolori, a virtual unknown of Guatemalan and Italian descent born in Anaheim.
Maybe it’s coincidental that these films are based on published work. In addition to Flynn’s Gone Girl, Inherent Vice was based on a Thomas Pynchon novel and Grand Budapest Hotel was loosely based on the collective work of Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig. In many ways, the books played a huge role in casting.
Mayfield says she and frequent collaborator Fincher did not consider whether Pike could hold her own alongside Affleck. “I don’t think we ever looked at it this way, quite frankly. We also did this with Rooney Mara on Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” she says. “Ben is a movie star, yes. He can open a movie and films get financed with Ben. But he comes to work every day as an actor. Look at him—he’s extraordinarily talented, but he’s a normal dude. He’s a father, he’s married; his priorities are very straight. There are all these incredible human qualities that he was able to bring to the character.”
And for the mysterious Amy, Pike’s not being a household name served the movie well, Mayfield believes. “These kinds of iconic figures, especially when they come from books that are so successful—people have such attachments to them,” she says. “Someone like Rosamund allows the character to breathe because people don’t have preconceptions about her. She is a fresh face. It allows for people to be able to project their expectations.”
The most important element to selecting Pike was finding someone who could persuasively convey Amy’s upper-crust, East Coast background. “It needed to be believable that she came from the background she came from,” Mayfield says. “That was the big dictate—she had to be the person who, the minute you looked at her, you’d say, ‘Of course, that’s Amazing Amy.’ ”
Inherent Vice’s Kulukundis jokes that she never worried about pairing Waterston with three-time Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix.
“If anything, I was more worried about Joaquin,” the casting director says. “Because she is a theater maven, from the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, she is well-studied. Joaquin is an instinctual actor. He hasn’t trained. He’s been performing with his family since he was a small child. They come from completely different worlds and sometimes putting those two worlds together is amazing.”
Just as with Amazing Amy, any actress who took on the role of Pynchon’s Shasta had to somehow embody every man’s fantasy woman, says Kulukundis. She had been following Waterston’s stage career for years, but her first encounter with the actress was in a forgettable NYU student film. “There was not much going right about this short film except for this girl who is just tall, and stunning, and who you can’t take your eyes off of,” she says.
“Every man has this idea of this woman who you’ll do anything for. The moment she walks through the door, you’re a slave,” Kulukundis adds. “Some people see this as an incredibly buxom, blonde woman. I did this search of girls that were known, girls who were unknown. There was something about this role that the typical California hottie, well, it just wasn’t working.”
For the role of Zero in Grand Budapest Hotel, it wasn’t a character in a book so much as his ethnicity that drove casting director Aibel to audition Arab teenagers in Egypt, Israel, throughout the Middle East and U.S. cities with large Arab populations, such as Dearborn, Mich. “I felt like we had several finalists, but in my heart I didn’t feel like we had quite found it,” Aibel says. “We did another round of what I call ‘shaking the tree,’ and in L.A. we taped two unknown brothers, Tony and Mario Revolori. “They had done a little acting and I believe they had a band,” Aibel says. On YouTube, he watched the two boys performing a song they’d written called, “My Love,” and thought they had just the right look.
Wes Anderson liked both boys, but Tony, at 16, was closer in age to the character. Aibel and his team had successfully cast unknown children in lead roles in Moonrise Kingdom, but as an added test that Tony was mature enough to handle a lead role, Anderson asked him to travel alone to Paris for a final audition. The team was surprised when Revolori’s protective father, also an actor, hesitated to allow his teenage son to make the trip on his own. “Usually stage parents will do anything,” Aibel says with a laugh.
“I definitely put pressure on myself to perform as best I could since I was acting with these great actors,” Revolori says. “But I wasn’t really afraid of messing up because I knew what I was capable of and thought, ‘If I just kept my head on right, it would turn out well.’ ”
For Revolori, Pike and Waterston, taking a chance—theirs and their casting directors’—paid off mightily.