AUSXIP Lucy Lawless Files - Flawless Print - Lucy Articles
1 February 2005
"Then there was Lucy Lawless, who you cast in a role in Hercules, which led to her being cast as Xena ...
Oh that's right, but I think I actually gave her her first job in Ian Mune's film, End of the Golden Weather. It was a very small part but I think that was her very first one.
The reluctant casting director: Diana Rowan, celebrated casting director and SPADA/Onfilm's 2004 industry champion, talks to Nick Grant about her career thus far.You got your start in the entertainment industry as an actress in your native England--how did that come about?
The only film I saw when I was younger was a Laurel and Hardy film and I had nightmares about it for months, so my parents never let me watch any movies.
Then when I was about 15 I secretly went to a film society screening with a friend and her mother and thought, "I'd like to make things like that." But my background had nothing to do with the entertainment industry and I had no idea where to start.
Meanwhile--back at the ranch--I had had a stutter and so had been given elocution lessons to help me speak "proper". I discovered that I was quite good at being other people and had this ability to act. It was actually a lot easier being the characters I needed to become than being me, and I won various competitions you go in for when you're a kid.
So when I realised--about the age of 17--that I really still wanted to be a movie-maker, it seemed logical to me to chase up the acting thing, figuring that if I could be an actor then I'd be able to figure out how to be a director. That's how I became an actor.
So what you really wanted to do--Was direct. And I've spent my whole life not doing what I really want to do ...
So I then applied to various drama schools in Britain and got accepted to some prestigious ones and chose the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School because I really loved the audition process, which was done over a weekend--it was so astounding, so revealing, and it cemented so much that I wanted to do it.
So yep, went there, and then went to London and started doing what you do--went to auditions, got various jobs ...
Then I spent a couple of years working for a group called 7:84, which stood for how at the time 7% of the population owned 84% of the wealth (I believe the odds are even worse today). That was amazing--we would go from town to town reading the local newspapers aim adapting the key figures from those towns and villages into our play, and causing havoc--I mean like riots. Amazing. That's something I'm very proud of ...
After doing that I got an audition at the Royal Court and became the understudy for someone who subsequently got appendicitis, so I took over her role opposite Helen Mirren, and that was the scariest thing ever. I was literally having lunch between a matinee and evening performance, because you had to be there even though you weren't going to be acting, and was told, "You're on in two hours." So I had to go and be fitted for costumes aim made up and learn my lines, because I was so sure I'd never have to go on that I didn't really know them. [laughs] Really scary. I went on and accidentally cut an entire scene in my first show. But we made it through and I continued playing the role for some while ... After that I got noticed by a casting director who did a lot of Royal Shakespeare Company recommendations, so I went to the RSC.
I met my husband George--who's a Kiwi--while I was at the RSC. When he decided we should come back here it was a big decision really, because my career was going along quite nicely then. But I knew a few very well-known elderly actors who'd been in the business for ever and they were all very lonely--they lived in these bed-sit flats and the walls were covered with photos of their memories. And I just thought, "If I stay here this could be me--is this really what I want from life or do I want a bit more?"
So I took a deep breath and emigrated, but with my return fare in the bank [laughs].
Did you have a sense you'd be able to get work as an actress in New Zealand when you moved here?
No, I was very nervous about the fact that I wouldn't be able to get any work ...
When I came over here it was quite a culture shock. I asked my mother-in-law if she knew anybody who knew anybody in the industry and the only name anybody could come up with was Max Cryer, so I phoned him--had no idea who he was--and said, 'Tm an actress from England, what can I do to get work?" And he said, "Oh, you don't want to talk to me, you need to talk to Tom Finlayson." So I phoned Tom and he was just fnishing Mortimer's Patch--they had one episode to go and he gave me a role in that. And then I auditioned for Twelfth Night with Richard Campion, Jane Campion's dad, at the MercuryTheatre, and was going to do that when Beyond Reasonable Doubt turned up. And I thought I could always get another chance to do "Twelfth Night but I won't be able to do Beyond Reasonable Doubt.
Did you feel a great weight of responsibility in portraying a real person [Vivien Thomas, wife of Arthur Allan Thomas] who was still alive?
Yes, and I tried quite hard to talk to her, but she really wasn't very interested to go over old wounds, I think.
It was quite difficult, because I was very English when I came over and so I had to try to effect a slight New Zealand accent. I was normally quite good at accents but the Kiwi accent is really hard. So I had to be English but with a little hint of Kiwi at the same time. I've got blue eyes while she had very brown eyes, so I had brown contact lenses. And nay hair was very long and I was very skinny at the time, so I had to have a wig and I ate cream buns for Africa.
When I'd go on set dressed for the part, people would treat me in a particular way, because I was obviously Vivien Thomas. But when I took all my clobber oft, everybody ignored me, because they thought I was some extra or something. It was really strange. I remember sitting down at a table with Tony Barry and Bruno [Lawrence] and a whole bunch of people and them just all looking at me, like, "Who the hell is this?" I think it was Tony that first went, "Oh my god, I know who you are!" [Laughs] Because I looked so very different.
It was a strange introduction to the acting fraternity in New Zealand because, I realise now, it was quite close-knit and I was like a cuckoo in the nest really.
After that George and I went for a three-month trip in an old camper van around the South Island, after which we were going to leave the country--George had decided it really wasn't for him. Then after three or four months of meeting the most amazing, amazing people--just the heart and soul of New Zealand, you know--we just went, "Oh, we'll stay shall we?" [Laughs]
And so we bought a house and Battletruck [aka Warlords of the 21st Century] happened.
That was shot down in Alexandra wasn't it?
That's right. I remember [US female lead] Annie McEnroe had a heated toilet seat because it was so cold ...
Working on that, John Bach and I narrowly avoided imminent death when we were watching the explosion of the truck for the end of the film. The idea was there was this truck in this crater and they put megatons of explosives in it, and we were told the safe side to watch it from. So we were watching it over the lip of the crater and it blew up with much greater force than the technical guy had anticipated, and it created this big, black fireball that came towards us. I had this cloak I wore in the film and John grabbed me and pulled the cloak over our heads and we literally rolled down the hill with this fireball just above us. Not something you forget in a hurry. But those were the days when special effects were taken a lot more lightly than they are today.
Did you enjoy acting?
Oh yeah. I hated auditioning--I would be so nervous I'd throw-up before auditions--and when I did stage work I'd get really nervous before and during dress rehearsal. Unless people knew me, everyone would get very nervous about the fact that I didn't seem to be able to remember any of my lines. And then within a minute of walking on to a stage for the performance, I'd be fine.
But I loved being different people. I like film acting more than theatre in a way because in the theatre there are hundreds of people watching you right now and you've got to be on the ball. Whereas in film acting you can have another go if it doesn't feel quite right, which allows you to explore in a more intimate way the finer nuances of the character that you can't always get over in theatre ...
But yeah, I found auditioning very hard. Going to auditions I think is hard for anybody--you put yourself on the line and go, "Here's my best--judge me and turn me down." It's terrible. Like, if you go for any other job, there might be 20 other applicants--if it's a really good job. But when you're acting there's hundreds of others and the chances of you getting it are very slight. It's a helluva confidence-knocking machine.
Would you act again now?
"Ever" and "never" are words I don't use often any more because I've discovered if I say "I'll never such-and-such" I'll end up doing it the next week ... Yeah, I might, if the right part came along and I wasn't casting it. I think it's unethical to be casting and then take a role.
When you're an actor and you look at a script, the first thing you do is say, "Where's my part? I could play that part. How big is it? What can I do with it?" So there's a different mindset and, as a casting director, I think you have to divorce yourself from that 'me, me, me' approach and try and look at the whole picture ...
If someone offered me something I would certainly look at it. So is that an advert? "Now available for acting work!" [laughs]
So when did you fall into casting?
Pretty much straight after Battletruck, Lynton Butler was making a film called One of Those Blighters, on Ronald Hugh Morrison, and he asked me if I would play a part in that and I sort of said yes; there wasn't a lot of work around. Then he took me out to dinner and asked whether I'd cast the rest of it. And I said, "No, I don't know anything about casting and I don't really know anybody in New Zealand either." He said that would be an advantage and that Martyn Sanderson--who had been on Reasonable Doubt and Battletruck--had said I had "a good eye" and it would be worth letting me have a go.
So, after thinking about jumping into something I had no idea about for a while, I said I'd do it on one condition, which I felt really strongly about. He said okay and so I immediately recast my role, because I didn't think I was right for it.
So if it hadn't been for Martyn Sanderson I wouldn't be doing casting --Martyn's to blame. [laughs]
There weren't many agents around at the time, but I managed to find all the actors. I just asked everybody: "Do you know anybody who likes acting, who'd like to have a go at acting?" And then people started appearing. The show got really good reviews for the casting, which I was a bit surprised about. I wasn't not intending to do it ever again, and then John Barnett rang me up and asked whether I'd cast a feature he was doing with Tatum O'Neal called Prisoners, which was very interesting.
In terms of ...?
There weren't any casting directors, so no-one knew what you should be doing and I didn't realise what the parameters were to stop myself working unnecessarily. So I just went on auditioning and auditioning and auditioning. They always wanted more tapes so I think I just kept on auditioning, probably almost everybody in New Zealand.
And then Geoff Steven asked me to cast Strata and I'm going like, "Urn, why am I doing this?" And eventually people were saying, "But, you know, you're really good at it."
So I was learning, to a large degree, what was required--I think in those early days we were all learning. I was making decisions and then making a note if producers went with them. It started to make me realise that I did seem to have some sort of knack.
And then I discovered this really weird thing--that I could tell if people could act without them even opening their mouths...
When I travelled around the country looking for people, I couldn't put everyone who auditioned on video, because I had a limited amount of time and money. So I'd see them come in and by the time they walked from the top of the stairs to the bottom I'd know whether I should audition them on camera, so I would indicate to the cameraman whether he should come forward and run the camera or not. I'm not sure I was aware I was doing that, I just had to do it because I was short of time. Someone said, "How come all the ones you're not prepared to video aren't that good and the ones we videoed are?" and I said, "Oh I dunno, luck probably," but actually it was obviously some ability I don't really understand.
For The Silent One, for instance, we walked into a school--we were looking for a mute kid who looked like the front of joy Cowley's book [laughs] and there he was. I said, "I think he'd be really great." So we auditioned him [Telo Malese] and he proved to be fantastic--and could swim underwater with his eyes open--so ! went back to Dave [Gibson].
Dave had set up this itinerary where I was going to tour around the country for three months looking for this kid and we'd been doing it for two weeks when I told him, "I don't need to do any more, I found him." And Dave said, "Oh you're not getting out of it like that." And I said, "No, honestly, Dave!" So he said, "Send me the tape then." I sent him the tape and the response was, "Yeah, he's good, but if you can find him in two weeks, what can you find in three months?" And I said, "Well, I don't think I'll find anyone better," but we went on looking and then went back to Telo ...
So yeah, I discovered this sort of, ability I suppose, and by this time I was involved in making the films and in the creative side and fairly hands-on. And as time has gone on I've become more and more hands-on, and I think I got quite passionate about it.
I took a lot of pride in trying to make the casting as good as it could be, because I do actually think that--well, first of all you need to have a great script. But if you've got a great script and half-pie actors, it's never going to fly, so the actors are the most important thing--they can made your film brilliant as opposed to just being good.
So did you at some point surrender to the idea that you'd found your niche?
No, I've never elected to be a casting director and I don't have a burning desire to be a casting director.
And I've actually walked away twice from casting--third time lucky. I walked away just before The Navigator and just before The Piano--I actually stopped and said, "No, I'm not doing this any more."
But Vincent [Ward] persuaded me to come back for The Navigator and Jane [Campion] sent me The Piano, and I thought, "This is a great script", so ... But no, there was never a moment when I thought I'd found my niche.
Though when I received the [SPADA/Onfilm Industry Champion] award ... I've often wondered why I've done what I've done and why I've wasted so much time doing it, and it was really nice to have that moment. I think it was the first time I'd really heard good stuff like that--it was really good for me. So thank you Onfilm and SPADA.
Your name is constantly--and not surprisingly--attached to Anna Paquin, Keisha Castle-Hughes and now Emily Barclay. Which I imagine you might be a bit sick of, in so much as it might detract from the other casting you've done of which you're equally proud ...?
Yeah, well, I thought the little girl [Alicia Fulford-Wierzbieki] in Rain was fantastic--for some reason she didn't get many accolades and I'm not sure why. But she was fantastic and everybody thinks she was fantastic, it's just that nobody talked about her.
Then there was Lucy Lawless, who you cast in a role in Hercules, which led to her being east as Xena ...
Oh that's right, but I think I actually gave her her first job in Ian Mune's film, End of the Golden Weather. It was a very small part but I think that was her very first one. And Cliff Curtis has said that his first part was in The Piano. And I found Temuera Morrison in Rotorua when I was looking for The Silent One. He was too old for the young prince we were looking for, but I told him he should get himself up to Auckland and he always acknowledges that.
A lot of people have reminded me that I found them and gave them their first job. In retrospect, I look back and realise I have given a lot of people their first break, but you don't think about it on the journey, you know what I mean? When you're doing it you don't think, "Oh I found all these people" ...
You know, Hamish McFarlane in The Navigator was astonishing--you remember him, the little kid [who played the prophetic Griffin] ? He's now a 1st AD. He says he remembers the exact moment I walked into his classroom.
You've spent a lot of time hanging around classrooms, haven't you ... [laughs] Well, I should point out I don't go to schools or put ads in the paper for my own pleasure. It is really laborious and time-consuming and it's not something I look forward to.
I always check the agents first, I see every kid who's in the right age-group and the right sex on agents' books, and I look through all my files before I put an ad in the paper or go around schools ...
The thing with kids is, a kid shows they're really good at acting at, say, seven and what often happens is they go to an amateur dramatic place or a tutor and they learn bad habits and it's actually really hard to get them out of those.
And often what's interesting about a character in a film isn't normally part of the character of the type of kid who already wants to be an actor. Children who want to act are eager to please, want to be told they're good, want to fit in, want to do what's right. Often the roles you're casting kids in for films are the total opposite to that. If you aren't careful what can come out is petulance, and that's not what you want ...
So what's your casting process typically like?
When I start casting a movie, the first thing I do is read the script and then I like to talk to the director, obviously. So that when I go into the auditions, I will already have a fairly good idea of what picture the director wants to make--we will have discussed in detail the characters and how they see them. I like to work closely with the director. It's more satisfying for both of us, and saves time and money in the end.
Now, during the process of auditioning, someone may come in who does something that makes you want to go to the director and say, "Look, I know what you were thinking about was that, but how about thinking about this?" Or sometimes, although the director has something in their mind they want to do, I may think, "Yeah, you know, it could be quite interesting if that was a woman, rather than a man," or something slightly off the wall or whatever. So I will often run those suggestions past the director.
When an actor comes in for an audition, they have every opportunity to show what they can do and then what I always do is change their performance. Now, some actors think I'm having a go at them, but what I'm actually trying to do is show the director that this is what they're offering and that they're actually really versatile and can do something that's totally the opposite. If you can show the director this is obviously a good actor, already you're giving them something to work with. So that's partly it. I don't know of any NZ casting director who says, "Oh, you can only play policemen." I mean, that happens in England and the States, but I don't think it happens here. I dunno--I don't do it. I like to give people the opportunity to do something different.
Having said that, if you're dong an American movie of the week, you're more likely to be typecasting, because they want to give the message about who this character is very last.
That doesn't mean to say the actor is typecast but if you've got a watchman or a prison guard, then suggesting you have a slightly effete, small person is not going to work--what they want is big, butch and tough and that's the way it is. So there are certain things you can't go outside of. But when you're talking about character-driven pieces, there's more of an opportunity to see where you can take characters and not go for the obvious.
* In the interview's conclusion next month, Rowan provides more insights into casting and acting, her views of the industry, and discusses her intention to move into directing.