Out Cast

Heidi Levitt has six weeks to fill 29 roles for a $7 million film with no distribution deal. That’s the good news
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Sitting in the half-dark of a small Hollywood theater down the hall from an office crammed with crates of glossies, resumes, and videotaped auditions, Heidi Levitt finishes feeding lines to an actor. She snaps shut her thick, three-ring notebook, thanks him, and ushers him out the door. Then she leads another actor in. They’re reading for the film The Man from Elysian Fields, a $7 million independent feature starring Andy Garcia. Each audition lasts between three and four minutes, and the actors have an audience of two: Levitt and the film’s director, George Hickenlooper.

Levitt, who has been casting movies since 1987, is pleased with the progress this morning. So far nearly two dozen actors have tromped up and down her green-carpeted stairs. To minimize what she calls “kiss-assing,” Levitt marshals the prospects in and out with rhythmic efficiency.

The Man from Elysian Fields is Hickenlooper’s fifth feature, and he sees it as his ticket out of the straight-to-video racket. A likable oaf in modish horn-rimmed glasses, he fumbles with a stack of photos. Waiting outside is television actress Victoria Rowell. “Is she a big star?” he asks Levitt, sounding worried. “I feel weird about actresses I don’t know.” Then, signaling Rowell to come in, Hickenlooper offers her a seat facing his. “Come sit in the electric chair,” he says.

Next, the three-foot-nine-inch actor Billy Barty tools in on a motorized scooter. He has come to read for the bit role of an Italian tailor. He wears a furry black hat and tells Hickenlooper that his real name is Guiseppe Bertanzetti. “They changed it when I was three,” he says, “when I started in vaudeville. My first movie was in ’27.” Hickenlooper tells the actor it’s an honor to meet him. “I loved you in Day of the Locust,” he says.

After Barty’s exit comes the verdict: “Sweet, but not right for the part.”

Next, Saturday Night Live alumnus Ellen Cleghorne offers a hilarious reading for a role simply called FEMALE CUSTOMER. “You did the first part with perfection,” Hickenlooper says. “You’re an amazing actress.”

Verdict? “Funny, but slightly cartoonish.” In other words, no.

Actress Maureen McCormick, who played Marcia Brady on The Brady Bunch, arrives. She doesn’t need to audition because she worked with Hickenlooper on his 1997 film, Dogtown. He immediately offers her the role of a character who likes to have her toes sucked. McCormick jumps up from her seat, kisses him, and shrieks, “Oh my God! I love you, George. I love you. I love you. I love you. Oh my God! Are you serious? I love you. I love you. I love you. Thank you so much, George. I will just totally blow you away. You’ll love it. Oh my God. I’m so excited. Where will we be?”

“We’re going to work in the Ambassador Hotel. So wear pearls,” he says, adding that the movie will be a six-week shoot.

“Oh, honey,” she replies. “I’ll do whatever you want.”

heidilevitt
Heidi Levitt

Photograph by Michael Powers

Levitt misses this exchange because she’s back in her office, a brick-walled room lined with framed posters from some of the films she has cast: The Joy Luck Club, Heaven and Earth, and The Million Dollar Hotel. When Hickenlooper pads in, Levitt peers at him through wire-rimmed glasses. “Did you just cast her because you loved her from The Brady Bunch?” she asks.

“Of course,” he says, scratching his goatee. As the film’s director, he is the final arbiter of all casting decisions.

Levitt rolls her eyes. “You still have her lipstick mark on your cheek,” she teases, her nasal voice sounding mother-hennish if not annoyed. She had other actresses in mind for that part.

Two months later, during the filming of The Man from Elysian Fields, the director will ask Levitt to replace his teenage crush with another actress.

The reason? “Too pretty.”

In the capricious world of moviemaking, casting remains one of the most important but least understood jobs. Typically, casting directors offer a range of services, from drawing up lists of prospects to screening candidates on videotape to conducting nationwide searches and overseeing auditions. Demands vary from negotiating a bit player’s fee to populating a director’s vision with the right faces and voices. Casting is the only trade not recognized with an Academy Award; the Casting Society of America honors outstanding achievement with its annual Artios awards, the profession’s equivalent of the Oscars.

There are some 750 film and TV casting directors nationwide—a threefold increase since 1980—and about 500 of them are based in Los Angeles. Many agencies, like Levitt’s, are sandwiched between Hollywood and Beverly Hills: Popular locations include the Asahi Beer building at Wilshire and La Brea; the studio complex at Formosa and Santa Monica, known simply as “the Lot”; and the former pied-a-terre of Liberace on Beverly and Gardner. The offices tend to be nondescript and could easily be mistaken, at first glance, for accounting firms or podiatry clinics. The world of casting, in other words, is at once ubiquitous and invisible—and fiercely competitive. It is also the only realm in Hollywood that women have traditionally dominated.

After spending several years working for the major studios, Heidi Levitt opened her first independent casting office in Hollywood in 1994, the year she shared an Artios with Risa Bramon Garcia for their work on The Joy Luck Club. Last year, she moved her business, Three Chapeau Productions, to a second-floor suite on Melrose. Her office, where she works with a partner and an associate, has the hip feel of a set from Friends—Monterey chair, nursery curtains, glass-block wall.

Like most of her colleagues, Levitt shifts between mainstream studio fare and indie art-house projects. She has a reputation for securing smart ensemble casts for low-budget hits like Nurse Betty and for her blunt, plainspoken treatment of directors and producers. Actors value the respect she grants them and admire her choice of material. No one makes a killing as a casting director: Fees range from $15,000 to $75,000 for jobs that last as long as three months. “It’s nothing to write home about,” says Levitt.

The task never gets easier. During the past decade, casting has changed as radically as the Industry itself, and for some of the same reasons. With soaring budgets, the financial risks are greater than ever. Often, filmmakers try to minimize those risks by selecting a well-known actor to encourage box-office success. More and more, as the costs of filmmaking are shared among studios, foreign lending agents, and distribution companies, the overseas appeal of stars has become a key ingredient in casting decisions. In the case of many independent films, U.S. backers choose screen talent strictly to satisfy their foreign investment partners. Sylvester Stallone packs theaters in Thailand, and everyone knows about Germany’s weird obsession with David Hasselhoff. France, however, just can’t get excited about Laura Dern.

“It’s like in the real estate business,” says David Kronemyer, president of Gold Circle Films, which is financing The Man from Elysian Fields. “They say location, location, location. Here, it’s cast, cast, cast. Cast is attracted by material, and distribution is attracted by cast. And that is the single most important step in pulling a movie together.”

In Hollywood, therefore, the shock is not when actors get parts for the wrong reasons, it’s when they’re hired for the right ones. “None of this business has anything to do with talent,” Hickenlooper says between auditions. “I mean, it has a lot to do with talent—in order to get seen. But there are so many talented people. So many. Actors are to L.A. what hungry people are to Calcutta.”

Two years ago, producers Donald Zuckerman and Andrew Pfeffer received a spec screenplay from a television writer named Phil Lasker, who had once cranked out jokes for Bob Hope and produced The Golden Girls. In Lasker’s script, titled The Man from Elysian Fields, a struggling novelist secretly takes a job at a male escort agency in order to support his family and becomes entangled with the wife of a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. The project, which Hickenlooper describes, in typical Hollywood fashion, as a cross between American Beauty and Being There, attracted the attention of Andy Garcia, who agreed to star in and produce the film for a fee of a million dollars if Lasker would tone down the sexuality.

Garcia asked Hickenlooper to direct the project after seeing The Big Brass Ring, his adaptation of an Orson Welles script, on Showtime in 1999. Hickenlooper tapped Levitt to cast it. The producers secured financing from Kronemyer’s Gold Circle Films, a Beverly Hills firm backed by one of the founders of Gateway Computers.

Levitt, who had worked with the director and the producers on previous projects, agreed to do Elysian with the understanding that casting wouldn’t be dictated by foreign market concerns. “That’s where it gets really awful,” she says. On Pfeffer and Zuckerman’s last film, the as yet unreleased Beat, starring Courtney Love, Levitt felt her work was undermined by the producers’ obsession with names. Nevertheless, she respected them for getting films made at all, and she especially liked Hickenlooper for being, in her words, “a very real guy.” Besides, she says, sitting in her office before a meeting with the other principals, “I’m a softie.”

Now in mid September, with just six weeks until shooting starts, casting officially begins. Talk of impending strikes by the writers’ and actors’ guilds in the spring and summer has many actors and their agents eager for work, which should help Levitt nail down talent.

Elysian still has no distribution deal, however. Levitt will have to finesse her pitches to talent agents, who are usually loath to let their bigger clients even consider a project that might end up permanently shelved. In addition to securing the four leading roles, she must fill 25 supporting ones. Many of the actors will be paid “scale plus ten,” which works out to less than $900 a day. Levitt will try to accomplish this in three-hour blocks, between which she rushes out to nurse her three-month-old son or pick up her five-year-old daughter from school.

In a side office normally used for videotaping auditions, Levitt, Hickenlooper, and the two producers study her actor wish list. “Wow, Heidi, this is great,” Hickenlooper says, excited by the prospects for the leading roles of Allcott, the macho, Pulitzer-winning novelist; Luther, the aging Lothario who runs the escort service; Andrea, Allcott’s sexy wife, who is serviced by Byron (Andy Garcia) with her husband’s approval; and Dena, Garcia’s edgy wife.

Kyra Sedgwick as Dena? “Not pretty enough,” says Hickenlooper.

Mare Winningham? “Kinda plain and kinda old,” Pfeffer says. “She’s a wonderful actor, but she’s gotta be a sexy balance for Andrea.”

Levitt bristles. “You should be so lucky to have her,” she says. She adds that she also loves Melora Walters, who was the coke freak in Magnolia. Another Levitt favorite: Olivia Williams, the British actress who played Bruce Willis’s wife in The Sixth Sense and the teacher in Rushmore.

“She’s a fine actress,” Hickenlooper says.

Julianna Margulies? “Oh, I don’t think she means anything,” Zuckerman says, meaning that she has no value in foreign territories.

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio? “They don’t like her that much,” Zuckerman says of the foreign sales reps. “They said The Perfect Storm wouldn’t help her yet. Two years from now, maybe. Believe it or not, they didn’t like Diane Lane that much, either.”

Hickenlooper looks mournful. The irony, he says, is that the names most coveted abroad are already has-beens in the United States. “It’s an ugly business,” Pfeffer adds, eyeing a reporter’s tape recorder. “U-G-L-Y.” A former federal prosecutor who sleeps on a boat in Marina del Rey when he’s in town from Santa Barbara, Pfeffer has produced more than 50 films, including several Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris vehicles. He’s been in partnership with Zuckerman for two years; Elysian is their fourth joint project. They are an odd couple: Pfeffer favors crisp shirts and tasseled loafers, while Zuckerman plays the hang-loose guy in shorts and sandals.

sidebar2The main question is “getability”—whether the actors are available and affordable, how quickly their handlers can read the script and pass it along, and when they might be willing to meet with the director. Zuckerman informs the group that for the role of Andrea, the famous novelist’s wife, Helena Bonham Carter isn’t available and Kristin Scott Thomas said no. Her agent in England liked the script, however, and suggested Sophie Marceau or Julia Ormond.

“You think Bridget Fonda’s too cold?” Zuckerman asks. “Not good-looking enough?”

“I don’t think she’s available,” Hickenlooper says, “I like Anne Heche a lot. She’s got that coldness. She’s great.”

“They actually liked Julia Ormond,” Zuckerman pushes, referring to Kronemyer and his financiers. “She’s right for this.”

“She’s boring,” Levitt moans.

“Totally boring,” Hickenlooper concurs.

“Not with a good director, George,” Zuckerman says. “Let’s put her down.”

“No one’s going to get excited about Andy Garcia and Julia Ormond,” Hickenlooper says.

“You can’t even go there,” Levitt adds.

The producers believe that Elysian’s marketability rests on the chemistry between Garcia and the actress who plays Andrea. Trouble is, Andrea doesn’t appear until page 48, so Levitt and Hickenlooper lobby for firm offers—and more money—to the male leads.

Zuckerman says he’s already offered the role of Luther, the escort service owner, to Jeremy Irons. “We gave him ten days,” he says. It is a common Hollywood strategy to cast leading men first, women second, with the rationale that men are bigger box-office draws and will attract top women to the project.

“I told you he’s doing a movie right now,” Levitt says. Having recently cast Irons in The Fourth Angel, she is current with his work. “He won’t be able to read it.” At both producers’ request, she agrees to call his agent and find out when, or if, Irons will look at the script.

Casting the Norman Mailer-like novelist Allcott will be tricky, Zuckerman says, because “there aren’t many older guys that have any real value.” But, he adds, “Jason Robards has read this and would like the part,” explaining that Robards is a friend of Andy Garcia’s agent. Other choices: James Coburn, Nigel Hawthorne, Peter O’Toole.

“I think he might be over-the-top,” Levitt says pointedly of O’Toole.

“You think?” Hickenlooper asks.

“Yeah,” Levitt says.

“What’s he done lately?”

“Some television.”

“What’s the story with Gregory Peck?” Pfeffer asks. “Does he work?”

“Occasionally,” Levitt says. “We like him. He’s on the list.”

Then Hume Cronyn’s name emerges. “I don’t know if he’s too old,” she says.

“Decrepit?” Zuckerman asks.

“He’s pretty spry,” Levitt says.

Albert Finney isn’t interested, Ian McKellen isn’t available, and Robert Duvall won’t get off his porch for less than a million dollars. Their names are scratched from the list.

“What about casting real writers?” Levitt wonders aloud.

“Is Gore Vidal too gay?” Hickenlooper asks.

“Yeah, he’s not right,” Levitt says, adding that Kingdom and the Power author Gay Talese isn’t old enough.

“On this list, Donald Pleasance is deceased,” Hickenlooper says.

“Okay, thank you,” Levitt says.

They stare at the names. “Isn’t Art Carney deceased, too?” Hickenlooper asks.

“No, he’s still alive in Connecticut. I’ve been dying to find him a cameo.”

“He’s fabulous,” Hickenlooper agrees. “That would be a cool piece of casting.”

“Very street, very blue-collar,” Pfeffer says, pulling up his yellow socks. “What do you think of Coburn?”

“He’s vital and sexy,” Levitt says. “The thing is, he doesn’t quite seem intellectual.”

“I like Coburn,” Hickenlooper says. “He’s one of my first choices.”

“I love all these guys,” Levitt says. “They’re all interesting.”

“What about Jack Lemmon?” Hickenlooper asks. “Andy Garcia keeps bringing up his name.”

“Yeah, I love Jack Lemmon,” Levitt says, trying to move the meeting along. “He’s a wonderful actor. I mean, any of these people are really good choices. Now, let’s find out what the reality is.”

The reality is exactly what Levitt feared. When Hickenlooper mentions his fondness for Frank Langella, Pfeffer reminds him, “We’re not going to get the budget we need with that kind of name.” Such a small name, he means, touching upon Hollywood’s most insidious cause-and-effect loop: While casting depends on the initial budget, the ultimate budget will depend on casting. With a big enough name on board, the producers can go to their financiers for “breakage”—extra money —to cover the actors fee.

Levitt makes no secret of her irritation. “We’re back to this game,” she says to Pfeffer. “I thought we didn’t have to have a name.”

“We need a couple of names,” Pfeffer says, almost sheepishly.

She shoots him a look. “Are you willing to pay five hundred thousand for two weeks?”

“Well, if it’s Paul Newman,” Zuckerman dreams.

Levitt excuses herself to make a phone call. When she returns, she advises the group that Jeremy Irons will finish his current film the first week of October.

“How much would you pay him?” she asks.

“For a week?” Pfeffer asks. “Two hundred. If we have to go a little higher, we probably could.”

“Now,” Zuckerman jokes as the meeting adjourns, “we’re going to see if we can fuck it up.”

“How badly we can fuck it up,” Pfeffer says.

Levitt reminds the producers that she hasn’t been paid yet.

“Oh, Heidi, you know you can trust us,” Pfeffer says, smiling.

The following week, Jason Robards is on board.

In Hollywood’s Golden Age, when every actor was under contract with a major studio, “casting” simply meant scouring the roster for warm bodies on the lot—bit players, extras, even the stars. The process, performed by a studio scout who went uncredited in the film’s end titles, might last as long as 20 minutes. Negotiation was nonexistent, since the studio owned the talent.

sidebar3It wasn’t until the studio system collapsed in the early 1960s, when power shifted to the stars and their agents, that modern casting was born. Television was competing with film for top actors, who now sought their breaks not from moguls but from newly evolved independent casting directors. Whereas studio talent scouts once might have rounded up dozens of Technicolor clones for a role, casting now favored variety over numbers and suited young auteur filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, who preferred gritty realism to pretty faces. Casting directors combed everything from off-off-Broadway flops to Ivy League drama clubs in search of unknowns. Al Pacino and Meryl Streep were discovered on the New York stage; more recently, Cuba Gooding Jr. first gained attention in a theater production at Hollywood High School.

While the studio talent scouts of the 1950s mostly were men, casting is now the only Hollywood profession controlled by women—and, as such, is derided in the Industry as the “pink ghetto.” “It’s something women were allowed to do in this business,” says Mary Buck, president of the Casting Society of America. “It was a way to get in, a way to get started.” Many of the early casting directors were former studio secretaries. Marion Dougherty, the field’s undisputed grande dame, who started out answering the phone at an ad firm and later got a young, unknown Warren Beatty a spot on Kraft Television Theater, set up the first independent agency in 1964. The assistants she trained, like Juliet Taylor and Wally Nicita, rose to the top of the profession as well. “I think it’s a maternal thing,” says Carrie Frazier, head of casting at HBO Films. “A lot of this job is about nurturing the director —getting inside his head.” “Women are more efficient and conscientious even if men talk a good story,” adds Warner Bros. casting doyenne Barbara Miller. Or, as Levitt puts it, “This is a hand-holding job. It’s primarily a female position because you’re taking care of men.”

Another reason simply might be financial. “It’s cheap employment,” says veteran Jane Jenkins: Casting directors earn about a third the salary of movie directors and a tenth the income of even moderately well-known stars. No wonder some of them feel permanently unappreciated. “You have to love actors,” says another of Levitt’s colleagues, “and a lot of casting directors don’t.”

The job itself is a never-ending cycle of concession, disadvantage, and rejection. In the case of Elysian, the odds of securing A-list favorites are clearly stacked against Levitt—low budget, unproven director, no distribution deal yet—when she phones the agent of Annette Bening about the role of Andrea, the frustrated wife who seeks out a gigolo. Beyond foreign market concerns (Bening is hot in both Europe and Asia) and the whims of Andy Garcia (he likes her), there’s now an issue of time. Levitt might easily have to wait several days, even weeks, for a response from the actress only to receive a firm no. With just three weeks until shooting begins, that could mean last-minute scrambling and ugly compromises.

“Hey, it’s Heidi Levitt calling for Kevin Huvane,” she says into the receiver. Having cast a half-dozen supporting roles for the film, she is now trying to nudge Bening to read the script. Bening’s fee is in the multimillion-dollar range; Levitt is offering her a skimpy $100,000 per week.

Though the part is written for a younger woman, Levitt is convinced that Bening should play Andrea, whom the script describes as having “the face of an angel.” Levitt rarely pays attention to character description and often “flips” her choices—a black actor for a white role, an old policeman for a young one—a key element of creative casting that good film directors cherish. Levitt is also practical: Bening has a baby and would presumably want to work close to home (the film shoots in L.A., and the job only lasts ten days). Plus, she reasons, it’s a sexy role, and there just aren’t many projects like this for women in their forties.

After a quick exchange, she hangs up the phone. “So, Annette is supposed to talk with her agents at 12:30, and we’ll hear then,” she says, sounding giddy from this scrap of information. Bening’s agents have assured Levitt that the script and a personal note from her have been forwarded. Whether Bening has received or read either is impossible to know for certain.

“I’m sure she’s thinking about it,” Levitt says, “because otherwise we’d get a negative.”
Were she to cast a movie version of herself, Levitt says she would reach back and pluck Myrna Loy from her Thin Man heyday—but, frankly, Julie Harris’s look in East of Eden is probably more fitting. Dressed one day in a red blouse with gold-ribboned sleeves, green army fatigues, and red clogs with flowers on the soles, she appears pixielike. Her feathery blond hair is pulled back by a fake-pearl headband.

On the wall of her office Levitt keeps a framed portrait of a middle-aged woman in pearls. It is her maternal grandmother, who introduced her to New York theater when she was a child. Born in Montreal, where her parents still run a printing company, Levitt moved to New York to attend Barnard College and go to plays. She interned at Circle Rep Theater and the Ensemble Studio and worked with casting directors Billy Hopkins and Risa Bramon Garcia. After graduating in 1984, she became their full-time assistant, then their associate, and eventually their partner.

“The first big movie I got the chance to work on was Angel Heart, because Billy and Risa were working with Alan Parker,” she recalls. “He was quite demanding and cared about every nonspeaking role as well. I went on the road looking for blues musicians for him. I was ‘Have Polaroid, Will Travel.’ ”

In 1987, Levitt moved to L.A. with her then boyfriend (now husband), Charlie, to attend the producers program at the American Film Institute. While there, she cowrote and produced a short film, Delivering Milo, the story of a boy who’s afraid to be born, which last year became a $10 million feature with Albert Finney and Bridget Fonda. Unfortunately, she learned the hard way that most independent films are never distributed: Delivering Milo has yet to be released.

After AFI, Levitt returned to casting. She was nominated for an Artios in 1992 for her work with Bramon Garcia and Hopkins on JFK, shared one with Bramon Garcia for The Joy Luck Club in 1994, and was nominated again in 1996, alone this time, for Nixon. Despite the recognition, getting work isn’t a certainty. She casts about three movies a year, but there can be long stretches of downtime. Levitt also casts theater productions for the American Conservatory Theater in Seattle and for the La Jolla Playhouse.

Some casting directors use the job as a path to producing, and Levitt would like to do this as well. She’s begun to compile producing credits by packaging talent for some small movies, like The Fourth Angel and the upcoming Wayne Wang project Center of the World. Many casting directors are former actors; Levitt entertains fantasies about performing. In college she appeared in some school plays, and she still loves reading with actors. “When I’m old,” she says, a little dreamily, “I’d like to be a character actress, maybe.”

Levitt knows thousands of actors by face and name and can consider most of them for a particular role without so much as a head shot or a phone call. In fact, Levitt has a stable of actors she calls upon over and over, including Tracy Walter and James Karen. Rosalind Chao, whom she cast in key roles in The Joy Luck Club and What Dreams May Come, was also tapped for a tiny part in The Man from Elysian Fields. Why did she agree to take such a small role—a bookstore customer in a scene with Andy Garcia? “You go up for it because it’s Heidi,” Chao explains. “She’s considered a classy casting director, so people will go in for stuff they wouldn’t ordinarily audition for. She makes it easy for you to do your best reading for directors because she’s briefed them on what you’ve done. She doesn’t stick you in a room with a bunch of people who look just like you, only better.”

The phone trills. “Casting,” Levitt answers. Annette Bening has read the script and wants more time to think about it, say her agents, who have already stalled for a week. Levitt is promised a yes or no by seven that evening. This latest delay triggers anxiety over how one actress will mesh with another. If Bening plays Andrea, will Minnie Driver be right as Dena, the wife of Andy Garcia’s character? The producers want Driver either way. The film shoots in 18 days.

sidebar1The casting of Luther, the escort service maven, isn’t going any better. The role is being offered to John Malkovich now that Jeremy Irons, Nick Nolte, Christopher Walken, Bob Hoskins, and Dustin Hoffman have turned it down. At one point, Levitt pursued Tommy Lee Jones, but Garcia vetoed him. Back to the list.

Each offer sets off a series of reactions. After reading the script—if the agent even passes it along—some actors will want to meet the director and read for the part, while others will simply expect an offer. Then there’s the matter of what types of roles and level of salary the actor’s agent wants for his or her client. Yet which agent—the covering agent (who talks to casting directors), the responsible agent (who talks to the star), or the manager (who oversees the star’s career)? It’s impossible to know. Agents of major stars often bypass casting directors entirely, they go directly to studio chiefs or producers to make the deal.

While Levitt awaits a response from Bening, her casting office is a nonstop carnival of character actors and bit players—plus one country singer who arrives unannounced with a tape of himself in a popcorn tub. One moment Levitt is reviewing prospects for bartenders; the next, for maids. For her, this is the enjoyable part of casting. When the time comes to choose a receptionist, one of the candidates is granted an audition primarily because she attended a yoga retreat with a producer Levitt knows. Despite her lack of talent, she will be cast for her large breasts to give the character of Luther a reason to flirt with her.

Bening’s handlers call Levitt at seven as promised. The answer is no.

Outwardly, Levitt shows no trace of disappointment. Inwardly, she is crushed. For the moment, however, the defeat only seems to strengthen her resolve, and instead of moving down the Hollywood-actress hierarchy, she climbs even higher. “Hey, it’s Heidi Levitt for Chuck Binder,” she says, sounding chipper as she calls Sharon Stone’s manager. If Bening was a long shot, Stone is pure fantasy, and Levitt’s upbeat tone belies the reality: The situation is becoming desperate.

“Hi, Chuck. Let me tell you what I’m doing and you give me a reality check,” she begins. “It’s a couple of weeks’ work. She’s married to Jason Robards and sleeping with Andy Garcia—so what could be bad?”

She pauses nervously.

“If I got you an offer today for five hundred and a ten-day commitment, could I get a quick answer?” she continues. Stone commands upwards of $10 million per picture.

A week later, Stone passes. Levitt offers the role to Rene Russo, who is also very bankable in Europe. After another dozen phone calls, she passes.

Hearing this, Levitt hangs up the receiver and drops her head on her desk beside her fat red Rolodex. “Okay, I’m really stuck in shit’s creek right now,” Levitt says. “I have no one.”

With time running out, Levitt and Hickenlooper thumb their noses at foreign value issues and contemplate Frances O’Connor (the director’s current favorite, yet worthless in Korea, financiers claim), Madeleine Stowe (decent foreign value, and a friend of Garcia’s), Anne Heche (her Fresno meltdown didn’t hurt her in Sweden, but not a friend of Garcia’s). A movie star’s “value” is often fuzzy math, Levitt and Hickenlooper understand, and they are more than glad to take marketing out of the decision. If the CEO of a foreign sales company favors certain actors, it might be the result of exhaustive research. Or it might be because her mother in England has actually heard of them.

Friday afternoon, ten days until shooting. In a span of five weeks, Levitt’s office has cast 19 of 25 supporting roles. Still, Levitt is feeling more anxious than ever: Jason Robards remains the lone headliner on board.

Pacing beside her desk, Hickenlooper, who wears the standard-issue director’s attire of black jeans and black jacket, sips from a can of Diet Coke. Tonight he’s flying to Venice for dinner with Mick Jagger to convince him to play Luther, the head of the escort service. Hickenlooper has already adjusted his filming schedule for the rock icon, even though Jagger has yet to commit. He has simply told Hickenlooper he likes the script and wants to discuss it.

“It’s so cool that you’re going to meet Mick Jagger,” Levitt says, sitting behind her long pine desk. Then, as if reminding a child to wear a raincoat, she adds: “Ben Kingsley’s in Italy, too. Take an extra script with you, just in case.” And then, teasingly: “I imagine you in a drunken stupor on a gondola tomorrow night.” Their relationship is part Edith and Archie, part big sister-little brother. When he is out of earshot, she says, “He’s going to fly all the way to Venice tonight, and we’ll be completely fucked if Jagger doesn’t do it.” They have no backup for the role.

Julianna Margulies, fresh from her local run in The Vagina Monologues, is waiting in the hallway, alone. She has come to discuss the role of Dena, Andy Garcia’s wife, a role Minnie Driver has turned down. Hickenlooper wants to offer it to Mare Winningham, but Kronemyer has told him absolutely not.

“Is her name Julianna or Julianne?” Hickenlooper asks, having never seen ER. (He claims he doesn’t own a TV.)

“Julianna,” Levitt says.

“Okay,” he says, moving to fetch the curly-haired brunette from the hallway. “Hey, Julianna, I’m George.” He ushers her into the side office, and for the next half hour, peals of laughter erupt from behind the closed door.

sidebar4Finally, as Margulies departs, the director emerges. “I love her,” he tells Levitt. “She’s so smart. She’s wonderful.”

“Okay, so you love her. That’s interesting. Now what?”

On a TV set next to Levitt’s desk, a video-tape shows Julia Ormond in an unreleased movie with Vince Vaughn. The sound is muted, and no one is watching.

Less than a week before shooting starts, Zuckerman offers the role of Andrea to Julia Ormond despite Levitt’s overtures to Olivia Williams and Madeleine Stowe. This, Levitt fumes, is less casting than packaging: Garcia, Margulies, and Ormond are represented by the same management company, in a cozy arrangement that dashes the goals of Levitt and Hickenlooper. “Donald is pandering to them,” she says. Zuckerman claims Levitt’s last-minute pursuit of Rene Russo—a pipe dream, in his opinion—left him with no time and no choice.

Two weeks into filming, things fall apart. Robards is too ill to get on a plane, and when Ormond learns her costar has dropped out, she does, too. Levitt, who has been paid for the project and is now working as a favor, must trace her steps back to Olivia Williams and James Coburn, now the leading candidates for Andrea and Allcott. Williams signs almost immediately. Coburn follows after rearranging his schedule.

Levitt’s relationships with Hickenlooper and Zuckerman begin to fray. She’s spending too much time getting visas for the European actors. Then, with Hickenlooper worried about having so many English accents in the film, Zuckerman asks her to replace British TV actor Simon Templeman the night before his first shooting day. She balks.

“You just don’t treat people this way,” Levitt says later. “It’s like George, who acts like Mr. Nice Guy, woke up one morning and said, `Uh-oh, I have too many British people.’ So what?” For Levitt, treating actors with such cavalier disregard is the last straw—and, in a moment of frustration, she quits. “I am so off this movie,” she says. “Did I ever get to cast who I wanted? I won’t work with them again.”

Levitt sends Templeman a gift basket and concentrates on her next film, a Paramount comedy with Elizabeth Hurley and Matthew Perry.

Not that her objections will get Templeman his job back. “At the end of the day, she has no control,” Pfeffer says, sitting in his office. Even Templeman, who was paid in full by the producers, doesn’t quite understand Levitt’s outrage. In truth, he later explains, actors lose parts at the last minute all the time—and rarely get parachute money. “If the check bounces,” he quips, “I’ll get back to you.”

In Hollywood, of course, “I quit” means “I hate this project, but I need the credit.” When Hickenlooper calls her a few days later wanting to dump Maureen McCormick, she offers a compromise: She will recast the role only if McCormick is given another one.

Will she work with the director again? “I’ll reserve judgment,” she says. In other words, she’ll have to see the movie first.

On the set in Pasadena, more than halfway into the five-week shoot, Hickenlooper is thrilled. “I got everyone I wanted,” he says during a break. “It’s a miracle.” He got more than he asked for, in fact, when Jagger insisted that his character have a girlfriend and that his pal Anjelica Huston play the part. Huston agreed to do it for virtually nothing.

Garcia is delighted with the final lineup. Sitting in his trailer with his mother, who is visiting for the Thanksgiving holiday, he watches dailies and tunes bongos. “I knew from the get-go the script would attract a great cast,” he says. “Heidi was efficient and aggressive. She didn’t want to settle for not going to the top talent.” He claims Olivia Williams, not Julia Ormond or Madeleine Stowe, was always his choice for Andrea, and that Jagger—”a prince,” in his words—was an immediate front-runner for Luther.

Pfeffer is less boosterish. “It’s a good enough cast to get us theatrical distribution, but it’s not guaranteed,” he says, warning that Gold Circle Films “can take the picture and stick it in a drawer if they want.”

Across town, in his modest Beverly Hills office, Gold Circle’s David Kronemyer seems confident. He predicts that by February, before the film is submitted for Cannes Film Festival consideration, he’ll have secured theatrical distribution for the movie, thanks to its magnificent ensemble cast (in order of billing): Andy Garcia, Mick Jagger, Julianna Margulies, Olivia Williams, James Coburn, and Anjelica Huston.


Heidi LevittThis feature appears in the March 2001 issue of Los Angeles magazine

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