washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Sunday Sections > Sunday Arts

How Sweet 'It' Is

Some Actors Have a Special Grip on Us That's Awesome to Behold

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page N01

Do you know It when you see It?

You know the It I'm talking about: The hold that certain actresses and actors have over us, a magnetism that for some wholly irrational reason holds us in their sway. We watch every movie they make, even the dogs. What's more, we even pay for them, scurrying furtively into a multiplex in the neighborhood we're least likely to bump into someone we know. We could, we often announce to friends, watch them recite the Yellow Pages. (It is often subjective: You say "Kevin Costner" and I say "Whaaaa?" Then again, regular readers might have noticed that I am guaranteed to swoon over Mos Def, Mark Ruffalo and Hope Davis -- not exactly marquee names. Yet.)

Hilary Swank
Hilary Swank
Hilary Swank, a gifted actress who also exudes a unique and compelling charm that some might call "it." (Kevork Djansezian - AP)

And no, It isn't just a matter of sex appeal, although a certain physical frisson is often part of their allure. But beauty isn't mandatory; the actors we find sexy usually have It, but not every actor with It is someone we find sexy, or even va-va-va-voom attractive. Indeed, it's the ones with relatively average looks -- the Paul Giamattis, the James Gandolfinis, the Frances McDormands, the Sissy Spaceks -- who might best embody It. Despite their Everyperson looks, if they're on the screen, we cannot turn away.

Think of this year's Oscar nominees, from the downright gorgeous Leonardo DiCaprio to the more conventionally attractive Don Cheadle, from extraordinary-looking Hilary Swank to the wonderfully un-extraordinary Catalina Sandino Moreno, and you get the idea: These are all performers who throughout their careers (in Moreno's case, a career consisting of one movie), even in the smallest roles, have inexorably drawn our attention, our respect and even our love.

It is what gives film critics a case of nerves every week, as we try -- and usually fail -- to come up with words for actors and performances that so often transcend verbal description. To try to analyze them on purely technical terms has the effect of reducing what they do to a series of well-executed tricks; to try to describe the effect they have on us approaches either bad poetry or pornography. Is It all in the cheekbones? The curve of a thigh? The timbre of a voice? The smartness of a choice? Or is It some ineffable convergence of all of the above?

"The phrase 'lightning in a bottle' is always used, because that's what it feels like," says Jeff Greenberg, a television casting agent who was one of the first people to give a job to Thomas Haden Church, nominated for best supporting actor for "Sideways." "It's a combination of being original and unique and filling the room from the moment you walk in with an energy of who you are, and not just when you start acting."

Greenberg met Church when the young actor was just starting out in the 1980s during a "general interview" -- a meeting in which casting agents meet actors recommended to them by agents and managers. "He was just the most fascinating guy, and had this amazing voice and this unique quality," recalls Greenberg, who then invited Church to audition for "a dozen different parts." But when Church appeared on an episode of "Cheers," as the guy who tells Carla that her husband has been killed by a Zamboni machine, Greenberg realized that Church had It. "What he did so great was the whole deadpan thing. The 'Cheers' cast, who were not easily impressed, were just floored by him. He blew everyone away."

So if Church has It, why did it take a decade for him to find a breakout role? Greenberg: "I think it's just the nature of the business. . . . It's about good casting and the right role at the right time for the right actor."

Sometimes the right actor finds the right role at the right time -- it's Dad who isn't sure. Such was the case with Natalie Portman, who at age 11 auditioned for casting agent Todd Thaler when he was trying to find a young actress to star in Luc Besson's film "The Professional," released in 1994. "When people say, 'You discovered Natalie Portman,' I always say, 'No, I'm the guy who convinced her father to let her do it,' " Thaler says. Thaler, too, considered the role of Mathilda, the 12-year-old girl who is by turns innocent and seductive, too mature for an actress of that actual age, so he didn't give Portman's audition tape to Besson at first, instead showing him actresses in their late teens.

"Luc hated all of the girls," Thaler says. "His comment was, 'I need zee girl who thinks she knows sex, not zee girls who know sex.' " Thaler asked the actress to return, one of the few Besson called back. Why? "She was just so real," Thaler recalls. Her reading "was just so truthful, it was so simple. And that beautiful Audrey Hepburnesque face on that little-girl body. Her face, it can change." Thaler notes that Portman -- who, legend has it, was discovered at a pizza parlor -- never took formal acting classes. "She was born to do this. I just think it's some genetic predisposition, with the benefit -- and she'll be the first to admit it -- of directors who are able to communicate what they want from actors."

Thaler confesses that when he initially saw Portman, he didn't think he'd found the Next Big Thing. "I didn't say, 'Hold the presses, this is the kid, our work is done,' " he says. "I did that with Liv Tyler, but not Natalie."

Thaler was so impressed by Tyler's audition for Besson that -- having just turned down an offer to cast the James Mangold debut, "Heavy" -- he called back producer Richard Miller and said, "If Jim Mangold hires the girl I just met . . . I'll cast the rest of the movie," Thaler recalls. "I said, 'She has no idea of the effect she has on people. She's completely clueless of her size and shape and beauty and power." Tyler was cast in "Heavy," and that 1995 film is considered her breakout performance.

The "cluelessness" that Thaler observed in Tyler is typical of the lack of guile that most professionals agree is part of It. Casting director Johanna Ray was the first person to cast Julia Roberts in a major feature film, 1988's "Satisfaction." "You just couldn't take your eyes off her," Ray recalls of their first meeting. "It was her laugh, her personality, her sense of humor, her charm, and she's funny without trying to be," Ray says. "And what's so endearing about her is that she's completely unaware of her charm and her beauty." During final casting, Roberts and a group of other actresses had to appear before executives at NBC, which produced "Satisfaction." "I'll never forget how she came up to me saying, 'Oh Johanna, I don't know what I'm doing. Look at all these beautiful girls, I don't have a shot.' And that was completely genuine."

Among Ray's other discoveries are Oscar winner (and current nominee) Hilary Swank, Demi Moore and Charlize Theron, whom she met while she was casting "Showgirls" but who didn't get the job because of her past dance injuries ("and lucky for her," Ray quips). "One of the [main] qualities about most of these people is that they're not trying to impress you. They're being themselves," Ray says. "And it's the charisma, the energy and the fact that you can't take your eyes off them."

CONTINUED    1 2    Next >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company