Juliet Taylor needs an Arab.
Not an Arab, exactly, but a Dark Man of Romance, someone who could carry Rachel's bags onto the Eastern Shuttle and make that brief encounter ignite a sexual fantasy -- when Rachel is the heroine of a movie called "Heartburn." Someone who can appear on the screen for maybe two minutes and register.
But here in New York's foremost casting office, amid the hectic whirl that Taylor calls 9-to-5, as phones ring and actors sit in the outer office as agitatedly patient as hummingbirds stalled in midair, shorthand is required. So instead of saying "You've got another Dark-Skinned Man!," which is what the part is called in the script, Taylor's assistants bustle in and out crying, "You've got another Arab!"
It is June. The major roles in "Heartburn," based on the novel by Nora Ephron that is generally regarded as a roman a clef about her marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein, have already been cast by director Mike Nichols, in consultation with Taylor: Meryl Streep, a Taylor favorite (she gave Streep her first part, in "Julia"), will play Rachel; Mandy Patinkin, a New York stage actor and a friend of Taylor's, will play Mark (though, as things turn out, not for long); Karen Akers, whom Taylor first heard of when Akers was singing in New York nightclubs, will play Thelma, the Other Woman. What remains are the bit parts, the spear carriers who have two or three days' work X'ed in their row on the "Day Out of Days" shooting schedule tacked to the bulletin board, roles that, cumulatively, can mean as much to a movie as the leads.
"Some movies rely very much on having that very textural sort of feeling that is very atmospheric. If you see Martin Scorsese movies, they always have that very strong atmospheric feel to them. Woody Allen movies are very specific -- they're almost more visual than having to do with actors creating performances," says Taylor, who has cast for both. " 'Heartburn' is really very much of an actor's movie. There are very few sort of one-liners that are just types. In the smaller parts you have to take the leap toward people who are the part a little bit, but who are also actors, which is trickier."
Later in the summer, as the heat and the clatter of jackhammers insist their way through the open windows (no air conditioning, spare furniture, business on the cheap), Taylor and Nichols will have some heartburn of their own -- Nichols, after shooting has begun, will decide that he made a mistake with Patinkin, and replace him with his friend, Jack Nicholson. But that's all ahead of her. Now she only has Arabs on her mind.
And in they come, one after another, seven dark, intense gazes, mustaches like push brooms, each one a dead ringer for Omar Sharif, if it was a dark nightclub and you had barely touched your 10th Scotch -- the world gone swarthy, if only for an afternoon.
In the profession of casting, there is Juliet Taylor. And then there is everyone else.
She is, everyone agrees, the best, working only on a few selected projects, only with choice directors. With the exception of "Sleeper" and "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex," she has cast every Woody Allen movie since "Bananas." James L. Brooks used her for "Terms of Endearment"; David Puttnam hired her to cast "The Killing Fields." Alan Pakula. Robert Benton. Paul Mazursky. Sidney Lumet. Nichols. The appearance of her name in the credits has a unique cachet in the movie business, a cachet consisting of two phrases that, nowadays, tend to go together: "New York" and "class."
She is the Hollywood powerhouse as PTA lady, a short 40-year-old with a bright round face and a big white cardigan, whose conversation is larded with enthusiasm, "Great!" and "Really?" and "No kidding!"
To all the waiters on Columbus Avenue who call themselves actors -- which is to say, all the waiters on Columbus Avenue -- she is Siva, the Creator and the Destroyer.
"I think actors have an exaggerated sense of a casting director's power," Taylor says. "I think they feel that we can get them a part, which we can't. Most actors think that if they can get the audition, they can get the part, and that's where I guess the power does come in. If you're good, you do rise to the top to a certain degree. But it's a tough world out there -- you might not."
A sign outside her door reads "Enter by Appointment Only Please." Next to it hangs a box, bearing the legend "Leave Pictures Here. Thank You," onto which someone has deposited a big lipsticky buss.
She hates the idea that she has "discovered" people: "I've always objected to that term. Casting directors love to say they've discovered people, when in fact usually those people were there. Meryl Streep had been out of Yale Drama School for maybe a couple of years. As soon as she came to New York, she started working on the stage and people were noticing her -- believe me, they were noticing her. Every play she did was a sensation -- it wasn't very hard to pick up on that."
Still, she picked up on it, the same way she picked up on Al Pacino and Raul Julia in the first movie she cast on her own, "Panic in Needle Park." The way she saw Jeff Daniels in "Fifth of July" and cast him in "Terms of Endearment," and later "The Purple Rose of Cairo."
It's in her blood. Sort of.
"My father had done a lot of acting while he was in college," she says, adding, with mock portentousness, "He was in the Yale Dramat! And I think I kind of picked up on it."
She grew up in comfortable circumstances in Greenwich, Conn., followed the quintessential preppy arc by going to Miss Porter's School, then Smith, where she majored in theater. After graduation, she headed to New York.
"I got a job as an usher at the Jan Hus Playhouse on the East Side. They do a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan, you know, they do 'The Savoyards' or whatever, and I just thought that was so great! I thought that was what you were supposed to do when you started in the theater."
Through a Smith connection, Taylor got a job as a secretary for David Merrick, when he had no less than eight shows running on Broadway at once. Her big break came when she was offered another secretarial job by Marion Dougherty, the woman who virtually invented New York casting, who remembers Taylor as a "timorous wee beastie. I've said, 'Juliet, you've turned from a mouse to a lion.' "
"She really was a pioneer in casting," says Taylor. "She eliminated the old 'cattle call,' 'grocery list' kind of casting; she was very specific, she only wanted to see three or four people for each role, and they would all be different."
They worked out of a 100-year-old Victorian town house on 30th Street between Lexington and Third, where on any given day you might find a young actor named Al Pacino, who was appearing off-Broadway in a play called "Does the Indian Want the Bronx?" Or Sissy Spacek, who had been recommended by her uncle, Rip Torn, sitting on the floor playing a guitar, trying to break into the music business and being persuaded to try acting. Or Dustin Hoffman, off-Broadway in "Eh!" Or Herve "De plane! De plane!" Villechaize, who was working in a delicatessen down the block.
"I just stayed there forever," remembers Taylor. "I just outstayed everybody else who worked there. I even outstayed Marion, who left to produce movies, and I kind of inherited her business."
Doughtery is now a vice president at Warner Bros., and her alumnae pervade the casting business. Besides Taylor, there is Gretchen Rennell, who heads casting at Paramount, and Wally Nicita, another Warner's VP. An Old Boy Network in an Old Girls' profession.
In walks another Arab, looking, well, sort of Arabic, which is deceiving. "There's a big mixture in me," he says. "My father came from Albania, and my mother from Egypt. And they met in Yugoslavia. They lived there and I was born there. Stayed there for 10 years. Went to Italy for a year, and came back here, to Connecticut, actually."
He continues for a couple of minutes with his family history. Taylor gives him the "Great!" and "Really?" and "No kidding!" but in between she assays him with the calculating, oh-so-cold stare you only see a few blocks south, behind a jeweler's loupe. She gets his height and his age, fiddles with his photograph and then launches into The Speech:
"Well, I just started working on a film. There are a number of parts, not huge parts. But I'd love to keep you in mind. Thank you for coming in. Bye bye. Nice to meet you."
Taylorese for: Maybe next time.
Short of the National Basketball Association, Hollywood is about as male as a business can get; and while the top casting factories, in terms of sheer volume, are run by men (Lynn Stalmaster, Mike Fenton of Fenton & Feinberg), one of the few behind-the-camera fields in which women have made a mark in movies is casting. For starters, it's a classic example of what has come to be known as "comparable worth." In other words, the pay stinks.
"Marion Dougherty always used to joke that it's because we don't get paid enough," Taylor says, guessing why so many of the top casting directors are women. "She used to say no men can afford to do it for very long. Things have gotten better, but to be honest, there may be some truth to it."
Things have gotten better. Casting directors now charge between $20,000 and $40,000 a picture, and Taylor can be assumed to be at the top end, if not off the chart entirely (she works, on the average, on 3 1/2 pictures a year). But generally, they're still lower paid than, say, the costume or set designers. And in a business where a first-time screen writer has been known to "earn" $150,000 for a week's worth of rewriting, casting isn't exactly Cash Card Wingo.
More generally, though, women succeed in casting because it requires those traits that are regarded as classically feminine or because of the warp and woof of male hierarchy, depending on which side of the 27th Amendment you sit on.
"It's very much a kind of nurturing job," says Margie Simkin, the rising New York star who cast "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Baby, It's You," among others. "You're sort of there holding the director's hand. You spend a lot of time in a room calming somebody down, making them feel it's okay. You put forth your idea, and it's not supposed to be your idea -- I think that's something women are more willing to put up with."
Casting largely requires intuition -- again, something women are supposed to excel at. "That sounds very sexist when it comes out on paper," says Taylor, "because it's saying that women are intuitive or whatever. And it's a very detailed job, but again, that's a sort of sexist thing to say -- do women have more tolerance for details?"
And then there's the fact, says Taylor, that most directors are men. "I do feel that in many cases directors take a certain comfort -- maybe because it's the beginning of the picture or whatever, when you're working out the initial problems -- that the companionship is somehow an important part of it."
Enter Arab No. 5. "I wanted to try United States," he says. "Because if you really want to make it big in career, you have to try United States." Taylor cordially compliments his English, tosses a few "Greats!" his way, but it is only a minute before it comes: the hook, the ax, the bum's rush, the 23 skiddoo.
"I just started working on a film . . ."
So, sometimes literally, the Million-Dollar Question: What is Juliet Taylor looking for?
Answer: She can't really tell you.
"Someone walks in the door, and you get a definite feeling about them," she says vaguely. "You get a feeling often before they've opened their mouth. There are certain people who are just funny before they even talk, or they move you in a certain way, or their face has an emotional impact. Some people you meet and you can see them doing one interesting thing, they have one quality. Every person has one quality, and if you were going to be in a movie, you could play the quality that you have effectively. Actors hopefully can do more than one, but some people just have something about them that's a little high-profile which makes them particularly effective."
In other words, it's just a matter of what clicks, a click Taylor spends a lot of time searching for, a search that sometimes takes her far afield.
"For Woody, with 'Broadway Danny Rose,' that was like a research project," she recalls. "To find all the Italian Americans we used in the party, we went down to Little Italy and got friendly with some people. We went down to a community center where people hung out in Little Italy, and they were just great characters from the get-go. And then the novelty acts were just extraordinary. There are are not many venues for archers and things anymore, you know? Really! Balloon acts. It was really like going back in time."
In casting "The Mission," the upcoming David Puttnam movie starring Robert De Niro, Taylor ran up against a brick wall. "We offered the other role to a number of well-known actors, and for one reason or another they weren't available. So I just poured myself into looking for real priests who could play the role. I spent an enormous amount of time talking to priests, reading priests, going around. We ended up using Jeremy Irons, which is a long cry from where we started. But in the course of it, we did use Daniel Berrigan in a supporting role."
But mostly, Taylor finds her actors in the New York theater, which she attends compulsively. "I like to see the ones that don't run as well as the ones that run," she says, "so we are always racing to see everything in preview. Some musicals that don't sound too good I don't bother with much, but otherwise I see everything I possibly can."
If there are more subtle aspects to Taylor's work, then, in the way different actors' styles synchronize with each other, or in the way she tailors bit parts to a director's vision (like the exaggerated physical types Woody Allen likes to use), the obvious mark of a Juliet Taylor film lies in the presence of the New York theater actors everybody is talking about. A Sam Waterston. A John Malkovich. A Karen Akers.
And in raiding the theater, Taylor is helped enormously by the fact that the few people she works for are the few people serious actors would want to work for, too; because her taste, in a way, runs in both directions. "By working for the best directors in New York, she has access to the best people," says Simkin. "Only for Woody Allen could you get Glenne Headley to say one line in 'Broadway Danny Rose.' Juliet deserves credit for coming up with the idea, but she couldn't have done it without Woody."
Taylor is loath to talk about the replacement of Patinkin with Nicholson, citing her friendship with Patinkin. According to one source close to the production, Nichols felt that Patinkin's style was way too big and he couldn't tone it down. Certainly, Nicholson lends a different spin to the story; he has a genius for playing jerks, particularly womanizing jerks like "Heartburn's" Mark, and making them sympathetic, whereas Patinkin can be abrasive.
And if "Heartburn" truly is a roman a clef, Bernstein, having already been portrayed by the other great actor of the day, Dustin Hoffman (in "All the President's Men"), earns a golden footnote in cinema history.
"Using Nicholson, it lifts the story out of the book, in a way," Taylor admits. "I think what Mike and Nora were trying to do was make it about pain and love and marriage and divorce and not just the particular story. It gives it a universality that I think is kind of nice. That whole period of time was so painful, but now that it's done, I think that's the effect."
Nichols and Nicholson go way back together, to "Carnal Knowledge," and the decision bears Nichols' stamp more than Taylor's. Sometimes a casting director has a say in choosing the leads -- Taylor remembers, in casting "Julia," how she got Fred Zinnemann to cast Vanessa Redgrave. "He figured, 'You're already gonna have Jane Fonda.' And he figured it was gonna be a very political crowd and it made him very nervous, and he didn't know her. And I said, 'I don't know her Redgrave either. But why don't you meet her -- it's not going to hurt you. You're Fred Zinnemann, right?' And she came in and they just fell in love with each other. I felt like I sort of pulled that off by pressuring a little," she says, with a hint of mischief.
Generally, though, the casting director, even Taylor, has less influence in the casting of a movie's stars; except on a Woody Allen picture, where box office isn't a consideration, economic factors determine the pool of Big Names from which to choose, names a director is already familiar with. The casting director's signature is most easily found in the supporting roles and the bit players.
Which brings us back to the Dark-Skinned Man. It's late in the day, the seven have trooped in and out. And Taylor still needs an Arab.
"I thought the last one was very interesting for the part," she says, speculatively. "He's kind of, you know, dashing and good looking in his own way. He had a very kind of sort of swarthy, Middle Eastern look, you know? And the next fellow that came in was also quite attractive, but I thought that he was kind of more comfortable and kind of jocular and didn't have that same kind of little edge that I think would be good for the part. And then the other people who came in I really didn't think were correct. One gentleman was just too old -- you saw the picture he had of himself that was much younger? And I called him in for the other picture? And this guy, who looks quite dashing in this photograph, really turned out not to be. He had a sort of very, kind of almost oily kind of look. That I think is going too far in that direction."
She runs through the rest of the list. Some will be called back; some will be kept in mind for other parts.
But the role of the Dark-Skinned Man will ultimately go to an actor named Tony Shalhoub. Like Streep, he studied at Yale Drama School; he worked in the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., where he was a critical favorite, and then recently arrived in New York. He is a young New York stage actor whom everyone is talking about -- a month after he was cast in "Heartburn," Shalhoub was touted in a profile in The New York Times as the brightest thing in a new production of "The Odd Couple."
And you say: Juliet Taylor, Tony Shalhoub. Of course!
And someday, somebody will be writing yet another Juliet Taylor profile, and he will point out that a few years back she gave Tony Shalhoub his first movie role in a movie called "Heartburn." You might say you can count on it.