Why I Cast That Actor--written by Michael Bloom for the SDC Journal (edited)
Practice is supposed to make perfect. Casting, however, can be a nerve-wracking business no matter how many times one directs.
The role of Oscar Wilde still stands, for me, as the high-water mark of casting challenges. First there was the question of whether the actor should resemble the historical Wilde. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the effect would need to be achieved through physical behavior because there were so many other critical requirements.
That didn’t make casting the play at the Huntington Theatre Company a great deal easier. Wilde is a genius celebrity with enormous wit, scintillating intelligence, and a world-class facility with language. A tall order for any actor. And in spite of his prodigious talent and bravado, he possesses a vulnerability that is almost childlike in its naivete. After many idea lists and a several days of auditions, Paul Fouquet and I hadn’t found our lead.
Thankfully good casting directors seem to have a nearly endless mental rolodex to consult when initial efforts don’t pan out. Paul seemed to recall hearing very good things from costume designer David Murin about an actor who played Wilde at ACT in Seattle. Casting someone who’s performed a role in another production isn’t uncommon in shortened rehearsal periods and especially with musicals, where a prior knowledge of the music can be a great advantage. But I’d never done it with a drama and three weeks of rehearsal. More often than not I’d watched auditions from actors for a role they’d played previously and thought—that wasn’t at all what I was looking for. There were also tales of woe from directors I knew who’d fallen into ‘that trap’ to make it one of those ‘rules’ that one breaks only at the eleventh hour. That time was nearly upon us, so I asked to see the actor audition. Then came the third obstacle—he wouldn’t be able to audition in person.
These were the early days of video auditions, when many directors considered it foolhardy to cast an actor without at least a personal meeting. (Some still do.) As a video virgin, it hadn’t occurred to me to offer the actor notes and ask him to do a subsequent session.
After the final day of auditions, artistic director Peter Altman, Paul, and I still hadn’t found our Wilde. We went into a tiny backroom in Paul’s office, and Paul inserted a VHS cassette into a combination player-monitor. I couldn’t conceive of casting someone from a grainy tape recording on a miniature television set. Then the actor, Donald Carrier, started speaking. He was tall, commanding, self-assured, and as verbally fluent as I’d imagined Wilde himself to be. It was, even after a minute, the best reading we’d seen.
We made the requisite calls—to people who’d seen the show and those who had directed Don. The reports were all good. It was time for me to speak with Don. He and I immediately seemed to be on the same page about the imperatives of the part. Yet as we spoke I kept wondering: would he fall back on the choices he’d made previously. Fortunately I never had to ask the question. Don told me that while he enjoyed playing Wilde, he felt he could improve his performance and that he’d love to take another crack at it. This simple, ego-less statement was what made me think he’d be able to humanize an almost mythical figure. It also made me confident that he’d start at the beginning of the process, exploring the play anew. So I went with my gut.
Don proved to be a man of his word. He took direction generously, and never seemed to reach back for a default choice. I couldn’t imagine finding anyone better for the role—or a more hazardous way of doing it. The show won an Elliott Norton Award for Best Production that year, in no small part due to Don’s work. Now that he’s become one of my favorite collaborators, playing leads in Ten Chimneys and Lincolnesque, I marvel at how at how a connection as tenuous as a VHS video brought us together.
It turned out to be a seminal casting experience for me. I let go of preconceived notions of the ‘hows’ of casting and became more secure in trusting my instinct—something we directors have to do regardless of how actors come to us.