Robin Gurland -- Don't Call Her; She'll Call You

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January 28, 2002

Three Big Criteria

By Pablo Hidalgo

How hard is it to find an actor who wants to do Star Wars? Tracking down willing talent is not the difficult part of Casting Director Robin Gurland's job. It's finding the right talent for the right role that's the key, and it's her casting skills that have delivered the many new faces seen in Episodes I and II.

"It's a gift to have actors calling me, saying that they'll do anything to be in Star Wars," Gurland admits. "You have to be careful, though, because you want the right actor for the right role. It opens up your options. You're able to choose from someone who has never been heard of to someone who is a huge star. It's happened a lot where I'll have actors or their agents call -- and they're actors that I just adore and would give my eyeteeth to work with -- but they weren't appropriate or there just wasn't an appropriate part within Star Wars that would work for them."

That strategy has resulted in a unique blend of established names and fresh talent -- acting veterans like Christopher Lee alongside newcomers like Hayden Christensen.

Surprisingly, a film as technologically complex and advanced as Attack of the Clones requires many of the same skills as the timeless and ancient art of stage performance. "Because of the way the scenes are structured, and the way that we film it, with a lot of bluescreen and such, it really works well with theater actors because they're so used to using their imagination," Gurland elaborates. "A lot of film actors really need the physical environment and they need to physically interplay with another actor. In a play, you don't have that all the time, and not all film actors can do that."

What exactly does Gurland look for in her search for talent? She's quick to note that casting is not a science. While there are boxes to check off on her want-list, many times the deciding factor is more nebulous and elusive, and Gurland has to act on instinct.

"There's three big criteria. Obviously, the person's work is foremost, and if they're appropriate for the role; those are the top two. The third is if I enjoy having dinner with them," Gurland says with a grin.

"It's true!" she adds, "The third criteria is the type of person that I'd like to spend any time with: if that person is someone I'd like to sit down and have a meal with. It works so well, because the cast is involved in publicity, and with stills, and they're involved in post-production -- they're involved with the afterlife of the film. They have to really be approachable and quite easy-going, and not have an ego that wouldn't be able to work with all the different layers of this production. You can't have an actor who is unapproachable or who is really dogmatic or very aloof from everyone, because that's not the environment of these films."

Gurland has high praise for how the current cast is dealing with these various added layers. "The actors have been very gracious as far as the confidentiality aspect of this project, which is so different from most other films. They're great with dealing with the Fan Club, the website; they've been incredibly gracious in incorporating that as part of the gig."

As a casting director, Gurland has to discover these qualities in a prospective candidate. "The audition is a horrible process," concedes Gurland. "You're put in a room with a person you don't know, and the stakes are so high, and you say to them, 'Okay, perform. Show me what you got,'" she laughs.

"You have to be able to put the actor at ease and know that it's okay to muck about a bit. To give them the freedom of experimentation, and recognize that not all experiments will necessarily work," she says. "What I try to do in the audition process is get a sense of where they are as an actor. To find their parameters -- where they can stretch, the kind of range they can work within, and how fast they can make a transition. Oftentimes, during an audition, we'll tweak it where it doesn't really make sense within the context of the script; I'll send it in a different direction, just to see where they are and how fast they can make a transition. I mean, you don't want a very strong method actor in a piece like this -- it just doesn't work well. You need someone who relies a little more on technique than just method."

Gurland's biggest challenge for Episode II was finding the film's lead -- the 19-year old Anakin Skywalker. She estimates that she reviewed close to 1,500 candidnates, at one level or another, for the part.

"For Anakin, the role is so innate, the actor has to connect with it," explains Gurland. "You just know immediately when someone comes in a room -- no matter what they've done or what can say they can do -- if they're going to connect with a role. It was a similar case when I met Ewan [McGregor] and Natalie [Portman] for their roles. I just knew innately they were right."

Gurland knew from the instant she first saw Christensen that the young man had potential. Like the Jedi Master who first found the Chosen One, Gurland felt something unusual and distinctive about the Canadian newcomer. "When Hayden came for his first meeting, I opened the door, and I just suddenly became flushed, because I knew. I sat him down and looked at him through the camera, and all of a sudden, I could feel goosebumps. I couldn't get too excited, because it's just the initial meeting, but by the end of it, I just knew that Anakin had walked in the door. I literally picked up the phone and called George and said, 'Anakin just walked in.' But I had to continue on, because casting is kind of a never-ending process."

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Keywords: Casting, Behind-the-Scenes

Filed under: The Movies, Episode II
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