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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This Sunday is Oscar night and all the nominees for best picture have one thing in common: casting directors--the men and women who screen the men and women who want to be on screen. NPR Special Correspondent, Susan Stamberg ends her series on movie jobs with some Los Angeles legends who line up the talent.

SUSAN STAMBERG reporting:

In movie land, very often the difference between this...

Ms. MICHELLE ARTHUR(ph) (Actress): I mean, I could barely leave the bathroom before an audition. I was afflicted. It was terrible.

STAMBERG: And this...

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of background noise)

Unidentified Speaker: Now this heavy fighting has (unintelligible) and both sides have dug in deep for the long winter ahead --

STAMBERG: The difference is this...

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Ms. DEBRA ZANE (Casting Director): Casting.

STAMBERG: Casting director Debra Zane has one of the busiest phones on Wilshire Boulevard. Zane casts films for Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Steven Soderberg.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

STAMBERG: Agents, producers, lawyers keep her phones jingling all day.

Ms. ZANE: Hi; Debbie. Um, you know what, I thought you did really well. I was actually pleased about that, you know, I --

STAMBERG: Debbie Zane usually doesn't deliver the heavies: Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Julia Roberts. Their names get the movie made.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

STAMBERG: But Zane fills in all the actors around the heavies--the ones who do the heavy lifting. For a single film she may cast 40 actors or more.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: The 1999 best picture American Beauty for instance.

Unidentified Speaker: It was one of those days where it's a minute away from snowing and there's this electricity in the air.

STAMBERG: Zane also worked on Seabiscuit, Ocean's Eleven and Twelve, Catch Me If You Can. The casting director is on the frontline for actors, agents and directors. When a film is to be made, a list of all the characters is distributed and the scramble begins. Hundreds of resumes and clips arrive by e-mail, snail mail...

Ms. ZANE: Ah, you know what, I'm not (unintelligible) for you to say it because I haven't even let them know yet. We just got word...

STAMBERG: Two actors we met in Debbie Zane's office worked with Steven Spielberg thanks to Zane. Michelle Arthur, the one who pre-auditioned in the bathroom, was in The Terminal. So was Stephan Fuller. Fuller got his part the old-fashioned way. He took his resume and photograph to Zane's office during off-hours.

Mr. STEPHEN FULLER (Actor): I walked up here and put it through the slot in that door right there and I remember seeing my headshot fall on the floor, going great, they're gonna step on my headshot when they walk in.

STAMBERG: But, no, Debbie Zane liked the photo, called Stephan in for an audition, two days later he was hired. Then, he was onscreen in dreadlocks speaking two lines to Tom Hanks.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STEPHEN FULLER (As a character in The Terminal): I'm gonna help me, help you. I don't give social security numbers, driver's license number...

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

STAMBERG: How long should it take you to know if this is gonna be right or not?

Ms. MARGERY SIMKIN (Casting Director): Mmmm, 10 seconds, maybe (laughs). I mean, I can tell when they walk in the door if they're wrong.

STAMBERG: Casting director Margery Simkin. Twenty-six years ago she was jobless in New York. Suddenly, a friend doing casting got a better job and asked Margery to take over. The assignment: find some high school kids for a film. With no experience, Simkin said, why not?

Ms. SIMKIN: I would go around to neighborhoods and lurk on the Lower East Side. At one point I was called in to one of those social clubs and I think they thought I was a new hooker that hadn't checked in cause I was, like, goin' up and down the street everyday (laughs) and going up to young boys.

STAMBERG: Margery Simkin's film career was launched. She's been casting director for Erin Brockovich, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Top Gun. Simkin loves the work.

Ms. SIMKIN: I get private theatrical performances in my office all the time and it's really, really, really thrilling and sometimes I've seen somethin' nobody else gets to see.

(Soundbite of movie "Field of Dreams")

Mr. JAMES EARL JONES (Actor, as TERENCE MANN, Field of Dreams): Unbelievable!

Mr. KEVIN COSTNER (Actor, as RAY KINSELLA, Field of Dreams): It's more than that. It's perfect.

STAMBERG: That was Simkin's experience casting the 1989 Kevin Costner baseball film Field of Dreams.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: One of the roles, Costner's father as a young man, was small but tough to cast.

Ms. SIMKINS: Guys came in. Hundreds of guys came in and then there was this moment and Dwyer Brown walked in and there was no doubt in my mind. There was just something so wonderfully old-fashioned about him and his eyes were so moving.

(Soundbite of movie "Field of Dreams")

Mr. DWYER BROWN (As JOHN KINSELLA, Field of Dreams): Hi.

STAMBERG: We watched the scene in Simkin's office.

Mr. COSTNER (As RAY KINSELLA): Hi.

Mr. BROWN (As JOHN KINSELLA): Just wanted to thank you folks for puttin' up this field, lettin' us play here. I'm John Kinsella.

Mr. COSTNER (As RAY KINSELLA): I'm Ray. My wife Annie. This is my daughter Karen. Karen this is my -- this is John.

Ms. SIMKIN: I'm crying again. I mean, it just makes my cry every time. It's the way he's holding the moment.

(Soundbite of movie "Field of Dreams")

Mr. BROWN (As JOHN KINSELLA): Is this heaven?

Mr. COSTNER (As RAY KINSELLA): It's Iowa.

STAMBERG: The power of an actor to move us in a movie begins with the actor's power to move a casting director in her busy office.

Ms. SIMKIN: When you find yourself paying attention in a way that you haven't paid attention in a long time and it breaks through a kind of numbness that comes over you after awhile, and when you don't feel it's right, you do pull back in a way, to kind of save your energy.

STAMBERG: Seeing so many hopefuls, watching so many auditions, casting directors like Margery Simkin and Debra Zane are fans and professionals at the same time. They must be judgmental, dismissive and efficient but they need to stay open to surprise, to the art of acting, the magic of movies and the vulnerability of the people who come to try out.

I've just given you a terrible audition. How do you thank me?

Ms. ZANE: Thank you. Susan, that was great. Thank you so much. You lie (laughs). Well, you can't say, what was that? You have to be gracious.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: Spoken like a true casting director; in this case, Debbie Zane. In Los Angeles, I'm Susan Stamberg.

What happens to you at a party where there are a million actors or even non-actors and they find out what you do?

Ms. ZANE: It's not even parties, it's relatives, it's like cousins of my mother's and I was thinking that people were just really being nice to me and then I realized one day, oh my god!

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Previous reports in this series are at NPR.org.

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