Check out the second instalment of our fascinating Q&A with West End casting director David Grindrod, in which he talks about the problems associated with casting The Phantom movie and how they went about casting skaters for Starlight Express…
I understand that The Phantom is the first big budget movie you cast. What different considerations are there when casting for a movie rather than a stage show?
Yes it was the first, although I did voiceover work on the Cats film and also the Joseph and Jesus Christ Superstar films. When we started The Phantom Joel (Schumacher) wanted everyone to sing their own stuff which we did, except for Minnie Driver who can sing, but doesn’t have the operatic style.
In the respect of the ensemble and the ballet – yes they all had to come and sing for me but I did look at faces and looks. I knew what Joel had told me he wanted look-wise with his “back-stage” ensemble and I suppose that, in the end we did go for interesting looks that would look well on camera for these parts rather than singing ability.
I did the first round of ensemble auditions with Simon Lee and we took digital photographs of everyone. We made notes of their heights and their abilities – for example, some could tap dance while others couldn’t – and spread them out all over the floor. Joel then used these images to select a cross section of tall, short, fat, thin people so we ended up with an interesting mix of people who would look good on camera. When we cast the ballet girls and boys Joel actually came to the auditions. He had a strong idea of what he wanted.
Do you prefer casting movies or shows?
What a leading question! In the end I really enjoyed casting the movie. It was a very stressful experience because the timescales are so different. Everything in a movie is immediate. For example in the Masquerade sequence we needed 120 dancers on set who have to be auditioned, booked, sent to wardrobe… then at short notice the dates of the shoot are changed. So you then find there are some dancers who can’t make the new shoot date and you have to find a replacement at short notice. It is quite chaotic. Or Joel would suddenly call and say “I need a driver” or “I need a nurse” and he would need them almost straight away. So you would immediately have to audition potential actors, then send the tapes to Joel that same evening, he would view them, select the actor, I would then book them, send them to wardrobe and they would need to be on set within two days of the audition. But the joy is that you don’t use any understudies, so you are always picking the best possible person to play that particular role, however small. So you can get someone who may be used to playing a lead in a West End show but will want to be in the movie just for the experience and are willing to play a minor role in just one or two scenes.
We have received many questions concerning the ages of the actors portraying Christine and the Phantom. What is your opinion of the perfect ages for these roles?
In the movie Andrew and Joel specifically wanted a young, virginal girl – Emmy (Rossum) played her when she was 16. Therefore we needed to have a younger Phantom otherwise there may have been overtones of a different kind of scenario. I think she has to be – in practical terms – between 16 and 18 years old.
If someone wanted to try out for a movie as opposed to a show how do you go about it?
This is again along the same lines as auditioning for a show. We receive cast breakdowns which are then sent directly online to agents.
With The Phantom movie was there an extensive list of people who were under consideration for the lead roles or had it been narrowed down to a select few by the time you became involved?
By the time I was on board we did consider a few other names but Joel had his definite ideas of who he wanted for the three leads. There were two major screen tests for Christine which took place. Gerard and Patrick both came over and sang for Andrew.
What is the difference between a screen test and an audition?
An audition is literally standing around a piano singing the songs… but then the camera – as I have now found out – either loves you or hates you. Sometimes you may have a wonderful person singing the song beautifully and performing well on stage, but you put a camera on them and the face and the whole persona suddenly completely changes. It is a very harsh medium – the camera takes no enemies. Emmy’s screen test, which took place in New York, is one of the extras on the DVD.
Other – more well established – film stars have been mentioned in the press as possible Phantoms. Do you think, had one of these “names” been used, it would have given the film a more mainstream appeal?
From the beginning, Joel and Andrew were very keen to find “new” talent for all three lead roles. The decision to cast Gerard was totally down to Joel and Andrew.
Was there a former role of Gerry’s which helped in deciding to cast him as The Phantom?
I know that Joel and Andrew were greatly impressed by two of Gerry’s former roles – his portrayal of Dracula and his role as Lara Croft’s love interest in Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life.
On the DVD Ceiran and Simon said they did not know which of them were playing Firmin and which Andre – why did it take so long to decide?
Joel wouldn’t tell me! I was having – as I say on the DVD too – a difficult time with the wardrobe department over this! I kept asking him but he kept telling me he still needed more time to think. Who knows, perhaps in his mind he may have swapped them. I think we all thought who it was always going to be but I had to get the final approval from him. He took time, but that’s the Director’s prerogative.
Why weren’t Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman considered for the movie?
They WERE considered when we were going to do the movie originally but that was 15 years ago.
Since the singing is recorded in a studio surrounding what are the actors doing during the filming of the scene – do they sing along?
They lip sync. They don’t sing out at full volume to be recorded but they do sing. They have to in order to produce the energy and convey the emotion which is required for that particular scene.
Having such an international cast in The Woman in White is most of your research done through actually seeing a number of international shows or do you ideas for casting come from other sources?
I am lucky in that I do the Mamma Mia! casting worldwide. We cast Jill Paice as Sophie in the Las Vegas production of Mamma Mia!. When we were stuck for a Laura for the show and the list came through from Jim Carnahan’s office (NY casting director) I recognised the name immediately and said “That’s it!” I knew she was the right person for the role and it all worked out perfectly. But how often does that kind of thing happen in one’s life! So I am fortunate in that I get to see a lot of faces (I tend to remember faces, but sometimes need my memory jogged for the names!) through casting many different shows.
Do all the cast members have to audition before they get a particular role – even stars such as Maria Friedman, Michael Crawford and Michael Ball.
Although it is not an audition as such, they have to come in and make sure they can – and want to – sing it. Generally they will stand around the piano with Simon and sing. If the show is already open they will, as in the case of Michael Ball, be invited along to the show to see it. Michael Crawford was sent the script and had lots of meetings with Trevor Nunn, with Andrew and with Sonia Friedman. They would talk about the role and how it would be developed. Maria Friedman came in to do a workshop for us. So – although you wouldn’t call it an audition process – I don’t think anyone could suggest just casting someone in a role without finding out more about it. And, of course, in the case of musicals you need to know that someone can sing the role and sing the style of Andrew’s work.
Was there anyone you auditioned for The Woman in White who, as soon as they walked in you knew would be perfect for the role?
When Jill and Angela walked in it was just amazing. It was actually quite electric in what they did.
Oliver Darley had done the workshop for us so that was who they wanted in the role of Glyde. We tried to get Edward Petherbridge to do the workshop but he was busy with television so couldn’t do it. It was always in Trevor’s heart that Edward would consider doing the show. But even then, he had to come in and sing around the piano and see how it all worked.
Which was the most difficult role to cast?
It is always most difficult for us to find leading men. Martin Crewes sang for Andrew in LA and then came over to the UK for Trevor to hear him. That was probably the least straightforward role to cast.
How can I audition for Corn Dolly Girl?
The irony is that our Corn Dolly Girls don’t want to leave! They do two performances a week and we have only had to change two of them in the whole run! We find it flattering and would never have believed it but they love doing that part and we therefore haven’t had many auditions because all the girls have wanted to stay.
Will you be doing the casting for the show in the US?
No – it will be Jim Carnahan. But we are in very regular contact.
Ahhhh. Very fond memories of that show. I loved that show – I did Starlight for 10 years and it is very very close to my heart.
How on earth did you go about casting it?
You kind of just did it! We did it in all sorts of ways. There was a time we went through “they’ve all got to be able to roller skate”. And then Andrew pointed out that above all it was a musical. So we then changed the priority to “they’ve got to be able to sing”. Once we had established they could sing they went to a week’s skate school to see if they could roller skate. We did it all sorts of ways. Actually although it sounds really difficult – in the end it wasn’t that hard. Once you had decided on a formula it was very straightforward.
There must have been a lot of potential cast members falling by the wayside along the selection process.
Yes, there were but so many people just wanted to do it. Despite the fact it was acknowledged as the most dangerous show in the West End. Once they were on the skates they could get up to 30 to 40 miles per hour.
I also did the show in Japan and Australia where we had a cast of double the size and played in stadiums so you can imagine what speed they managed to achieve in those venues!
David, one final question which I think you have probably already answered for us by the enthusiasm of your replies – Do you enjoy your work?
I love it!
Many thanks David!
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