The Other Chenoweth: Casting Director Gives Stage Actors Their Film Careers

By Robert Simonson
21 Sep 2009

Ellen Chenoweth
Ellen Chenoweth

Movie casting director Ellen Chenoweth loves the prospect of giving the most interesting stage actors a place in front of the cameras.

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Denis O'Hare is a name known to most theatregoers. The ubiquitous character actor has appeared in at least one New York stage show nearly every season since the early '90s, has been nominated for three Drama Desk Awards, and won a Tony Award for Take Me Out.

But the 47-year-old actor, though he had steadily worked in film and television, had little screen presence until 2007, when he essayed a flashy cameo, as a panicking millionaire who had just fled the scene of a hit-and-run, in the 2007 George Clooney film "Michael Clayton." Since then, he has been given significant roles in such high-profile films as Clint Eastwood's "Changeling," Tony Gilroy's "Duplicity" and Gus Van Sant's "Milk."

In three of those four films, he was recommended by Ellen Chenoweth, a casting director who had shown a predilection for bringing noted stage actors to the attention of big league filmmakers such as the Coen Brothers, Barry Levinson, Eastwood and Clooney. Tony Gilroy, who wrote and directed "Michael Clayton," had originally envisioned the part O'Hare eventually won as a much older man. "It was written as a kind of distingued, older, silver-haired James Cromwell type," said Chenoweth. "We were fiddling around with it and decided to try a few different kinds of guys. I was big fan of Denis."



In his director's commentary on the DVD release of "Michael Clayton," Gilroy referred to O'Hare's scene as the moment in the film when he could relax, when he felt the audience was in good hands.

Chenoweth's eye for rising stage talents goes back to her first screen assignment, assisting casting director Mike Fenton on a 1980 TV film called "City in Fear." "We were looking for this psycho killer. We just couldn't cast this young guy. [Director] Jud Taylor said 'Where are the new Dennis Hoppers?' I said, 'I've got this friend.' They said, 'Just bring him in. We don't care anymore.'" Chenoweth called an unknown theatre actor she knew called Mickey Rourke. He got the part. One year later, Rourke won his breakout role in "Body Heat," and the year after that Chenoweth cast him again in the classic comedy "Diner."

"Diner" was only her second full-fledged job as a casting director. "I got really lucky," she laughed. "I think I peaked early."

Chenoweth had met Rourke at The Actors' Studio, where she landed a job as an office manager in the late '70s. "Lee Strasberg was there all the time, and Elia Kazan and Arthur Penn," she recalled. "I just watched those guys working with actors and kind of got a sense that there were people who put movies together. I was putting together the little plays that we did at the Studio, and people would call me for suggestions. I started noticing movies that had interesting casts that were being put together by Juliet Taylor and the late Howard Feuer. I started to think, 'Maybe I can do that.'"

When Pete Masterson invited her to join him in Los Angeles, where he was producing "City in Fear," she grabbed the chance. Soon after, casting director Fenton was recommending her for other jobs, even though she had next to no experience. Her first credited job was "Quest for Fire," a 1981 French-American film set in prehistoric times. "I had an office at 20th century Fox," she remembered. "I had no assistant. I really didn't know what I was doing."

Another little-known person with an office at Fox was director Barry Levinson. When he hired her to cast "Diner," they both climbed a rung or two up the ladder. Soon after, she was given film assignments like "My Favorite Year," "Terms of Endearment," "The Natural," "Sweet Dreams," "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," "Ruthless People," "Broadcast News" and "Enemies: A Love Story" followed. And that was just the 1980s.

For many of these films, she drew on New York's rich theatre acting pool. She hooked up Ellen Barkin and Kevin Bacon with their big breaks in "Diner." After seeing Annette Bening in Coastal Disturbances, she put her in "Valmont," only Bening's second film. And she gave a non-entity named Bill Pullman his first movie in "Ruthless People." Chenoweth, who sees roughly roughly two plays a week, had spotted the actor in a play at the Mark Taper Forum. "I kind of flipped over him," she recalled.

Firm alliances with the Coens, Clooney, Eastwood and Gilroy have made the past decade the most successful in her career, with films like "Good Night, and Good Luck," "No Country for Old Men," "Michael Clayton," "Changling," "Doubt," and "Gran Torino," regularly attracting the notice of critics and the Oscars.

Chenoweth says it's not her express design to fill every film with theatre actors; it just works out that way. "I want to put the best, more interesting actors together. I love doing it," she said, and often those actors just happen to hail from the stage. Case in point: she recently cast an HBO film called "You Don't Know Jack," starring Al Pacino as doctor-assisted suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian. "There were so many juice smallish parts where people could come in and work for a day or two. And I was just licking my lips, thinking about how much fun it would be." Among the actors she cast were were New York stage regulars Jennifer Mudge, Jordan Lage and Amy Hohn, as well as recent Tony Award winner Rondi Reed.

Though she's probably hired theatre doyenne Marian Seldes more than any other living movie casting director, Chenoweth says she's careful not to repeat herself. "I try to mix it up so it doesn't look like I cast the same people all the time," she laughed. "I could probably cast Denis O'Hare in every movie I do. He's so good and so versatile."