How you know them: Identical twins Mark and Michael Polish are the minds behind the 1999 feature Twin Falls, Idaho, in which the brothers starred as Siamese twins, followed by the 2001 digitally-shot film Jackpot, and their latest and most ambitious to date, the surreal fairytale Northfork—each of which were named after Northwestern towns and are part of a trilogy that explores themes of the "American heartland." Mark and Michael wrote the screenplays and produced these films together. Michael directed each of the movies, while Mark acted in all of them. (Michael acted only in their first feature.) While the brothers are not actively seeking acting gigs outside of their own films, they are open to working with directors who can teach them more about filmmaking. They were recently cast together in Neil Jordan's The Good Thief, based on the play by Conor McPherson.
How they got started: The 32-year-old Polish Brothers grew up in the small Southern California town of El Centro. Michael attended and graduated from Cal Arts in Valencia, Calif., where he picked up a 16mm movie camera and began shooting. In the meantime, Mark aspired to be an actor and moved to Los Angeles, where he was quickly depressed by the odds of succeeding as a performer.
Recalled Mark, "I was going up against 500 different actors for three lines. I'd sit back and go, There is no reason they are going to give me this role, and if I do get it, who is going to remember three lines in a movie? I was [getting paid] to read scripts, and I kind of stepped back and said, 'I think I can write something for myself.' It's about controlling your destiny. Most actors won't get their start unless they do it themselves. Luckily I had a brother who wanted to be a director, who helped me facilitate my acting."
Casting their films: The Polish Brothers have primarily cast each of their three films without the help of a casting director, though they did hire a CD to help them find the young boy, 8-year-old Duel Farnes, who stars in Northfork, which was shot on location in Farnes' native Montana and depicts the last days of a fictitious town before a dam project floods it. A number of well-known actors responded to the script and agreed to work for scale to bring the Polish Brothers' unique vision to the screen. The cast includes Nick Nolte, whom the brothers met on the set of The Good Thief, Peter Coyote, Anthony Edwards, Ben Foster, Daryl Hannah, Claire Forlani, and Kyle MacLachlan, with James Woods in the lead.
Woods was so struck by the project that he signed on as executive producer and was instrumental in securing some of the other cast members, including character actors Marshall Bell and Graham Beckel. Even with Woods' support, the brothers found themselves begging and borrowing from every source they could find, including credit card companies, to get the film made. At one point they were $800,000 in debt.
No audition required: While the Polish Brothers are thrilled that actors of such high caliber were attracted to their latest project, they continue to be open to unknown talent. They don't believe in the traditional audition process, in which an actor has to read lines. Instead they prefer simply to have a conversation with the actor to get a sense of his personality.
"We don't have a preconceived notion of who's going to play the part. Actors will come off the street, and we'll sit and talk to them. We've never auditioned anybody, even for the smallest role. When you just sit down and talk to them, they're not acting, and that's the most pure quality you're going to see—the real person. That's the person you're going to be dealing with the most," explained Mark. Added Michael, "It's about, Do they understand the part? Do they understand why we wrote the part? Do they understand the action of the character? And then it's for us to work it out when we make the movie."
When casting their first two features they held open calls. "We had 5,000 headshots for Twin Falls and probably 20,000 headshots for Jackpot. We saw every single person in this town," said Michael. For Northfork, they initially went after name actors for many of the lead roles but then opened it up to lesser-known talent as the casting process went on. Said Mark, "Basically it looked like an NFL Draft Board at our office. We had names of who we wanted first, and then there was a lot of taking names off, moving them, and changing them."
Off-the-street casting: While they don't encourage actors to show up at their doorstep unannounced, the Polish Brothers have responded to unsolicited submissions. "This kid who plays Matt in Northfork, Josh Barker, walked in right off the street," shared Michael, who then explained that Barker called the brothers' L.A. production office first to ask if it would be OK to drop off his headshot. As Michael and Mark were starting to get anxious about completing casting before production in Montana began, they agreed to meet him. As it worked out, Barker was a perfect fit to play one of the evacuation committee members hired to relocate the last remaining residents of Northfork.
Another actor, Chip Godwin, came by the Polish Brothers office unannounced when they were casting Jackpot a few years ago. Godwin's agent had already told the actor he wasn't going to be right for any of the parts, but Godwin decided not to listen to his agent and instead dropped off his headshot, along with a handwritten note expressing his admiration for the brothers' first feature.
"He slipped it beneath our door," shared Mark. "I picked it up and I said, 'OK. I did things like this and never got a phone call.' I looked at his headshot and I said to Mike, 'Let's put him in the movie, just to do it, you know?'" As Michael added, it's his and Mark's pleasure to give actors a chance. "When you're the producers and the filmmakers, you have the power to turn the light on for certain actors," continued Michael. "It's about giving the opportunity to the right person for the right part."
What's next?: The brothers are currently in talks with Warner Bros. to write a feature, which Michael would direct. They also recently worked in front of the camera as cast members on Mary McGuckian's feature adaptation of Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey, featuring an all-star cast that includes Robert De Niro, Kathy Bates, Harvey Keitel, and F. Murray Abraham.