Casting Director Ellen Chenoweth Reveals What It Takes to Act in a Coen Brothers Movie

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Photo Source: Raquel Aparicio

Legendary casting director Ellen Chenoweth’s professional credits span decades, from “Terms of Endearment” all the way to this season’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” The latter is her latest collaboration with Oscar winner Joel Coen, who, alongside his brother Ethan, hired Chenoweth for titles including “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” “No Country for Old Men,” and “True Grit.” Here, the CD shares inside tips for getting cast in high-profile films. 

What’s the secret to success when casting Joel and Ethan Coen films?

Chenoweth: Well, I’ve been working with them for, oh, probably 20 years now. You definitely get a sense of the style and their taste and what they think is funny, which, fortunately, is usually what I think is funny. It’s just helpful when you’re on the same wavelength with a director. 

“There’s still that thing that Joel and Ethan—in this case, just Joel—want, which is an interesting face. They’ve always gravitated toward that.”

What specifically went into casting “The Tragedy of Macbeth”?

Chenoweth: We cast the whole thing out of Los Angeles. This was the fall of 2019, so we were still [doing] in-person casting. Joel and Ethan like to see everyone in person, and they do callbacks. So it’s a whole process. Plus, Frances McDormand read with a lot of the actors who auditioned. There’s an English guy we were really happy to cast named Alex Hassell, who played Ross. He’s not as well-known over here, and he had to put himself on tape in London. That was a little unusual in Joel’s process, because it’s almost always an in-person procedure. But he put himself on tape, and I had seen him do some Shakespeare onstage, so I knew he could do it. 

What qualities did you look for when you were casting “The Tragedy of Macbeth”?

Chenoweth: We were really looking for people who could handle the language; that was an important thing. I mean, I would scour everyone’s résumé; I miss the days of pictures and résumés where you turn it over and look at where they went to drama school and who their peers were. But I definitely relied on people who had done Shakespeare, or at least who’d been classically trained. We just needed people who could handle that sort of material, and not everyone can.

And there’s still that thing that Joel and Ethan—in this case, just Joel—want, which is an interesting face. They’ve always gravitated toward that as a big part of their movies. I think somebody could be very good and maybe, to them, seem a little not unusual enough. So I realized that was another layer that we had to find: the Coen face.

What is the “Coen face”? Do you just know it when you see it?

Chenoweth:  I think it just comes from working with [the Coen brothers] over the years and seeing what they respond to. And also, it’s not that Macbeth has a lot of laughs in it, but when it would be something maybe a little more humorous, you would hear [their] chuckles in the back of the room, and you would know that you had gotten it right. It’s the same thing with Shakespeare: You wanted to hear it a certain way. You were just looking to hit that sweet spot. 

Does casting a wider net, including seeking actors internationally, help with your casting process?

Chenoweth:  I certainly miss being in a room with a director and having actors in, or seeing actors in person and working with them. I hope we can get back to that. But I think the first time I really realized how wide a net I could throw was on “True Grit,” when we probably saw 15,000 girls—not all in person, of course—for Hailee [Steinfeld’s] part. That was a huge, huge job. We were just getting all kinds of auditions from all over the place, mostly girls who hadn’t acted before—and some really hilarious things, like a girl who auditioned with a rooster in the background. But Hailee I actually happened to see in person in L.A. She was a skinny little 12-year-old. That was when I realized what you could reach.

What’s your top advice for actors when it comes to self-taped auditions?

Chenoweth:  Good lighting. And I always think it’s good to be as familiar as you can with the material and have someone good read with you, because that can really be distracting [if you don’t]. A lot of people do it at home on their iPhones now, but try to get pretty close up on the face. Make sure you’re in focus. I like to ask people to do a full-length [shot] before they start their audition. I like to see that and their profile, and I like to know how tall they are to just get a sense of all of them, as opposed to just the face.

Where do you look for talent outside of agent submissions?

Chenoweth: I see a lot of theater. [For “The Tragedy of Macbeth,”] there was a possibility that we might have to find other witches; we weren’t always sure [Kathryn Hunter] was going to be all three witches. We were calling acrobatic schools and dance schools and gymnast groups. You have to just reach out however you can and use your imagination. For “True Grit,” we had a bunch of open calls with someone going to rodeos. I’ve had to find cantors for a couple of movies, and also a Yiddish singer for “The Survivor”…. I’m a big believer in training and casting actors who have really trained. I just think that [makes] all the difference in the world.

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Jack Smart
Jack Smart is the awards editor at Backstage, where he covers all things Emmy, SAG, Oscar, and Tony Awards. He also produces and hosts Backstage’s awards podcast “In the Envelope” and has interviewed some of the biggest stars of stage and screen.
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