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Casting Standouts: 'The Men Who Stare at Goats'

Casting Standouts: 'The Men Who Stare at Goats'
Inspired by Jon Ronson's nonfiction bestseller, "The Men Who Stare at Goats" is one of those stories so crazy it couldn't be made up. Though the film takes liberties with the source material, the plot centers on an experimental wing of the U.S. military that believed it could train soldiers to become psychics. Members of this "New Earth Army" came to believe they could walk through walls, control an enemy's thoughts, and stop a goat's heart just by staring at it. The story of how this army came to form—and unravel—unfolds through a parallel story about a reporter in the Iraq War who travels with one of the former New Earth Army soldiers.

Grant Heslov, in his feature directorial debut, knew he needed actors who could tackle the offbeat comedy in the film but also play the reality of the situation. In the role of Lyn Cassady, who was once the star of the New Earth Army, Heslov corralled his producing partner George Clooney. The two had created the HBO series "K Street" and "Unscripted" together and co-wrote the script for the film "Good Night, and Good Luck." To round out the rest of the cast, Heslov called on casting directors Amanda Mackey and Cathy Sandrich, who previously cast "Unscripted" for the pair.

Mackey and Sandrich have been partners for 20 years, and Mackey now works out of a New York office while Sandrich casts out of L.A. When they sat down with Heslov to fill out the rest of the film, they had a lot of discussions about the tone of the picture. "It was a marvelous read, but sometimes scripts that are as interesting and complex as this are hard to get on the screen," Mackey admits. "So Cathy and I talked a lot about getting the tone right in terms of casting. We didn't want it out there and farcical." Adds Sandrich, "Grant understood the material inherently. He knew what tone he wanted and how to direct the actors to do it. The tone is real but funny. And he knows the best comedy is played in earnest."

And when it came to casting the leads, Sandrich admits they were ahead of the game. "You have an incredible script, and you have George Clooney. So you're off to an amazing start," she says with a laugh. The trio spent a lot of time discussing actors. "It was such a wonderful, collaborative process, and we were all very in sync through the process." In the end, the lead roles were filled with an impressive cast: Ewan McGregor plays reporter Bob Wilton, Kevin Spacey is Cassady's rival Larry Hooper, and Jeff Bridges plays Bill Django, the hippie founder of the program.

Key to casting the leads was not only finding great actors but also ones who could age believably. Because the film spans several decades and only one actor is used per role, Mackey notes, "You need actors who can emotionally and physically transition those scenes."

Smaller roles were filled with such recognizable character actors as Stephen Root, Stephen Lang, and Robert Patrick. "Stephen Root is a dear friend of George and Grant's, and we offered him the job," Sandrich reveals. "But I have to say, Robert Patrick and Stephen Lang came in the door and auditioned and knocked it out of the park." Patrick was older than the person Heslov had originally envisioned in the role. "But he was so impressive, it couldn't be anybody but Robert," Sandrich notes. "That was a very exciting moment in the casting process, because you see the character realized." Another thrill was getting to cast actors they've enjoyed seeing before, such as Waleed Zuaiter, who plays an Iraqi soldier. "He continually amazes us," Sandrich says of Zuaiter. "A lot of this was watching people we have loved in the past perfectly fill the shoes of the character."

The film was cast out of New York, L.A., New Mexico, and Puerto Rico with the help of local CDs. Sandrich says the most challenging part was casting in Puerto Rico, because of the language barrier. Aside from that, "It was a very communal, collaborative experience. It was one of those dream jobs."

Casting Directors: Amanda Mackey, Cathy Sandrich 
Director: Grant Heslov
Writer: Peter Straughan, based on the book by Jon Ronson
Starring: George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey
The Pitch:: While reporting from the Iraq War, a journalist learns about a secret government faction that tried to train its soldiers in the paranormal.

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