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BU to Hollywood: Making Johnny Depp a Star

Part five: Casting director Ronna Kress (CFA’84) looks for the right man (or woman) for the job


“That ‘it’ that an actor has is a really indefinable thing,” says casting director Ronna Kress (CFA’84). Photo by Phoebe Sexton (COM’06)

When she began working on the 2007 movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Ronna Kress had a key role to cast: the mother of the film’s star, Nicolas Cage. Normally, a British actress best known for her impeccable portrayal of the queen of England wouldn’t figure into a big-budget action film, let alone a sequel. But to Kress, a Los Angeles-based freelance casting director, Helen Mirren was a perfect fit.

“The conversation was, ‘Who’s a really attractive woman in her 60s who would be believable as Nic’s mother and is a good actress,’” says Kress (CFA’84). “It just so happened that her march to the Oscar was starting right around the time that we were casting, which made it more difficult for us.”

But Mirren was game. The day after winning an Academy Award for best actress in The Queen, she accepted the part. “She loved the adventure,” Kress says. “We hit the jackpot in every way.” Indeed, the film went on to gross more than $215 million in the United States alone.

It doesn’t always work out that way. Casting, it turns out, is not only one of the most important and unheralded aspects of moviemaking, it’s subjective and personal. “That ‘it’ that an actor has is a really indefinable thing,” says Kress, a former actress whose casting credits include Moulin Rouge, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the upcoming films Australia and G-Force.

Kress makes her casting decisions, often in conjunction with a film’s producer or director, based on instinct and her experience as an actress. She pores over cast lists, catches all the movies she can, soaks up a lot of television, and reads stacks of magazines. “I have a great staff, and they’re on the Internet all day,” she says. “You want to keep up with who’s out there and what’s going on. We’ll have actors read for us for movies all the time. Maybe they’re not right for one thing, but we’ll remember them for something else.”

One film that got it right was 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. For the role of Captain Jack Sparrow, Kress and producer Jerry Bruckheimer wanted Johnny Depp, a movie star at the time, but not exactly box-office gold. Disney was nervous. “They didn’t really understand his performance,” Kress recalls. But Depp’s hilarious turn as Sparrow, with his kohl-rimmed eyes and slurred speech, was a hit. “He really did create this iconic character,” she says. “You can’t imagine that movie without him.”

For the part of Elizabeth Swann in Pirates, Kress tapped a young British actress who was just showing promise: Keira Knightley. “Bend It Like Beckham was starting to get some buzz in the United States, and we pursued her early on in the casting process,” Kress says. Finding young talent is gratifying. For the 2000 film Remember the Titans, she cast Ryan Gosling and Kate Bosworth in small roles. “It’s nice when you have the opportunity to use these actors at an early stage in their careers, and then they continue on and pop,” she says. “That doesn’t always happen.”

Kress herself acted after college, but she began to rethink her career after years on the road and in New York. Once she landed work with a casting director in New York, she says, “I found a place where I could still be creative. I still was involved with actors, but I was actually making a living.”

She married and moved to California, where she worked for Marion Dougherty (“the grandmother of all casting directors — she started the business of casting”) and later for the casting director David Rubin. When Rubin closed his business, about 10 years ago, Kress struck out on her own. Her first film as a casting director was Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, and there have been more than 20 films since. Last winter, Kress was casting the eight superheroes for Justice League of America when the writers strike put the film on hold. She moved on to G.I. Joe, an action movie due out next year.

Kress has no regrets about her decision to leave acting for casting. She works with top producers and directors, who understand that casting is critical to a project, she says. Bruckheimer, for example, “always supports me in my search for even the smallest roles in a film. I brought in an actor all the way from London on Pirates — he’s in Johnny’s crew, he has a parrot on his shoulder — and he never spoke,” she recalls. “It was just this brilliant face. We brought a lot of actors from London. That was a huge expense, but clearly worth it. Those faces made a big difference.”

Click here to read part one of “BU to Hollywood,” about screenwriter Krista Vernoff (CFA’93). Click here to read part two, about actor Michael Chiklis (CFA’85). Click here to read part three, about actress Emily Deschanel (CFA’98). Click here to read part four, about actress Alfre Woodard (CFA’74, Hon.’04).

Cynthia K. Buccini can be reached at cbuccini@bu.edu.


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