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Michele Deradune

CLOSE SHOTS: Interview with "Secondhand Lions" Casting Director Ed Johnston
by Michele Deradune

November 2003

ED JOHNSTON's casting credits include The Apostle, Tin Cup, The Trip To Bountiful, Steven Spielberg's Amistad, Hollywood Homicide and Assassination Tango. Last year, he was the Casting Director for SECONDHAND LIONS, directed by TIM McCANLIES, starring Robert Duvall, Michael Caine and Haley Joel Osment. Filmed in Austin, Secondhand Lions is now out in theaters and grossed $15 Million its first week - a success. It's a winner. That means a win for Tim McCanlies - which also means a win for Austin, since McCanlies plans to do future films right here, Deep in the Heart of Texas, according to a very reliable source. While in town last month ED gave a rare Film Acting Workshop which I attended and also graciously granted me the interview included in this month's column, and he had some very interesting things to say!

Ed Johnston graced Alleywood Studios here in Austin with an all-day Film Acting Workshop in September.

Ed didn't become a high-falutin' successful Hollywood Casting Director by accident. He is superb at what he does. I found that the same talent that makes him an excellent casting director as makes him an excellent acting coach. In the workshop I took with him in September he gently, creatively and accurately brought students to understand and experience just what "it" is - that real place that is so very in the moment, made real by true feeling that the actor allows to be shared with the audience - in his own unique and special style. He is honest and tough without being mean or brutal, and using humor to a great teaching advantage.

Because the all-day workshop was so excellent, a question I found myself asking more than once was, "Why doesn't Ed teach more often?" He rarely gives workshops or classes at all, and never gives them in LA, which is where he works and lives most of the time. One reason is clear: the man simply doesn't have the time. Between casting and writing he has little time to spare. But Ed, I would like to suggest the possibility that one day you might devote more and more time to teaching acting - most hopefully in Texas, but wherever you are. I wouldn't suggest this if I didn't find your coaching so remarkable - and if I didn't hear you, more than a couple of times, express the true delight and excitement you feel as a teacher. I also want to thank you for the wonderful workshop you gave us 16 lucky actors in September and your kind agreement to do this interview.

We met a couple days after the said September workshop at Flipnotics coffeehouse here in Austin for an interview. By the way, Ed, another wonderful coffeeshop with trés Austin atmosphere I missed telling you about is the Bouldin Creek Café. Like El Azteca (a great Mexican restaurant in Austin), it's been here forever but it's amazing how few people know about it. Not far from the Travis and Highland Heights part of town, it's on the corner of Elizabeth and South 1st Street.

We started speaking before the recorder was turned on and continued after it was turned off, but I am happy to say I have here a transcript to share with you, Dear Readers, that accounts for nearly a full hour of yappin'. Put your feet up and enjoy!

Ed:
A lot of casting director-led workshops are pretty much paid auditions. You know, the actor pays a fee to take the workshop and basically they get to do one scene and they get up, do the scene, and the casting director gives them two or three notes and that's it. And it's not like you are really going to learn anything. I think that it's more of a paid audition, and to me that's really a bit of a scam. So that's why I don't do these in LA, because I don't want to sort of be associated with that aspect.


Me:
Wow. So you don't even do these that often?


Ed:
No, no. And the reason I do these is to provide a service to the actor, over and above everything else. But it is also very fulfilling. During some of the moments in film acting workshops I lead, those special moments when actors feel something for the first time and accesses it in their art and you see that spark in their eye, that joy, that epiphany, that discovery for the first time, that, "Oh my God, I'm feeling something and it's appropriate for this moment in the scene," suddenly in that moment they either have a breakthrough or in that moment they become an actor. And that's much more exciting and fulfilling to me to help facilitate that or just provide an environment of love and safety so they feel they can take the risk to go there, that's more fulfilling to me than auditioning fifty actors in a day.


Me:
That's great. Shall I go with my prepared questions here?


Ed:
Go for it, babe.


Me:
Some are just buttons I am going to say rather than in question form and just see if I pushed a button or not. If I do push a button you can say something; if I don't, you can just stay silent.


Ed:
As long as you don't hit me.


Me:
You mentioned in class that seeing the Australian film PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK changed your life.


Ed:
Thoughts? Well, I'm a big believer in synchronicity, that everything happens at the appropriate time. I was miserable in my life in the oil business and studying at UT to get a degree in petroleum land management while also working at the Railroad Commission, which is the regulatory agency for oil gas, at the same time. Miserable. So I started escaping into movie theaters by myself. I already had a degree in British History from SMU and this was my second degree at UT. And the old Varsity Theater on the Drag, which is now Tower Records, was the art film house. It was when the Australian new wave was hitting in the late seventies, early eighties - films like MY BRILLIANT CAREER, THE LAST WAVE and THE CHANT OF JIMMY BLACKSMITH. I just had such a connection to these films, because I have always been sort of a nature freak. I love the outdoors and sort of the healing power of nature, and there were so many similarities between Australia and Texas - the culture, the independent-minded spirit, the can-do drive, no bullshit, in-your-face directness, bigger-than-life personalities. And both cultures are dominated by the landscape. You know, we forget that before a hundred years ago this was a pretty hard country, Texas.


Me:
We're lucky to have a landscape.


Ed:
We are.


Me:
A lot of people don't have a landscape, it's so crowded.


Ed:
We are. And it took a really hardy breed to tame this landscape. And I think the geography and the landscape really informs a lot of who we are as Texans, and it does to Australians as well. So ergo, this film PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK. It's a true story, turn of the century, about girls from a very upper-crust Anglo quasi-British boarding school that did a weekend outing at a very famous rock called Hanging Rock, and several of them disappeared on the outing and were never seen again. And that rock reminds me a lot of Enchanted Rock, which to me is the spiritual heart of Texas, so I'm connected to that. And Peter Weir directed it, and there's just such a sense of mystery and lyricism and landscape and magic and just infused throughout with this seething, repressed sexuality that is trying to come out but never sort of comes out. All those things were fascinating to me. It just really impacted me and touched me and I came out of the theater thinking, "Okay, I want to impact someone's life the way Peter Weir just impacted my life." So I shifted career. And the lovely thing is, this was about 1982 and about ten years later I had moved to LA, I was casting at Disney and I was up at the Telluride Film Festival, and at the closing festival barbecue up in the mountain I ran into Peter Weir and I was able to tell him, "You're the reason I'm in the film business. Thank you very much." You know, and that's the gift of being in this business: you get to interact with your heroes, sometimes.


Me:
That's great. And I believe you care for film only, not theater or TV?


Ed:
I'm sorry?


Me:
You only care for film? You don't really care for theater or TV, or is it just that you only want to work in film?


Ed:
No, I love theater, and it was a big part of my upbringing in Longview, Texas. My mom founded the community theater so she was in all the shows, and then my sisters were in all the shows, and then my aunt and uncle and cousins were in all the Dallas summer musicals and stuff, so I grew up around theater. I went to my first Broadway show when I was about 13 in New York. I've got theater in my background, and I think it's the best training ground for actors, but it's a medium of words and action and just sort of who I am, the way I came into this world I respond more to the world in terms of visuals, and film is a visual medium. So that's why I've never cast theater. I've cast a few TV movies, but I didn't enjoy it because it's about results. I like to enjoy the process, take your time with-


Me:
The journey is the destination.


Ed:
Yeah, yeah, exactly, and you can do that in film. And the advantage to TV though now, especially with cable, is that there are so many people watching that you have the possibility to impact many more lives through TV than you do on film these days. But as a casting director, yeah, I stick to film.


Me:
The first film you ever cast won an Oscar. How did you go from watching that movie and realizing you wanted to do something with the art of film, how did you go from that to casting your first movie?


Ed:
Once I decided to go into film after seeing PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK I finished my degree and then I went to NYU Film School for a summer and studied acting with Uta Hagen and Warren Robertson at the same time.


Me:
Warren Robertson?


Ed:
Yeah. He was Jessica Lange's coach and some other people. But I don't know how serious I was about being an actor. It was more a means to an end, and the end for me was to direct at the time. I already had two degrees, so I didn't want to be a professional student and go to film school for four more years so I took this film production workshop at NYU, which I would recommend for anyone. It was intensive, round-the-clock 24/7. We made a different short film every four days. I was editing short films from midnight to 5:00 in the morning.


Me:
Did you hear about the film institute that is starting here where they are going to be making a lot of independent film? There's incredible people on the board.


Ed:
That's fantastic. That's great.


RUDE INTERRUPTION about the new UT Film Institute:
[Note from Michele:] During the interview I could not remember the names off the top of my head. I cannot resist taking a brief detour in the interview here to quote from the Austin American-Statesman front page article of September 5th, 2003, not wanting to make this wait for another column on another month:

"The University of Texas is turning its film school into a movie-making factory. Starting this semester, UT will help produce three low-budget films a year that could be widely distributed and shown in theaters - and make a profit, it hopes....UT [is building] an independent movie studio that will give students professional experience in filmmaking....Graduate and advanced undergraduate film students will be able to work on one $3 million feature-length movie and two productions budgeted between $500,000 and $1,000,000 in which they will learn alongside professional directors, cinematographers and others....Thom Mount, head of productions at RKO Pictures and a member of the new UT Film Institute advisory board [said], "UT will become the leader in this kind of thinking. I would be shocked if this did not become the bellwether for all film education at major universities in America."

Okay, okay, must hurry back to this wonderful interview with Ed Johnston, but before I do, here's a list of some of the professionals involved in the UT Film Institute. Such exciting news just won't wait for another column in another month!

Members of the University of Texas Film Institute Advisory Board, per an Austin American-Statesman article on 9/05/2003, include (in alphabetical order):

Elizabeth Avellan, producer (Once Upon A Time In Mexico And Spy Kids);
Michael Barker, co-president, Sony Pictures Classics;
Bob Berney, president, New Market Films;
Louis Black, Austin Chronicle editor and co-founder of SXSW film and music festival;
Rebecca Campbell, Austin Film Society;
Tom Copeland, director of the Texas Film Commission;
Jack Crosby, chairman of the Rust Group (a private investment partnership);
Jared Hoffman, agent, Creative Artists Agency (one of Hollywood's top talent agencies);
Robert Levi, cable programming consultant and former vice president of Turner Broadcasting);
Jordan Levin, president of entertainment of the WB television network);
Richard Linklater, film director and CEO of Detour Film Productions (Dazed And Confused, Slacker, The Newton Boys, etc.);
MATTHEW Mcconaughey, actor, director, producer and writer;
Barbara Morgan, executive director of the Austin Film Festival;
Thom Mount, head of production, RKO Pictures; and
Carolyn Pfeiffer, vice chair, American Film Institute Conservatory and former CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, who has produced 15 films and worked on hundreds

Pfeiffer is quoted in the Statesmen article, speaking of the new UT Film Institute, "This kicks the jambs out of the current paradigm for film education and puts the University of Texas in a position where it is redefining the terms for the rest of the top 10 film schools in the nation. They will have to get used to people from all these other schools showing up to study what they're doing."

One last note since we've already gone this far, again quoting from the Statesman article of 9/5/03: "An off-campus for-profit company called Burnt Orange Productions LLC" will be with whom the new film institute contracts exclusively, at least initially. TOWN LAKE FILMS, a private investment company, will also finance the films. "UT would say little about the company."

The Board of Directors of Burnt Orange Productions:

Paul Hobby, chairman, Hobby Media Services;
Tom Meredith, chairman and CEO of MFI Capital LLC (and former CEO of Dell, Inc.);
Patricia Ohlendorf, vice president of legal affairs at the University of Texas;
Johnnie Ray, vice president for resource development at the University of Texas;
Edward Safady, president and CEO of Liberty Bank in Austin;
Thom Schatz, executive director of the University of Texas Film Institute; and
Ellen Wartella, dean of the College of Communication at the University of Texas.

Please excuse the interruption. Now back to my interview with ED JOHNSTON:



Ed:
After I'd been at NYU I decided I'd rather learn the film business by doing, by working. At that time Dallas was a huge film center, sort of like Austin is now. It had as much film production as Chicago at the time. After New York and LA it was one of the biggest film production centers. So I moved back to Dallas, got an agent, was acting, but I was also doing production work - second second, location scout, location manager, extra. I mean I paid my dues, and I worked my way up. I never intended on being a casting director. I had never even thought about it. A friend of mine, DENNIS BISHOP, who was is a line producer at UPM here in Texas, had hired me many times as a PA and location scout. I was actually in London I think doing an acting workshop as an actor, and he tracked me down and asked me if I'd be interested in casting a movie he was producing, because they couldn't afford an LA or New York casting director. And you know, I thought it was going to be a T&A film or a hot tub movie or something and I was like, "Yeah, right." And I said, "Well, what's it about?" He said, "HORTON FOOTE wrote it," and that's all I needed to hear. I went, "I'll be home in 24 hours." I didn't even ask about it. You know, Horton Foote. So I flew back and it was a film called TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL. GERALDINE PAGE won an Oscar.


Me:
Oh, she is one of my favorite actresses of all time.


Ed:
Yeah, she was great. She won an Oscar for best actress, and then HORTON FOOTE was nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay. And suddenly I was a casting director. Once again, there is this synchronicity going on.


Me:
Also, in between casting, you write.


Ed:
Recently. I wasn't back then. Actually when I was in Dallas in the eighties casting I was directing theater. I had found a play in LA that I saw on Melrose called BEIRUT that ALAN BOWNE had written, and JASON PATRICK and MARISA TOMEI were in it. They were unknowns then. It was really gritty and sort of spoke to me, and you know Dallas is such a white bread city I thought, "I think we need to do this in Dallas." So I bought the rights to it, formed a production company with an actor and agent in Dallas who you probably know but shall go nameless, and I directed it. And then I directed a couple of other plays. Being in Dallas at that time there were a lot of opportunities because so many films were coming in. BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, which I did a location casting on for OLIVER STONE.


Me:
I love that movie. That really touched me a lot.


Ed:
Yeah, yeah. It was about something, you know something of weight. Oliver asked me to direct the montage of the RON KOVIC character as a kid that opens the film.


Me:
What character?


Ed:
Ron Kovic is the lead character that TOM CRUISE plays. Before he becomes Tom Cruise in the film the opening scenes are sort of a montage of him as a kid. It's all these kid scenes. And so I helped Oliver direct all those scenes. And so I had these opportunities in Dallas that I don't think I would have had in LA or New York at the time.


Me:
It sounds like there was a little bit of kismet there too.


Ed:
Yeah, yeah. So I was doing a little bit of that on the side while I was casting. And then Disney hired me to be their Regional Casting Representative in the Southwest based in Dallas, so I would do searches for them for leads in TV series and films. I also did the Texas casting on BLAZE, which was a Disney film, and through those tapes I sent to Disney in conjunction with Blaze they just paid attention I guess, and when one of the casting directors was leaving the department they flew me out to interview. And once again, it wasn't something I was looking for. I got this job offer to suddenly cast movies for Disney Touchstone Studio out of Dallas. So I went hmm, well, okay.


Me:
You didn't even have to leave Dallas to do the job?


Ed:
No no no.


Me:
Oh, you did move to LA.


Ed:
Yeah. I was their regional casting rep in Dallas, but I guess they liked my casting tapes.


Me:
Oh, I see. And so then they wanted you more in-house.


Ed:
They flew me to LA to interview twice and I got the job, so that's what moved me to LA, and then I cast for the studio for a couple years.


Me:
I have to say, whatever pictures I've had of - I've never met a Hollywood casting director, so-called quote-unquote, "Hollywood Casting Director" before you - at least I can't remember meeting one - and but what I pictured was a lot of the, you know-


Ed:
Glitz?


Me:
Oh, you know, slick and kind of a little too cool and kind of a little too cold, boy, what a beautiful thing to discover in your workshop that you really - like when you said that you really only want to work on films that touch your heart. That is so wonderful to hear. It's so nice to hear there's people at your level that feel that way. I know you can't always do that.


Ed:
No. Exactly.


Me:
But I know that's what your heart is.


Ed:
Well, when you're paying your dues and you're coming up the ranks you don't have the luxury of making that choice. You have to do what comes. Even when I was at Disney. There were three casting directors - the VP of casting, the senior and the junior. I was the junior. So, you know, I got stuck with the shit films. Sometimes you don't have a choice.


Me:
Maybe that's something you're coming into now a little bit.


Ed:
Yeah. You know, I gravitate towards certain films, and I pass on a lot of stuff because if it doesn't touch me or if it doesn't intrigue me or move me or challenge me in some way, well why bother doing it? Unless it's a big ole paycheck. I did a film last year that was a big ole paycheck. Sometimes you do that. You know, and a lot of this business is also about relationships, and I started a professional relationship with RON SHELTON, who was the writer-director on BULL DURHAM, TIN CUP, WHITE MEN CAN'T JUMP, etcetera, etcetera. I started a professional relationship with him on BLAZE, and he's been a wonderful mentor to me and we've stayed friends all these years. Now I've done about four or five films with him, the last one being HOLLYWOOD HOMICIDE last year. And he's also very much a guide for me in my writing. I think in this business more than most, mentors and guides are very important, and I have been blessed with several. ROBERT DUVALL is another guide.


Me:
That makes me want to ask you two opposite - not opposite, but this forks off and creates questions. Do you feel like sharing what kind of writing you are doing? Is it screenwriting or book writing?


Ed:
I have a story file with about 25 stories that I want to turn into movies, and I've been exploring and toying with writing for years now. And I just sort of want my creative vision on screen. It doesn't really matter if I've written it if I'm producing it, if I'm directing it. My ego isn't entrenched in any one area. I just know sort of my vision, my world view, my voice. So I have this story file of about 25 stories that I want to tell. I've done the research on one.


Me:
Are they true stories? Or some?


Ed:
Well, you know, any story is based on some truth.


Me:
When you say "research," maybe research on what a certain culture is like or?


Ed:
Yeah, yeah. For example I did research five years ago on a murder that happened in Texas, and I did some investigation and I interviewed them, the sheriff and the detectives and blah-blah-blah. And it's a pretty dark story, and once I did all the research and I had the audiocassettes and my notes, I just wasn't ready to venture into that dark lake yet. I think I need to get some more power under my belt before I try to get that film made, because it's going to be pretty dark. But there are some others I am writing on right now, one in particular, and in a couple of months I'm getting together with Ron. Once my first draft is finished he is going to go through it with me and give me notes and help me tailor it.


Me:
You know it's interesting. That just sort of snagged something in my brain, you talking about doing something really dark. Most of my life, just about all my life, I just wouldn't watch violence in films. And when I would be at them I would close my eyes, put my thumbs in my ears and hum "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and you know kind of squint until I'd see it's over. I just couldn't handle it. And PULP FICTION was the movie that somehow made that transition in me so that I could actually - it had enough humor there that it showed me how- You know, it's not that I think that violence is okay now, and I know some people see Pulp Fiction and they don't get it and they don't like it and they don't approve, but to me it was a great gift to have something be shown that I don't want to see in real life and show me a way to look at it that doesn't just totally make me want to go kill myself.


Ed:
Well for example there's a film out, a French film called IRREVERSIBLE with MONICA BELLUCCI and VINCENT CASSEL. And there is evidently this heinous 10-minute rape, very graphic rape of her in the film. I just don't want to go see a 10-minute rape. That said, I don't want to explore darkness just to exploit darkness. I think sometimes you have to explore darkness and get to the other side in order to get through to the light and then bring the light to the audience and let them see that through darkness.


Me:
Right. To me it's also just to even show that it can be overcome.


Ed:
Well exactly.


Me:
Because I think the biggest thing that feeling like, "This is gonna be forever!"


Ed:
Exactly.


Me:
You know, every time we feel really, really, really down we feel like we're gonna feel that way forever.


Ed:
Yeah. Absolutely.


Me:
How can you tell when someone has, an actor is "It"?


Ed:
Define "It" for me.


Me:
Charisma on screen.


Ed:
So you mean what makes a star?


Me:
Yeah, yeah. Star quality.


Ed:
It's indefinable really. It's that spark. It's like an internal energy source that comes out of your eyes and your personality. Even without actors, it's the sort of person that walks in a room at a party and everyone is just drawn to them. You know, you can't define it. But having "It" is different than being a great actor. There are a lot of movie stars that can't act, you know, and there are stars that can act. And there are a lot of great, great actors that aren't A-list movie stars.


Me:
That can't even get into auditions sometimes.


Ed:
Yeah. Exactly. And so it's a charisma. It's a charisma, and I can't really put my finger on it. I know it when I see it. I know it when I see it.


Me:
I knew the actors would like that question. Oh, and for the women. Actually a lot of people read AustinActors.net. We get a lot of hits. Do you foresee more roles for women in film, including women over 29?


Ed:
[laughs] I hope so. I hope so. Unfortunately you know, I think the bulk of the movie buying public are young guys between 18 and 25. That's demographic. So that's why you see so many vacuous bullshit teen films.


Me:
Okay. All you mature women out there, so seduce a young guy and then maybe they'll let us into the movies. (No, just kidding!)


Ed:
But you see a film like THE BANGER SISTERS. It's got SUSAN SARANDON. You see a film like - what's it called? THIRTEEN. HOLLY HUNTER is popping up in films.


Me:
Actually, I am seeing it more. I am seeing mature women more. Did you see that movie with LOUISE LASSER, FAST WOMEN FAST FOOD? The title is something I wouldn't usually watch.


Ed:
Didn't see it.


Me:
There's a couple of mature actresses in there, and I was amazed with LOUISE LASSER. That was the most fun I ever had watching her.


Ed:
Well, I'll tell you what helps. There are more women in positions of power in the industry now than ever before. [A couple of women] are heads of studios now. Hopefully these women in positions of power will be developing more female writing in scripts.


Me:
You said in class the other day that you've seen a lot of creativity and soul in Austin actors and ability to act naturally, yet there's a bit of an epidemic of dullness in their acting.


Ed:
Yeah.


Me:
What do you recommend that actors do to release the passion in their work without playing too big or theatrically?


Ed:
Well, we are all different individuals, so it's going to be different for every actor. Whatever sparks your self. If it's dance, then go dance. There's a great thing called Dance Choir every Sunday that meets down on South Lamar [here in Austin]. It's sort of ecstatic and improvisational dance, and you just show up, you pay five bucks, they put on really wild music, there's like 150 people and you just go nuts dancing, and it gets you out of yourself. Every actor is a unique individual and we all have different passions and fears, so whatever drives your passion you need to move towards. I'm a big believer in that.


Me:
I really like what you're saying there, because it's kind of like what you are saying FEEL your passion, EXPERIENCE your passion.


Ed:
Well, just let it out. If it's music, go for music - if it's swimming, if it's exercise, if it's biking, if it's skydiving, if it's riding on a horse, if it's group therapy, whatever it is. I find that a lot of actors in Austin are natural, but sometimes there is a lack of commitment to choices in their acting. That translates from my viewpoint as a little dull. You have to commit to choices with passion, you know. And being passionate doesn't mean theatrical. It means commitment.


Me:
Okay. You don't have to answer this if you don't like this question, but I thought it was a fun one. What are the suckiest questions or comments you get from actors all too often?


Ed:
The suckiest? "Can you help me get an agent?" Actors have a tendency to worry too much about how they look as opposed to their truth. They'll ask me ten questions about their headshot or their clothes or their hair or how it looks in the headshot when you know, guys, quit worrying so much about how you look and worry more about your acting ability. And when people ask me to help them get an agent it puts me on the spot, and it's just sort of inappropriate.


Me:
What would you say it ROBERT DUVALL'S strongest asset as an actor?


Ed:
Truth.


Me:
How much of an actor's performance on film depends upon the editor and or camera operator? Is it a collaborative art?


Ed:
Film is a collaborative art. And you can't have a good film without good actors. Yes, and the editing is very important. You can cut around an actor very easily. If an actor gives marginal performance you can make him look good. So editing is really important - I think more so regarding the actor's performance than the cinematography. That's how you look. You know, I mean a cinematographer can make you look beautiful; they can't make you act well. And the editor can make you look like you are acting well. You know?


Me:
Yeah. As a casting director the assumption is that you have an A-List of actors you go to over and over again. How does an actor break into that rare company, the A-List?


Ed:
Well, let's put it this way. In LA when you talk about the A-List you are talking about name recognition and box office. An A-List in LA are the people that are going to be able to open a film, including people that wouldn't necessarily be on my A-List talent-wise.


Me:
Let's rephrase that question. How would you suggest that an actor in Texas get on the Texas A-List?


Ed:
Well, I haven't been here in years so I can't really answer that effectively, but just be a good actor. I cast all over Texas in the eighties. Do we have our favorites? Of course we do. Of course we do. And I cast many of the same actors over and over and over again, because they were good. But I also gave a lot of actor - a lot of actors - their first break. Because to me it's not important if you have a bazillion credits. What's important to me is that you are truthful and good. And back in the Dallas days I went to the Deep Ellum Theater Garage a lot that is not. It's no longer there, but it was sort of this underground guerilla in Deep Ellum in Dallas and a lot of actors that didn't have agents. When I saw good unknown actors there I sent them to agents, I had other casting directors come see them, and I started putting them in movies. So it's not important to me what your résumé is; what's more important to me is what I see in the room in the audition.


Me:
Beautiful.


Ed:
And the best way to become on the favorite list to be good - to bust your ass, to be doing theater. To be truthful and to be good. That's all.


Me:
Great. If you were in seclusion and allowed to see only two films for the whole of next year, which two would you choose and why?


Ed:
Oh man...that's...I can't just pick two. Can I pick more than two?


Me:
Okay. You can pick four.


Ed:
CASABLANCA, ALL ABOUT EVE. Pause it for a second because I've got to think. SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS and an obscure British film by the director TERENCE DAVIES called DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES. And when I talk about film as a medium of images and not words, every actor should see that film because it's got a minimum of words. It's told in music and montage and visuals and it's incredibly touching and beautiful. I think it's a masterpiece. I have about ten other ones, but you just wanted four.


Me:
There's one movie I remember that I didn't like the script really. I didn't even really like the acting necessarily. But just looking at it made me love it.


Ed:
What was that?


Me:
Now the name just jumped out of my brain. RYAN O'NEAL and MARISA BERENSON.


Ed:
Oh, BARRY LYNDON.


Me:
Barry Lyndon. I just looooved looking at that film.


Ed:
That brings up something CHRIS LANDON and I were talking about this the other day, is that in LA I think probably 80 percent of the people in the business have no sense of film history. Film history is very important. It gives you a frame of reference, it gives you an education - actor, director, casting person, it doesn't matter - and I would emphasize to every actor in Austin, go to VULCAN VIDEO - not just Blockbuster, go to Vulcan, and rent the old classics. The films I mentioned. Rent the European art films, the great Latin American films. See all the different worlds there are to explore in film. Because that's why you're doing this. And go rent movies with great actors and study their performances. All the people I mentioned in the workshop.

[NOTE: The really good actors Ed mentioned in the 12-hour workshop (a couple weeks ago as I write this) were numerous. Very talented stars listed include ROBERT DUVALL (whom he calls the greatest actor living today), SUSAN SARANDON, HOLLY HUNTER, DENZEL WASHINGTON, SPENCER TRACY (perhaps the greatest actor of all time), HENRY FONDA and JIMMY STEWART. He mentioned many more, so hopefully I will find my notes before deadline on this article - sorry!!) - Michele]


Me:
Do you have an anecdotal you'd like to tell about auditioning or actors or the casting process?


Ed:
Yeah. I was casting a movie in Houston back in the Texas days. I think it was BLIND FURY, in which I put CK McFARLAND in her first film. I think it was BLIND FURY. But I had to find a big bruiser sort of guy, huge, threatening guy. And I couldn't find the guy in the acting pool so I went to alternative sources. I went to the HOUSTON OILERS and they let me audition their football players in one of the training rooms. I called back about four of them to the director, who was PHILLIP NOYCE, who has gone on to become a great director. He directed CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER and PATRIOT GAMES. He's a wonderful director. So at this inn in Houston there is a huge, big, round wooden heavy, heavy, heavy conference table, oval-shaped, and the director and the producers were sitting behind it. And in the scene the actor has to come in and be very threatening and really scary. So this Houston Oiler named JAY PENNISON - I forget what position he played - not an actor. He comes in and just behind he walked in to do the scene I went right up to him, got right in his face and I said - can I cuss?


Me:
Yes.


Ed:
"I want you to scare the f*****g s**t out of my director and especially the little producer." And he goes, "Really?" And I went, "Yeah. Scare him s***less."


Me:
I love it!


Ed:
He went in there, and he went in there unannounced. I didn't introduce him. He kicked the door open, it slammed into the wall, the doorknob embedded in the wall, he went over - one of the producers was on the phone, he yanked the phone out of his hand, threw it across the room, completely destroying the telephone, and just was raging at them. And the director was lovin' it. The little producer jumped up and he was scared. He was like hiding against the wall. And the football player just really zeroed in on him. He lifted - this table must have been you know 500 lbs. - he lifted it up, threw it against the wall, and suddenly they were all exposed. And it was like little ants scurrying. It scared the s**t out of 'em. He got the part. He got the part. Now that worked in that case. A case where it didn't work is, well, on BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY. I use improv a lot in auditions, and OLIVER STONE loved the way I used improv so he always wanted me to do it. I'm auditioning guys to play a security guard that is arresting the Tom Cruise character while he's in a wheelchair. And he's sitting there going, "Stop the bomb!" and "Stop the war!" I'm sitting and playing Ron Kovic and so I'm sitting in the wheelchair as a paraplegic. I can't move. And I told all these actors, "Really go for it." Well this one actor came in - who shall go nameless, because you'll know him - and he grabbed me in a chokehold. And I'm in character. I'm the casting director but I'm in character and because I'm a paraplegic I can't fight back. He dragged me across the room with me resisting in a neck-hold, and Oliver loved it. And it really messed my neck up. I had to go to the chiropractor for six weeks. But did he get the part? Yes.


Me:
He did?


Ed:
Yes, of course he did. Yeah, he got the part, because Oliver loved his passion. It's that word again.


Me:
Wow. Yeah, those are some passion stories. That's great. Will you be back in Austin?


Ed:
I like coming here just because I like the vibe here. It's one of my favorite cities in America.


Me:
Maybe once a year do a workshop, or have you thought about that?


Ed:
Maybe, maybe. Maybe. I have some friends here, I like coming here, I have family here, I like coming here to swim in Barton Springs.


[Note: Recorder turned off here for a few minutes, apologies for the break of chain of thought where it jumps on to somewhere else here.]
Me:
You were saying you liked being behind the scenes more here.


Ed:
Well again, everything happens for a reason. I was talking earlier about synchronicity. I enjoyed acting, but I always had a huge battle with nerves. I don't like being the center of attention. I like to observe, I like to watch, I like to take notes, I like to process - which means I'm more of a writer/director than an actor. So in a weird way A TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL landing in my lap freed me up from continuing down the acting path.


Me:
Very happily so.


Ed:
Yeah. But because I've been there and done that I think I have a lot of empathy and compassion for actors, and I understand what it's like to be on that side of the table and I try to make actors as comfortable as possible because I know what it's like to be nervous on that side. So for me, being behind the scenes is a good thing.


Me:
Well it was just wonderful watching you in the workshop and you were doing things like just you know crawling up on the floor to get close to a scene and so that you could look into their eyes, and it was very interesting to me how you didn't even mind if you couldn't hear what was being said.


Ed:
Sometimes.


Me:
Yeah. Because it was more important that they were being real and that something was happening there, something meaningful.


Ed:
Well, I lead with my heart, not my head, and you know the scene from UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING with the photography towards the end? [Note: Ed is speaking here of a scene performed at his recent workshop by actors ANGELA SYKES and JOURDAN HENDERSON.] There was so much electric tension between those two, a minimum of words, and it didn't matter what they were saying because you got that electricity and the tension between them. So I pick up on the emotional vibe that's going on, and to me that's more important than having to hear the words.


Me:
Yeah, it's one of those times in an acting class where you feel like, "Oh God," you know, "and that wasn't even caught on tape! Ahh [of frustration]." But that's what it's all working toward.


Ed:
Yeah. Yeah.


Me:
Is it necessary for Austin actors to head to LA or New York now that Austin's film industry is picking up pace?


Ed:
Again, I don't think there is a blanket answer to that. Unfortunately in a regional market like Texas 95 percent of the actors that get film roles are only going to be paid scale. So you are not going to be able to make a lot of money in film here. It may nurture and nourish your soul, but unless you are doing commercials, industrials, things like that which can pay the bills, film is really not going to pay the bills here. Here you can build up your resume. But you know, life isn't about acting. Life is about being happy and giving back to the world. So if you're happy and fulfilled in Austin with the acting career you have, why leave? If you're not happy and you need more and your cup needs to be filled in a way that it's not being filled in Austin, then you can either do something else or go to LA.


Michele:
What do LA casting directors think of Austin actors.


Ed:
I don't think they really think about it that much, because for the most part when we're casting movies in LA or New York we don't usually go on location to do the location casting. We'll hire someone on location to do the location casting. Because of my background, I came up through the ranks as a location casting director, I actually like going on location. But I only do it on certain films. I'll do it on any film that ROBERT DUVALL is directing because we're so in sync creatively. And because I put Robert Duvall in SECONDHAND LIONS before the film was greenlit I felt a responsibility to him and to TIM MCCANLIES, the director, to come here. And I wanted to be in Austin. It gave me an excuse to be in Austin for a couple of months. But I don't think most LA casting directors really know much about Texas actors.


Me:
Using a percentage of how much of this business is based on who you know rather than what you know, especially speaking to actors, how much do you think it matters who you know rather than what you know or how well you audition?


Ed:
I think in Austin it's more important to be good and less important who you know, because there are only a couple of people that you need to know in Texas, the few casting directors here. In LA I think it's probably 50/50. [Turning to CHRIS LANDON, who had just joined us at the table:] She asked a good question. What percent of being successful in LA is who you know versus what you know? I'd say in LA it's probably 50/50.


Chris:
It is.


Ed:
I mean contacts are everything in LA.


Chris:
That's true.


Ed:
So 50/50. Yeah.


Michele:
Is there anything else, anything I didn't ask that maybe you'd just like to say?


Ed:
Be truthful. Be truthful. Be truthful.

As discussed at the beginning of the interview, Ed has had a policy not to give film acting workshops or classes in LA. I have to admit that this is kind of a hot-potato topic I found tempted to leave out of this column entirely. But then again, this is a topic I have heard on the lips of more than one or three actors around town, and concern about the integrity of casting directors. Clearly, there ARE scams going on out there. I wrote about one of them in one of my columns here last year or the year before, about the scam I ran into here in town with just such a casting director speaking at an "audition." What was supposed to be an audition turned out to be an hour or so of hype followed by a fake audition, using a camera and all. These things DO exist. The good news is that once you have taken a few classes and begin learning the ropes of the film business with some bona fide acting coaches, you begin to be able to recognize such scams for what they are. Auditions never begin with a speech at the beginning with someone telling you lots of things to impress you that the casting director is a big deal. And legitimate auditions do NOT sell acting classes. Neither do legitimate auditions recommend you to any one particular agency.

However, and I have thought about this a lot, as an actor I have benefited from casting director classes and workshops while I also have fretted over whether or not my not having taken a particular casting director's workshop might be the reason that s/he has not yet granted me audience for even one audition.

The thing is, legitimate casting directors DO often have a lot to offer. I would hate to see them clam up and be afraid to give classes or workshops for fear of being seen as lacking in integrity. I don't feel it should have to be seen that way at all, as long as those same casting directors do not require it of an actor to take their workshop in order to be granted auditions with them. I have heard a lot of talk over the years from actors telling me that so-and-so is very hard to get to see, so if you want to be sure to see that casting director the best thing to do is take her/his workshop. I know that is not true for the very best of the casting directors. THAT would be paid auditions in a very sad sense of the word if the casting director would see ONLY those who have paid her or him money. I know ED JOHNSTON does not do that. Shoot, he will even cast non-actors if they are right for the part and can be "real" on tape. He will give anyone who looks the part at least one chance, as far as I can tell. (But, let's be real here, even a casting director as open as Ed have only so much time and a very serious job to perform. The only way to plan to be able to be auditioned by folks like him is to get some training and get an agent.)

Since taking Ed's workshop I have been taking local Casting Director BETH SEPKO's "Audition Reality" workshop/class, and really from the first I read about her setup for these "classes," I knew it was a good, good thing and didn't waste a moment to sign up. I didn't sign up so that Beth would meet me or agree to audition me. Beth had already auditioned me several times and I already know that I didn't have to take a class from her for that purpose. Her course is set up with what she calls "Faux Auditions," where the actors are called in to 3 or 4 separate auditions, on separate days, at her casting office - where you play like it's the "real thing." (I have heard that Casting Director TONI COBB of Dallas does something similar!) Sides are faxed to you a day or so ahead of time for most of them, and then there is one that is an icy Cold Read. She tapes all the auditions, and then once all the "auditions" have been completed, she is meeting with small groups of 5-7 people each to look at the tapes and discuss and learn. (I haven't been to that last part yet, so I can't tell you much about it except to say that it is a 3-hour class.) Beth has taken her time with me at each faux audition to give me direction and do each scene several different times, usually in several different ways. That in itself has been a good learning experience for me. Just the learning by doing, you know? I have heard it said more than once - and I believe it to be true - that the only REAL "edge" LA actors have over Texas actors is that they simply get to practice a helluva lot more than we do. Shoot, it is common for them to go to four auditions per day, day after day - or more. Practice makes perfect! That's why I train as much as I can now. But on top of all that, her classes are so affordable. I mean! She charged a very reasonable fee for the course, with a discount for those who have proof (receipts) showing they are either taking ongoing acting classes or have taken a workshop with another Casting Director recently. WOW. Thank you, BETH!

The only other casting director in town from whom I have yet taken a workshop is DONISE HARDY. That was a Commercial Acting workshop. Her class was very informative, especially for the newbie or theater or film actor not familiar with the idiosyncrasies of commercial (versus film) auditions. Acting for commercials is acting in a way, but it's not really like film acting at all. It's really different.

I highly recommend that serious and aspiring film actors take ED JOHNSTON's workshop if you ever get the chance. Like Austin's premier acting coach MONA LEE of Brite Lites Studios (author of the THE BIZ BOOK), Ed definitely has the Muse for teaching acting. As I watched Ed at work in class I found myself mesmerized. Just listening to and watching him teach was for me an exquisite experience for which I don't really have the words to describe, because when an acting teacher does that then it is to me something that surpasses words and is, quite literally, ART - as in exquisite, subtle, passionate, brilliant, inspiring, moving. These are the times I realize most how much I love acting - the passion, the magic, and how, oh, it's kind of like really being in love. I knew I was hooked when, after taken Mona's classes for nearly a year I found myself thinking, "Even if I never get a role, I would love to take these classes for the rest of my life, if only I could!" That's when I knew I would keep doing this - keep acting. For me, it's a win-win situation. Whether or not I get the big roles, I am enjoying the hell out of it (well, at least when it doesn't have me devastated and in tears, haha).

Sometimes I have heard actors express a belief that only a successful starring or high-profile working actor could be a good acting coach. Here I must disagree! Anyone ever heard of Lee Strassberg, Ed Meisner or Stella Adler? Those names are a few of the most high-profile GREAT acting coaches of the 20th century - yet I personally never saw one of them in even one performance on film, and none of them (if any of them did that), are famous for their acting. They are famous, rather, for their coaching. Another case in point: About actor's really "getting it right," ED JOHNSTON - and he should know - said, "I know it when I see it." Does he have to be a Box Office Draw himself to be a great acting coach? Nope! Conversely, just because somebody is a Movie Star, does that make him or her a guaranteed good acting coach? I think not. I really, really think not. In fact, it was very enjoyable for all of us that took Ed's workshop to hear him say, more than once, something like, "Not all Movie Stars are good actors. In fact, they are some of the worst actors! We have to work with them on the set - a LOT."

___________________________
Michele Déradune is a single mom, film actress and voice talent represented by CIAO! TALENTS. Michele played Mel, the cheating wife of the judge, in the Texas-based SNAKE TALES (Winner "Best Independent Film Comedy" at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Summer 2001). SNAKE TALES is available for rent at Vulcan Video and Waterloo Video or can be ordered through Media Garage (cyc@501studios.com). You can check out Michele's online video and voice demos through the links on www.Deradune.com.

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