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If I were to list all the credits of Casting Director Mary Vernieu, there wouldn’t be any room left in this magazine for the interview. Suffice to say that Vernieu, the casting person of choice for many of Hollywood’s best directors, has done it all. Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, The Black Swan) and Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids franchise, Sin City) will not make a film if Vernieu isn’t involved in the casting process, and her relationship with Oliver Stone spans the last  decade and a half, beginning with Nixon in 1995. Her credits run the gamut from the indiest of Indies to major studio franchises and big budget blockbusters. She put Billy Bob Thornton in the now cult classic, Bad Santa, and was instrumental in securing the cast of last year’s Oscar favorite, Crazy Heart. She’s discovered and launched the careers of many of today’s important actors and, in her “spare time,” she managed to open and successfully run Primitivo, one of the best restaurant/wine bars in Los Angeles. When we meet on a cloudy Sunday, in the back room of Primitivo, Vernieu is friendly and down to earth, and has the enthusiasm of someone just starting out in their career. She seems both delighted and amused to hear that she has earned legendary status in her chosen field, and insists that it is because she loves her work that she’s become so successful. Currently, she’s in the middle of a fantastic awards season due to her most recent casting credit on Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan which seems to be up for everything this year.

Venice: Black Swan is such a huge success, you must be so proud. At what point did Darren bring you on to the project?

Mary Vernieu: I worked with Darren Aronofsky on The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream, and also on The Fountain, so every time he has a movie, we want to work together. So, yes, in that sense I am his “go to” person. Black Swan started a few years ago during Academy Award season when he was here in Los Angeles for The Wrestler, and we did a read through. At that point Natalie (Portman) was reading both parts — her role of Nina and also the role of Lily (played by Mila Kunis in the film), because the whole back and forth of the film depends on your perception of who is real and who is not. Barbara Hershey (who plays Portman’s mother, Erica) did the read through also, but then she had to go through the whole casting process to actually get the part. She had to read up against all the other women we were seeing for the role and, ultimately, she did get the part which I was happy about because I love her. She’s so cool. I went to New York, which was unusual because normally I’d just hire someone there to audition people but I really wanted to go there and see that ballet world and make sure that I was on the ground, so to speak, for this film. I went and met all the ballerinas in New York who were auditioning and, as you know, one of the themes of this film requires that all the actresses have to kind of look alike, so I wanted all the people in the company to feel similar. We really delved into the world of dancers, both in LA and in New York. I spent almost a month in New York doing the casting. It was great. I went to a really great American Ballet Theater black tie event that was just fantastic, and I absolutely loved the process of working there. I’m from New York, but I really didn’t start my career until I moved here.

And how did this illustrious career start? What were your humble beginnings?

I started as an assistant, to Risa Bramon Garcia, and the first movie I worked on was The Doors (1991). It was so fun. I mean, at that point, my job was to look for guys that looked like Jim Morrison. How cool is that? It was a very thrilling experience. And I still think Val Kilmer is a great actor and that he did a terrific job. I worked with Risa’s  company for a while and then I went off on my own and did Freeway and Johns which both went to Sundance that year (1996). Freeway is mostly known for starring a very young Reese Witherspoon in one of her first films. Previously, she’d done The Man in the Moon (1991) but this was her first adult role and I really fought for her because the producers wanted Drew Barrymore or a more “well known” actress.

Well, believing in Reese was a smart move. What do you think when you see her now? She’s such a huge star.

I’m happy for her, and for Kiefer (Sutherland) too, because he has come a long way since then also.

Tell us some other actors you’ve discovered early on who went on to achieve success.

Well, look, there’s been a lot of people I’ve worked with who have gone very far. I mean, I did Cant’ Hardly Wait in 1998 and there’s a ton of people in that film and they all became famous. I love that movie — every single person in that movie had a career and it was a really fun thing to do. It’s so charming and watchable. When I did I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) none of those people were known then and they’ve all done well, too. With Spy Kids,  and I’ve done all of them, it’s so interesting to see those kids, they were so young and now one of them just got married. I just finished doing the most recent Spy Kids (4) with Robert Rodriguez and we had to find new kids. It’s one of the most exciting things when you can find someone who rocks in the room and you know. You just know they’re going to have a huge career.

Who have you felt that way about recently? Who has come in and just blown you away?

Michael Shannon. I did World Trade Center (2006) and I fought for him to be in the film because he was going to do a play and he’s so much his own guy, which I love, but I knew he’d have this big career. Billy Bob (Thornton) too, I knew when I met him.

Was there anybody that you met and thought they were great, but not right for what you were casting for at the time, who then became a huge star?

I think there are those people and it’s all about timing. Everyone has their time, and I think that’s in life and in acting and in everything. When you are ready to mature, that’s when it hits sometimes. Mila (Kunis) was on “That ’70s Show” for a really long time and then she did some other things. She did Extract (2009) which I put her in and then it was like, what’s going to happen? Black Swan was an amazing revelation for her, she’s just so great. There’s another great girl in Black Swan who plays the ballerina that Natalie’s character thinks is going to get the part; her name is Ksenia Solo and she’s somebody that is a brand new discovery and I think she’s going to have a huge career. She has these amazing eyes and she’s very talented.

What was your happiest casting experience? I know it’s hard to pick just one, but try.

Black Swan was one, for sure. Movies do have their ups and downs but that project was one of those things that was really enjoyable because I was learning about the different world and able to delve into the lives of dancers which was very cool. I love when you have a director that allows you to have freedom so that it’s their vision. When you can serve a director’s vision, that, to me, is the most enjoyable experience. I am lucky enough to have that with Darren Aronofsky.

Any other directors that you love to work with?

Yes, actually, Robert Rodriguez, Oliver Stone, David O’ Russell. I like to work with the same people over and over again. But one of my main things is that I like to stay in the independent film world so that I can always find the next Darren, or the next big indie director that’s coming up. My company had six movies at Toronto last year which was amazing. I try to keep my roots there, it’s what I love.

How do you resist the lure of big action/ big studio films?

I don’t. [laughs] Darren’s next movie is going to be Wolverines which is going to be huge. For me, it’s more about them, the directors I work with, it’s about what they want to do, and there are always those movies that come along like Scooby Doo and Barbershop, that are the fun big studio movies that you have a great time with; then there is the combination of a movie like Sin City, which was a Miramax movie but it had that very independent feel. I just like really to stay creative; I think that way you can remain an artist, but I definitely do both. I have a great team and we’re always exploring new filmmakers and we’re really open to small budget movies and as many big movies as we can do.

What would make you say “no” to a project?

I do turn down some things. Sometimes you can just feel it. I’ve been down the road enough that you just know, and your gut tells you this isn’t going to be good. I really do try to do as much as I can; I work a lot and will do lots of projects at the same time. The way that the business works is that there are so many projects that get moved around — it’s like about to go and then it pushes. In order to keep my company going and my people employed you have to learn how to juggle.

At what point during this juggling act of several movies at the same time did you decide “Hmmm, I think I’ll open a restaurant”?

Yeah. Honestly, I would travel all the time for work and there were no wine bars in LA and it drove me nuts because I love wine and I just didn’t understand. At the time, the only “wine bar” was at the Broadway Deli (since closed) and it had like three seats. There was no place for wine lovers to go. I had my office here in Venice (at the time it was behind the restaurant) and I wanted something else. Originally, I was going to open a gourmet wine store and in the process of putting that together, this restaurant (that used to be here) went out of business and it seemed like “do or die.” You know, you have to take the risk and try it, just go for it. It’s been a really good experience and it’s nice to have something else besides the movie business in your life.

Since most waiters and waitresses in this town seem to be aspiring actors, I have to ask, do your employees in the restaurant hit on you for jobs?

[laughs] We do have a good mix here. We have singers and dancers and yes, we have some actors and it’s nice. I do try to hire some of our people for movies when I can. There have definitely been people we’ve given acting jobs to. I do try. In the movie Extract, the two guys that work in the factory were two of our busboys, who are brothers. It was great to be able to do that.

You have such a great eye for talent, so tell me, what is the “it” factor that you see that makes you think, “Yes, this person is someone I want to put in a film”?

It’s a combination of what the role is and what they bring to it, but you can really feel it. It’s hard to describe other than it’s a presence and uniqueness and having a different approach, and it’s definitely a sparkle. If someone walks down the street and you just have to look at them, you know it. It’s hard to pinpoint, but you know it. I tape all my auditions, but I really go on what blows my mind in the room in that moment. If they are just so “present,” then it usually translates onto the camera.

Who is the first person whom you felt this way about? We’ve talked of more recent ones, but who is the actor where you said, “I’d stake my career on this person”?

Angelina Jolie. We put her in one of her first films, which was Mojave Moon (1996). I was still starting out and hadn’t yet formed my own company, but you knew she had something that was unique, and she was so beautiful. There was just something different about her. You just knew. Sometimes it takes a minute for that person to come into their own, to have that part where they really own it. I think sometimes that Hollywood is a really hard place and they might get discouraged and it doesn’t work out for them timing-wise, and if that’s the case then maybe it wasn’t meant to be for them. Some people are their own worst enemies and they just shoot themselves in the foot with everything they do.

Do you have a list of those people, the ones you’ll never use?

I try to be very understanding, because I know how tough it is, but there’ll be some times where stuff happens where…well, I try not to have that list but of course there’s always someone who’s floating around and I know that I won’t use them. But, honestly, if they don’t behave well and they don’t act right, then it’s a trickledown effect for everyone on the set. I really try to understand why people behave the way they do.

Speaking of misbehaving actors, did you cast Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler or was that Darren Aronofsky’s first choice all along?

Darren had him in mind the whole time. At one point it was going to be Nicolas Cage, but Darren just wanted Mickey. But I did put Mickey in Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) with Robert Rodriguez. That was one of the first films he did after a long hiatus, and then I put him in Sin City, which was huge for him. So I definitely was always on the “Mickey train” because I knew how talented he was. But he is somebody that did bad and then had a great comeback. God bless him, you know. He was so handsome back in the day and he has monster talent. I loved him in The Wrestler and I loved Marissa (Tormei) too. She was amazing. We had read a lot of actresses and she had the courage, and it’s one of those cases where she was exactly right for the part.


So do you and Darren (Aronofsky) have shorthand that you use with each other? A way of communicating that’s specific to having done so many films together?

We do. We have good shorthand; we’ve known each other a long time, since before we started working together, because he came to an “orphans Christmas” at my house before he’d even made Pi (1998). He was a friend of my friends and when he called me to do Requiem for a Dream (2000) he said, “I was at your house for Christmas.” Literally, there were a lot of people there that year so when we went to meet at Shutters he was sitting with someone I knew and he said, “You wouldn’t have recognized me if I hadn’t been sitting with him,” and I said, “You wouldn’t have recognized me either.” We have a funny kind of rapport. He is one of the most amazing people to work with; he’s a great guy on top of being one of the smartest most brilliant filmmakers, and he has such a great heart.

Take us through the steps of the casting director’s job. How does it go?

You get a script, you read it and do a breakdown, and you make lists of who you think would work for the various roles. You have a conversation with the producers and the directors to see where their heads are at, to figure out who they like, and what direction they’re heading in. You then check availabilities on the actors to see who will be available during that time period and you set up meetings. If it’s for something where you have the opportunity to discover somebody new, then you jump in and start to see people, which is always a great process. I try to see as much theater as I can and I do “generals” probably every day. You have to do it, and I love meeting new people, but sometimes it’s, well, not easy. A “general” is where you just sit and talk to people; I like to meet people first before I see their work. I ask them basic questions: where are you from, what do you like, things like that. I prefer to ask random questions that have nothing to do with acting. I just want to get a sense of them.

Let’s talk about “lucky accidents,” where someone is not available so you get someone unexpected who turns out to be great or you hit on the next big “star.” Do you believe that things are “meant to be” in the casting world?

Well, I think that’s always the way. If for some reason it doesn’t work out, then it is meant to be. I do believe in the universe working that way; if someone isn’t available to do a movie and we have to [start shooting], I always tell the director, “Don’t worry, it’s all how it’s supposed to be, you have to believe in the power of the universe.”

So what’s next for you? Will you move out of casting and into other things?

I am a producer on a lot of movies that I do. There are a million producers in Hollywood and I’d never want to say I don’t want to be a casting director because I love what I do, but at the same time there are certain projects where it’s all about putting the talent in because that’s what brings the financing money, so I’m trying to expand a little into that. I really want to put a movie together without other producers involved. I’m working on one now that’s a little gem. I think it’ll be a great movie and I’m having a great time doing it. ▼

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