– . – Casting the Role

Casting the Role

Over the last 20 years casting director Heidi Levitt has worked with many great directors including Oliver Stone, Neil LaBute and Wim Wenders. And, as she explains, the films may have changed but the importance of great casting has not.

A graduate of Barnard College, Columbia University and the AFI Producers Fellowship, Heidi Levitt has cast some of the most successful American films in recent memory, including Oliver Stone classics JFK (1991), Heaven & Earth (1993), Natural Born Killers (1994), and Nixon (1995). For over 20 years Levitt has cast for filmmakers as distinctive and diverse as Neil LaBute (Nurse Betty, The Wicker Man, Lakeview Terrace), Wayne Wang and Paul Auster (Blue in the Face, The Joy Luck Club, Smoke, Lulu on the Bridge), Adrian Lyne (Jacob’s Ladder), Wim Wenders (The End of Violence, The Million Dollar Hotel), and Erick Zonca (Julia). From Joe Pesci’s riveting turn as David Ferrie in JFK to our cover star Tilda Swinton’s award-winning role in Julia, Heidi’s casting has resulted in some truly great performances. Here she talks to us about the importance of a casting director, and how she goes about finding the right actor for the right role.

How did you become a casting director?
I’m originally from Montreal but I was at university in New York. Around the time that I was graduating from Barnard, there were a lot of independent films happening. At the time I was working in news [but] I was very good at remembering people’s faces and very bad at typing! People were talking about the film by Susan Seidelman, Desperately Seeking Susan. Janet Maslin had written an article about the casting in that film [and] I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a really neat job’. Alan Parker was filming a movie called Angelheart, and there was a ton of research on it. I was this 21-year-old girl and I went out there and met everybody, from Johnny Lee Hooker to BB King, to Dizzy Gillespie. I was resourceful, I guess, and I just went there and interviewed all these wonderful people. Alan Parker was impressed with what I did and he brought me to New Orleans to cast all of the extras. I ended up casting every face in it!

Did that lead to you casting Oliver Stone’s films?
Yes, I was an assistant on [his] movie Wall Street. I realised that I really didn’t know much about filmmaking, so I went to graduate school in Los Angeles at the American Film Institute. At that point Oliver had moved to LA and he was busy doing Born On the Fourth of July. I came back and started working with him. I became a partner with Risa Bramon Garcia and Billy Hopkins and we cast Natural Born Killers, JFK… I worked with Oliver up until Nixon.