Ep 32 | Ellen Lewis - Casting Director: Goodfellas, Forrest Gump, The Wolf of Wall Street

Credit: Warner Bros


Note: Please be aware this transcript is generated by AI, there will be small inconsistencies with the published podcast.

Ellen  00:00

The funny story is and Ray Liotta has told this story is that Nick Pileggi had set up an evening at rayos, which is a famous restaurant in East Harlem Italian restaurant and set up a dinner for Marty and Ray Liotta and Nick blend je and Nick had told different people that we were going to be there that evening.

Mike  00:26

Yes, that is a teaser of today's guest, Ella Lewis telling me about how she was introduced to the mafia while casting legendary gangster pick Goodfellas. In our conversation, we discuss everything from her decades of working with Martin Scorsese, to casting Forrest Gump and the Devil Wears Prada. What makes a great headshot for actors lessons from Mike Nichols, and how Margot Robbie got her started in The Wolf of Wall Street. I had such a great time with Ellen just barely scratching the surface of all the questions I could have asked. That's enough for me. Here we go. Hello, and welcome to Red Carpet rookies. My name is Mike battle, a film crew member turned screenwriter working in London. Each episode I bring you life lessons and stories from the people behind your favourite movies and shows to help demystify the business for aspiring filmmakers and fans alike. Thanks for joining me. Let's get started. Today's guest is one of the key creative decision makers behind a number of the world's most well loved movies. Beginning her career casting under the legendary Juliette Taylor. She later went out alone casting beloved titles including Forrest Gump, The Devil Wears Prada, Mamma Mia and sensible woman. It has been her collaborations though that have made up a bulk of her incredible career, notably her three films with Steven Spielberg, and a collaboration with Martin Scorsese, that runs all the way back to the 80s, encompassing Goodfellas casino, the departed and many, many more. Our guest is Ellen Lewis, how're you doing today?

Ellen  01:56

Thanks. Very good.

Mike  01:57

Now, Alan, I ask all of my guests the same first question. And that is, what did your parents do? And did it affect your career choices moving forward?

Ellen  02:04

My dad owned women's clothing stores in Chicago with his brothers that was started by his father. And my mom was a mom and a homemaker. But my mother was very artistically inclined. And so I think that she exposed myself and my brother's to a lot of theatre and the Chicago Symphony and the Art Institute in Chicago. So my mom definitely had a strong influence on me.

Mike  02:37

That's great. And when was it therefore that you realised you wanted to get into the film industry? Was it around high school or college? You went to Columbia, right?

Ellen  02:46

I did. But I went to a school in Chicago called Francis Parker, which is a very interesting private school in Chicago that had strong art departments there, but I was not drawn to film at that point. I went to a couple of colleges before I ended up back in Chicago at Columbia College, and at Columbia I was initially studying, I think it was video at that time, and, you know, maybe screenwriting and then I ended up in their film department, but I had gone to school for a couple of years at in Los Angeles, and then in New Hampshire, and ended up back in Chicago, where I dropped out of school for a while before I went started going to Columbia, and I grew up with David Mamet. And at that time that I was back in Chicago, which was about 1974 through my friend Rocco Jan's who's a musician and who wrote a lot of music for David's early plays and films. I was around the Chicago theatre community and the St. Nicholas theatre, the forming of the St. Nicholas Theatre, which was David and who bases, Steven chapter, and Patricia Hawks. And it was a fantastic time to be in Chicago, very creative, a lot of music, a lot of theatre, and then I ended up back at Columbia. And they were I did internships there and ended up quitting. So I do not have a degree and I was a production assistant on early cable, some early cable shows. So this is like 1980 1981 in Chicago. So they were doing you know, the Four Tops live at the Park West, which was a great music venue in Chicago and some comedy specials, and then that led me to a trip to Los Angeles. Where I was doing some scouting for a show that this company was going to be doing that was you know what what what were though male strip club was called the you know the that show that they did you know that Channing Tatum thing

Mike  05:15

Magic Mike thing?

Ellen  05:16

Yeah that kind of thing. Anyway, I was introduced through a friend that I grew up with Betsy Hyman who is a costume designer to a guy named Erwin Stoff. And Irwin is a manager. And, you know, we he was early in his career, and Irwin said to me, what do you Why are you doing this? I think you'd be good in casting and people into Gago at that point. We're moving to New York, they weren't moving to Los Angeles, they were moving to New York. So I thought, well, I look around a little bit. And I did, they're doing some work outside my building right now. And this thing is coming down just so you know,

Mike  05:55

don't worry about it. I'll leave it in.

Ellen  05:58

And so I met with people in cable companies through people that I knew who made him introductions for me. And then David by chance, but was introduced to Julia Taylor, and got me an interview with Juliet. And I immediately felt, you know, comfortable with her. I was gonna go to LA for a couple of weeks to take meetings, and I cancelled that went back to Chicago and got a phone service on my phone and waited to hear from Juliet.

Mike  06:28

Wow. So it was David Mamet, they introduce you to Juliet.

Ellen  06:32

David introduced me to Juliet, definitely, yes. 

Mike  06:35

Interesting. Um, why was it? Do you think that oh, Ian, thought you would be good in casting? It seems like quite a nebulous thing to say that changed your career? 

Ellen  06:43

I don't know. He just I don't know. I mean, he's still a dear friend today. And I'm just happy that he had that instinct, because he was right. I love it.

Mike  06:55

Would you say that going to film school is a good choice for those that want to be casting directors because it doesn't seem quite as correlated in some senses as some of the other crafts doesn't it?

Ellen  07:05

Right? Well, when you're in film school, I mean, the things that are taught more specifically, obviously are directing, editing, screenwriting, but when you work on a set, which I did one, the summer, when I was still at Columbia, I went to Los Angeles through my friend, Betsy Hyman. And so I was a production assistant on that movie forea. And I kind of looked around that set, because people were like, You should just stay in LA and get jobs, you'll be able to get a job, you'll be able to be a PA, it looked around this set, and they really didn't quite see where I would fit. So I decided to go back to Chicago and continue at Columbia, because it was a summer internship that I did.

Mike  07:50

So let's just get back to talking about working with Juliet there. This is a big question. I'm sure there's too many to lists. But you worked with her for eight and a half years, what were the some of the key lessons you learned from her? Because she's a legend, to the field,

Ellen  08:00

everything, everything, everything. I mean, I really was so lucky, that Juliet is who I worked for, for all of that time. And, you know, very aware of Juliet worked for Marian Doughty. And I don't know if people have watched casting by, but it's a wonderful documentary about casting that really is about Marian and Lynch stall master, and kind of more the history of casting. But I felt, you know, I was very much a part of a family. And Julia was a fantastic mentor and teacher. Many casting directors worked for other casting directors, because it's like an old fashioned drain where you learn by generally working for somebody, although there are amazing casting directors who didn't do that Ellen Jenner would didn't do it. Vicki Thomas didn't work for anybody. So there are fantastic. We had to had it the casting directors who didn't come up like that. But many of us did.

Mike  09:00

You've mentioned that casting can be elusive as a profession, which you touched on just there. Would you be able to talk about early tasks of yours that you had as an assistant that they would do rather than a casting director like yourself?

Ellen  09:14

When I started working for Juliet, I answered the phone, which I really liked a lot. And I did the scheduling for the appointments, the casting of the actors coming in. I said, I mean, this is all different now because so many people self tape, and they send their tapes in. It was fantastic to sit in a waiting room with the actors. It's how I met people in developed relationships. And it became very sensitive to what an actor waiting for an appointment whether or not somebody wanted to chat or not chat because they were anxious or preparing for their audition. So you know, really the beginning and then the other thing that Juliet was fantastic with was that something that many of us started with, where if she was working on a movie and looking for kids, that was kind of a little search they that you would do. And I was also really lucky Broadway Danny Rose was the first movie Juliet was working on when I started to work for her Woody Allen film. And there are these wild variety acts in that movie. And she put me in charge of getting in touch with it agents and managers and looking for those people to audition for what he for those variety acts. It was a lot of fun. So that was like my earliest but I was in the waiting room for many years, which was, and they say fantastic. Jordan Thaler work there, who's head of casting at the public theatre, his brother Todd Taylor was doing extras for the Woody Allen movies for a while. He's wonderful casting director. And so we were all in this outside room. And Julia was on the inside room. And it was a very familial and warm environment to be in.

Mike  11:06

Am I right, that one of the first movies that you did when you were with Juliet was New York stories, which I guess began your collaboration with Marty, to some extent, 

Ellen  11:15

I've been I've been working for Juliet at that point, probably for about seven and a half years. So I was already fully her Associate at that point. You know, I was very lucky to I had a very warm relationship with Mike Nichols, who I was as I was still working for Juliette and she was taking us summer little time off, and Mike was doing a play. I worked on those with Mike, he really gave me a tremendous amount of confidence and had a lot to do with building up my self esteem. As I was kind of venturing out I would go on location at times Biloxi, blues and different movies Mike would do, I would go and then just be communicating with Juliet. But Julian of this, like between Julian is the greatest casting director of all time, so I just was lucky to be there. But New York stories, I was Juliet's associated, um, Woody's New York stories. And Bob GreenHeart, who was Woody's producer at that time, was producing all three films and Francis Coppola movie and Marty's movie. And Marty didn't have a casting director at that moment. And so he recommended me and I went, mmm, already ended life lessons, and then went back and I worked for Juliette, and then they called me to do Goodfellas. And then I might have gone back and worked for Juliet again. I mean, I was I was kind of ready to go out on my own, but I still a little reluctant. So then I did Goodfellas. So yes, clearly, that had a huge impact on my career.

Mike  12:48

I can't imagine. What was the first brief that you had from Marty for Goodfellas.

Ellen  12:55

I don't know if there was a specific brief. I think that what I was lucky with is that we had a connection right away a creative connection right away in that, you know, like, I met Debbie Mazur, and was excited immediately when I met her and you know, the fact that Marty felt that same connection when he met her and felt that, you know, Debbie was perfect for the film. I mean, the funny story is and Ray Liotta has told this story is that Nick Pileggi had set up an evening at rayos, which is a famous restaurant in East Harlem Italian restaurant and set up a dinner for Marty and Ray Liotta and Nick Pileggi. And Nick had told different people that we were going to be there that evening. And then at a certain point, people started being brought to the table to meet Marty, and there were people who we were told, were a little too high up that we couldn't think of for the film. But then there were other people that I should meet and that we could think of for the film. And that was a memorable night to say the least. And several of those people are in the movie and have been in other films and then you know, sis Corman did an amazing, amazing work with Marty on the several movies obviously Raging Bull, then there are people that already knew he wanted from Raging Bull to be in the film, and I don't know it just really worked. But then they have a very exciting thing was that the his next film was the age of medicines. So another director might have said, well, you did a really nice job with these mobsters. So I don't this next movie of Edith Wharton I don't think you'll be an you will be able to handle or possibly but the Age of Innocence is one of my favourite books and I was just thrilled that that was the next movie that I got to work on per Hill.

Mike  15:06

That sounds like a hell of a night with the the family in Harlan there. Am I right that someone once brought a gun to your audition or something? 

Ellen  15:14

Yeah, there was a guy who came in and said that he had $3,000 with him. And that, you know, it was, it was just a ridiculous thing. But he read, I read him and he was pretty good. And so I decided to have him in to read for Marty. But I actually put a policeman that I was auditioning for him and after him, and so kind of alerted them, then it turned out that one of those cops was like, Lou up Alina was had murdered a lot of people. Anyway. So I want to say, you know, it's been it's a lot of fun to go into the real sector, I think, but obviously to be very safe about doing it. And I met wonderful people who play mobsters in these films, and they're the kindest people in the world. So you know, I'm very lucky

Mike  16:15

to go from building a mafia world to a very different one, a more recent one in killers of the flower Moon, I wanted to ask you about your experience on it, and also how you approached the native element of it.

Ellen  16:25

Yes, um, I had cast a limited series for Scott prank called God, let's and I was really lucky to work with a fantastic casting director, Renee Haynes, who is amazing and does fantastic casting of natives. And so I immediately the minute that I knew, I read the book, I'm killers of the flower moon, when I knew that it was maybe going to do it. It's a wonderful book, disturbing chapter in our history, of course, but a fantastic book, but I right away called Rene and said, You know, I think we're going to be doing this and I hope you'll be able to work with me. And she was very familiar with the book as well. And so we were able right before the Thanksgiving. So we're in 2019. We're not into 20 yet to do a series of open calls in Oklahoma. So in the Huska, where the Osage live and then in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, and I was with Renee and her fantastic staffing. Kate, France and myself. And then obviously, it marched the pandemic hit, but it was just so great. And then Renee know so many fantastic actors in the native community. But she did. And we did try to cast as many people from from Pawhuska and the Osage community, so it's really it was it's very, we're excited about this movie. And it's an important story of our an amazing group of people. Yeah,

Mike  18:01

I'm excited. I saw Brendan Fraser on that. That's amazing. 

Ellen  18:04

I know. That was a funny fluke that we cast Brendan Fraser and John Lithgow right at the end, we did these lawyers, there were a couple of actors. Marty's worked with a lot over the years that weren't available. And, you know, that's a great thing. Marty's very open. And I can show him clips of people. And I think that knock wood has worked out really well. But we'll see. You never know. Hopefully, it'll be good.

Mike  18:28

So let's go from your long standing collaboration with Marty to more of a single famous movie that you've worked on. I'd love to hear about what happened with your initial casting of Forrest Gump. And also, I've seen screen tests and he speaks in Tom Hanks speaks in a isn't one accent, doesn't he?

Ellen  18:44

Yes. I mean, that search was a very stressful search looking for young forest. Paramount Pictures had several searches going on simultaneously. So it was great because our film was seeing people at the same time. And so it was very, very challenging. And there were a couple of kids that we had tried that didn't totally work out. And then we got very lucky. And Tom did that's that boys accent. And so Tom was just able to mimic that. I mean, that was a very interesting film to cast. Bob is fantastic. His one of his producing partners, Steve Starkey is a fantastic guy. It was a large cast, you know, is about a lot of the movies I've done actually have been about 120 people which is large, and every part is important. I mean, I does want to say like I really believe like every single small part is important. And fantastic. I love casting small parts, but we did open calls all around the area of in North Carolina where we were shooting so an open call in Savannah and, you know, like three open calls a week has a huge amount of movie from those open calls Bob was very open to that. And Lieutenant Dan was a challenging part. And I was lucky that Tom Hanks had been exposed to some of the people from the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, Gary Sinise had been amazing in a play called balm in Gilead that anyone that you talk to from Chicago, or New York who saw this play, we're forever affected by it. And it was seeing that performance knowing that Gary, of course, could play the front end of Lieutenant Dan, and then the back end of Lieutenant Dan, you know, to very different, Gary is a great actor. So 

Mike  20:40

you also cast Haley jobs within it, which was, to my knowledge, his first feature, and he kind of became, you know, the three most famous child actor of his generation really. And it's funny, because when I was researching, you know, yourself and casting directors, it seems a bit to me, like almost you choosing actors, and you're supporting them, you're in their corner, almost like you're a parent. So with him, I guess you must have almost literally been like a parent,

Ellen  21:01

you know, not I mean, that was a such a fluke, because we were looking for kids. And ironically, I saw Haley Joel Osment for a second in a pizza commercial,

Mike  21:14

no way.

Ellen  21:16

And I think he had just moved to Los Angeles with his family, and we were able to track him down. And that is how that happened. But obviously, the six cents is what made him a star. But you know, he was, I think that in casting and I think we all do this, it's just your antenna is up with whatever you're watching or seeing. And I think that we all do, I think casting directors in general by going to the theatre, watching movies, watching TV, trying to dig in as much as we can. But I didn't say that for myself. I don't make myself go to plays every night. There are many casting directors who do this. I do not. Because I don't and so many casting directors are thrilled to be there every night, I would not be. So I still feel an excitement when I go, which is on a regular basis. But you know, I also feel very inspired by different photographers, like Helen Levitt, and Diane Arbus. I feel very, I get a lot of inspiration from being in New York, and being amongst people on the subways, walking down the streets, observing faces, and people who come from many walks of life. And I feel like casting really was my perfect match. Because I would take painting when I was in school growing up and different kinds of art classes, but I was not particularly good at it. But what I do is very visual, like a big painting.

Mike  22:58

Oh, it's brilliant that you found your calling. I love it didn't find my colleague and show true. He's one of those people who walked into office, you know, there's people that you're seeing in the street scene in commercials, they're going to need headshots and things like that. And I know that you said better to have one good one than lots of not very good ones. What is it that makes a good headshot for any actor who's listening?

Ellen  23:15

You want to look at something that looks like the person so that when the actor I mean, I want to reference the fact that we're doing a lot of things on Zoom. Now we are in a new, difficult time, but we can still interact with people in the same way that I'm able to look at you. And you can look at me, but I want there. I want an actor's photograph to look like what they actually look like rather than all of a sudden somebody is there and they don't look like that at all. And you're taken by surprise.

Mike  23:46

Most actors Well, most people are familiar with the notion of people like that who would then be doing the auditions but I think one thing people will be interested in from your point of view in the business is with big actors How does it work? So for example, on Devil Wears Prada with Miranda Priestly, obviously super famous role now, would it be that the director and yourself literally just go okay, we're gonna give this to Meryl Streep, etc. We're gonna send it out. And that's it. I presume she doesn't have to audition.

Ellen  24:10

Correct. But that's kind of done over my head. I'm just gonna say you know, the studio is obviously very involved in that and Wendy finer men who produced Forrest Gump and brought me in on the Devil Wears Prada and stepmom, but you know that that role is definitely discussed, you know, with the studio and who you're going to be going out to. And Hathaway that role. I mean, she said she was the last choice for the movie. That's not true at all. But there definitely was a little bit of a process to that. And but then the great thing was that when the finer men had just seen Emily Blunt in baby, her first movie in England, and then and so that we gassed Emily which was fantastic and obvious See, she added a huge amount to the movie. In the end, the movie really affected her career in a huge way. And that's the other thing that you never know. I mean, you never know how movie is going to do and if people are gonna see the film and what the reaction is going to be, and everybody just always works their hardest and hopes for the best, but you never know. And I always find it fascinating, I always a certain world will shine a light on an actor, it's very hard to be an actor, I'm very empathetic to it. I think a very important thing is for actors always to know that we are in their corner, we want you to do well. And that's one of the most important things to me about being a casting director. And what I learned from Marian Doherty to Juliet to myself is grieving an actor when they come in thinking getting an actor when they leave, only one person is getting the role. So hopefully, at least the experience in my office is a good experience.

Mike  26:02

It's nerve racking for the actors, but it also is it perhaps nerve racking for yourself as well, you know, putting someone like Emily Blunt in who's maybe quite early in her career, and I guess you did the same with Margot Robbie, where you're putting, you know, a lot behind them going in this big role, aren't you? Is it nerve racking for you?

Ellen  26:17

You know, I don't think that that's, I mean, I think the process of when we're casting is once the movie is shooting, you know, the director will make everybody look good. I think across the board. I mean, Mark, casting, Margot, obviously was amazing. And that was a process, I had seen a lot of young women, and I was very anxious about it, because we had already had a day of a couple of people coming in to read for Marty with Leonardo DiCaprio. And so, you know, I had not met Margot and I only seen her audition tape. And when she showed up for her audition, she doesn't look like a million bucks. And she did a phenomenal reading with Leo, and then came back the next day and read a little more. But you know, I don't really think about I mean, I like to know that the shoot is going well, because obviously making a movie is very challenging for a director. But it's out of my hands. So you know, casting everything first people on the film, it's the screenwriter you have you know, and then we come on to work with the director. And then I you know, I will stay a little bit in touch with one or two people on the production because I just like to know that it's things are going okay. Oh, thank

Mike  27:44

you for that brilliant answer. Now to wrap up on red carpet Ricky's what we do each time. And then it's I do a little quick fire questionnaire, which is my own Ode to any actor studio, which I'm sure you've seen many a time. So if you just think of whatever comes into your head, first of all, if that's okay with you. So the first one is what is one of the best pieces of advice you've ever been given?

Ellen  28:02

I don't know if there's a specific piece of advice I've been given. But Mike Nichols said at one point that everybody in a piece is a version of the same person. And it's a that's a rather abstract statement and concept. And yet it makes perfect sense to me in an abstract way, but in an instinctual way. So I like thinking about I wouldn't call that advice, but it's an interesting concept that spoke to me.

Mike  28:40

So good. Sam Taylor Johnson told me that James L. Brooks told her to change her socks every day. So there's everyone's got their own their own version of that. So that's a great one. That's good. Yeah, yeah. Number two, do you have a favourite film?

Ellen  28:55

I don't know, if I have one favourite film, I would say that the two films that I think affected me very early and, and have an influence on my aesthetic is the Last Picture Show and A Woman Under the Influence both of those films I saw early, I believe I was in high school. He used to read and also we had a big impact on me. And so it's interesting I think that yeah, that I would say that those films

Mike  29:31

of the number three what gives you a reason to get out of bed every day for a day of casting.

Ellen  29:35

You know, I love I love casting as you can tell, and I love reading actors and meeting people, hearing them and reading people as I say for these really small roles, which I think are so vital to the to the overall feeling of of the movie. So I really enjoy a day of reading actors. It can be hard it can be dying. boring, but I love it.

Mike  30:01

Cool. Number four, which job in the industry would you do if you weren't doing yours?

Ellen  30:05

No. Got lucky to have the perfect job for me.

Mike  30:11

I love that. I haven't had that before. That's pretty good. Number five, this is really hard. If you could work with one person living or dead, who would it be? I guess probably the director maybe.

Ellen  30:19

I don't know. I got lucky. You know. But I really enjoyed working with a lot of the directors that I've worked with. Jim Jarmusch is somebody else that I worked with, you know, and got to collaborate with Julian and Mike Nichols. Jim Stanley Tucci I did his early films, all these people are like, amazing. And obviously my longest relationship is with Martin Scorsese. And so I just got really lucky. No bad list. But I mentioned other people, there are so many great directors and I would love to work with so, you know,

Mike  30:53

check out Ellen's IMDb for the list. Number six, what is a book that everyone should read?

Ellen  30:59

You know, I don't know if there is a specific book, as I've said, I feel like I read a lot. But I don't read. I don't think about a movie when I'm reading a book, I really just read. Because I love reading. And then I would say that I get for inspiration, like going to see an exhibit of Helen Levitt. And then I feel very inspired by that. That was an exhibit I saw at the Metropolitan Museum, seven years back, and it just kind of like, I want, what I work on to him. The feeling of these photographs that I'm looking at.

Mike  31:41

Love it. And finally, normally I ask Alan, if you want an Oscar, who do you think which I will ask, but could you also explain why it's an annoying question to ask a casting director?

Ellen  31:49

Because we don't get an Oscar? Obviously, casting directors are not recognised by the Academy with an Oscar. It's unfortunate. It's not correct. I think that, as I've said, we're almost the first people on the movie. And a lot of people don't have a job to do unless we've done our job. I mean, it's all about the actors who are going to be in a play or a movie or a TV show.

Mike  32:21

You give you give them the canvas, I guess.

Ellen  32:23

Exactly. So now you have people to, you know, build a set for and make costumes for and but you know, I work with great artists. It's just it's just an unfortunate thing that the academy continues to not recognise us with an Oscar.

Mike  32:40

Absolutely. And on that note, thank you so much to Elon for joining me today. It was such a privilege to hear your incredible stories and advice. And frankly, just to talk to someone who has worked on the level of movies that you have. Thank you for taking the time.

Ellen  32:53

Thank you, Mike! 

Mike  32:57

Thank you for listening to another episode of red carpet rookies. To help us grow and be able to interview more amazing film and TV professionals. Please do subscribe and drop us a rating on the Apple podcast store on your iPhone or online if you're an Android user. If you're interested in regular updates, the best thing you can do is to join our mailing list at red carpet rookies.com. Or alternatively, find us on Instagram at Red Carpet rookies or Twitter at RC rookies pod. I also tweet regularly about my own learnings in the business, Mike battle on Twitter. So please do come and say hi, thank you again for listening. We'll see you next time.