Wednesday, March 07, 2018


Oscar nominee Lesley Manville, former wife of best actor Oscar winner Gary Oldman, claimed in recent newspaper interviews that she was not at all “sour-faced”. THEBIGRETORT reports on the face that lost THAT big movie role.

The 1990s. Imagine if you will... a five-star hotel... near the heart of Chelsea... England - just off Sloane Square. Originally built in the 1890s the hotel is a small walk from the office of a duo of top movie casting directors. Is it raining? Perhaps. Their international casting call has gone out: MOVIE! MOVIE! MOVIE!

The film was about a bunch of kids listening to US swing music. Banned in Nazi Germany,. It was about right, wrong, and survival. It carried a budget of 12 million dollars, an international cast was slowly being assembled.

Enter.... ME. A devilishly handsome, strapping, six-foot, blond-haired, blue eyed, movie star with... CUT.

Back to reality... I look nothing like the above.

I was the “In house reader” for casting directors who were responsible for scores of top movies. A mostly unemployed (English) actor, I was the foil to the lucky few who would be chosen. It was my job to learn several script characters and read or perform opposite whoever was auditioning. Later these actors would appear alongside the actual stars instead of me; Dustin Hoffman, Christian Slater, Shirley MacLaine, her brother Warren - and a multitude of up and coming 'talent'. However, not only was the job also helpful for honing my audition skills, it sometimes led towards my getting the part instead. The downside... I was usually sat or stood opposite some very stroppy stars, who felt that their reputations, mostly made in England, should have precluded them from auditioning for America (A point on which I agreed with actor Tim Roth.)

One star, of sorts, was the hotel itself. Close to Sloane Square, it was a draw for American film makers as it offered unbridled luxury in a discrete and quiet setting.

Casting had been on-off that day. Only a few actors receiving a 'light-pencil'. A metaphor for 'maybe'.

In some instances, as in my case in one casting 'v/g/use' was written. Causing me to ask: “Who's he?”

That morning various roles were still on offer. Frustration was beginning to mount back in Hollywood. But the mood in the room was mostly light. 

It was approaching lunch time. One role had been reserved... The producer wanted to cast a British actor about whom there was apparently a buzz across the Pond. A stage actor, she was apparently 'quite brilliant' - and there was already a 'light pencil' on her eight by ten.

Diminutive in stature. Born in Brighton. And not in the slightest way approachable. She was seated, her back to me. So I gave a 'Hi!'' I asked if she had had time to go over the sides. She turned and looked at me as if I was responsible for the overthrow of the Mayans.

For a moment I wondered what had gone on... Whenever castings were underway the members of staff were usually good barometers if there were issues. However, in this instance, it was the PA, nicknamed Fatty Bum by the casting director N, who gave the five-yard stare my way.

I should have heeded it...

Instead I carried on some small talk with the 'light pencil'. But the actor in front me would have none of it. She turned away with a look of disgust, refusing to glance at the 'sides' and with a face full of fury.

The term “the sides” is a reference to those sides, pages of the script copied mostly for auditions. Most film-makers did not like the full scripts doing the rounds, and for good reason, so it was part of my job to go over the sides with potential cast members and to literally play the foil to each character for which they auditioned. I played male and female young and old. It called for a lot of chopping and changing and I would often find myself in front of cameras at the main film studios doing a big screen test. (Liz Hurley, do you remember Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves?) 

Heady stuff. Often I would offer suggestions that just might land an actor the role: and in many cases did.

Castings were usually video taped...

So with a team that consisted of a director and producers and writer, plus the video staff, and casting directors, outside the casting room there was naturally a bit of a frisson that could sometimes manifest itself in anger. Perhaps it was this then..?

The 'light pencil' harrumphed. She wasn't going to go over the sides. Certainly not with me, or anybody. End of.

The Draycott had an easy-going staff accomplished in placing most actors who were auditioning at their ease. If this didn't work, I usually took over. I was after all always attending auditions myself, and so I usually knew what was going on in their heads. At castings some actors, experienced or not, would often let nerves get the better of them and so came across as either overtly aggressive or extremely nervous. Myself included. And so, knowing the feelings well, I would try my best to put a fellow actor at ease.

I tried another tack: “Would you like a tea or coffee?”
“'No!” came the abrupt reply.

As I strolled off, I could see the staff nervously chuckling at me. One gave a quick aside. “Bit of a nightmare, that one!”

I pondered this as I entered the room that might set this particular madame on the fast track to Hollywood; rather than the long and twisted road signposted “Next” - and of which I was to become personally accustomed.


My boss N grabbed me aside in a whisper:. International calls were going on and the Americans were quite excited about the next one.
“Did you go over the sides with her?”
I shook my head.
“Why not?”
“She doesn't want to,” I whispered.
“Really...?” came the intrigued and playful response. “Well tell her she has to!”

N carried the barest hint of a Liverpool lilt. Dulled by years in the south, and from treading the boards himself as an actor, it possessed more than a hint of camp and an acerbic wit when suited. He was, after decades an actor and later a casting director, also proudly and overtly gay, and by nature a gifted raconteur who kept others constantly entertained throughout castings and at dinner parties.

“Can we get Polaroids instead of these!”
The producer, quite a nice chap from Virginia demanded politely. This was the 90s, with several Polaroids pinned to the board, and which surrounded the 8 inch x 10 inch black & white professional portraits forwarded by actors or their agents. These were snapped on the day. A convenient aid memoir for directors and producers who saw teams of actors.

Invariably female actors, besides sending in some very questionable poses from time to time, did not resemble their eight-by-tens in the slightest. These were either soft focus and knocked years of their lives, or were actually taken a decade previously, and which had the soft-focus effect, I guess.

N ordered me to get it done. So I cautiously ambled out of the door dreading what I knew was the Battle of the Polaroid.

“It's just for the board,” I said, perplexed.
“I've told you my agent has already forwarded an eight by ten!” she hissed.
She would not budge, and turned away.

I wondered if she knew that L-E-S-L-E-Y was already written in light pencil on the board of fame.
Both the producer and his wife were theatregoers, and he had practically sold his fellow producers and director on this.

I felt the world around me closing in.

“Where's that Polaroid?” N thundered as I entered the room, again.
“There's... a bit of a problem.”
“Why” N's ears pricked.
“She won't have it taken.”
“Well tell her she has to and then bring her in.”
“She won't.”
“Well tell her to f-off then!”

N could be cutting sometimes; and so I didn't usually follow all of his instructions to the four letter word. However, when I retreated out of the room, and when I walked ever-so gingerly across the eggshells surely littering the Shagpile, I was mindful that the Draycott staff were throwing anxious glances my way.

“Good luck!” Fatty Bum muttered.
“God,”I said in response. With a sigh.

I approached where she was seated. “Er... Erm... I need to take that Polaroid.”
She looked up. Concluding that I was indeed the residue on the end of a nose, which was now making the shape of a pair of Raybans, and she glared back. “I told you!” she hissed, then flicked me away like a gnat.

“It's either that or you you can f-off,” I said.

I guess I think she thought in the great scheme of things that I was pond life. It was a look that I have seen her do so often since that day as I watched her career blossom over the decades and in the stage plays I also saw her in. It made me feel as if a lengthy chasm was opening up beneath my feet into which I thought I was about to be consumed by the furies of hell.

Suddenly she crossed her arms, stared at me and said: “TAKE IT THEN!”

I snapped the Polaroid. Waited for the pic to discharge, looked at it, and said: “Good likeness.”

“Ahh!!!” N said pleased as I returned with the Polaroid. “I see you managed!”
“Yeah... Told her it was either that or she could f-off.”
“What! You didn't?”
“You told me to...”
“Cunt...I didn't mean it,” he said sotto voce.
 He sighed. “You'd better bring her in... But try not to upset her more than you have; otherwise we'll have her agent on the phone.”

When she entered the room walking in front of me the actor who had upset the staff, who refused to read with me, and fought tooth and nail against having her photo taken, suddenly transformed. She was no longer the wicked witch but Cinders.

As she worked the room I could see that there was a two-tier approach being employed in this panto. The world of Hollywood included loves, darlings, and happy kisses, whilst mine met with crossed arms; and a face that looked like it had been slapped with a wet fish.

The producer informed her that he had been following her career. He was excited.
She was excited.
“Have you read the sides? he ventured.
Of course she hadn't. Why not...?

She didn't seem to know but looked at me and so everyone looked at me and N looked at me and ... he hissed the C-word under his breath, again.

A short interval while the actor above actors studied the sides; finally she was ready.
“Your going to be in good hands with one of your finest actors.” The star maker producer had 'bigged' me up...

It was at this point that the actor who had her name written in a light pencil on the board looked up and realised that I was sitting opposite her.

She looked, how do I put this without meaning to sound over-dramatic... thunderstruck.
I looked down at the sides and never looked up. We began.
She stumbled.
We began, again. She stumbled.
Again. She stumbled.
She was clearly very uncomfortable, and I could see as I looked up also now quite vulnerable.
So I started feeding her character with the pauses and nuances I felt she needed. 
Finally, eventually, we worked together.
I could see that she indeed certainly was worthy of more than just that 'light pencil' in which her name had been written.
As I walked her out of the room she apologised. 
I lied and said it was 'fine'.

When I returned everyone in the room was excited. Her Polaroid was placed on the board – the part was hers. Almost...

Later,  we were going over the morning's castings. The star maker and the director were taking soundings from N.
'Got to be her!' the producer said to unanimous agreement. Then he turned to me and said: “Not like you to be silent!” Which was true.
“Yeah... Yeah... I'm sure she'd be... fine.”

 “Take a walk with me. I wanna see some of my old haunts.” As we broke for lunch, I thought I had got myself off the hook. However I was headed out of the casting session when star maker had grabbed me by the arm. Apparently, although from Virginia, he had lived nearby with his ex girlfriend, and so he asked me to tag along to help him find where they both previously lived. At least that was the reason he gave.

Unlike in America, the British casting system was incredibly biased against black actors; in favour of their white counterparts - and probably still is. But even more so against those actors who, like me, had slightly tinted skin. However, seen as neither one way or the other - black or white - N said “Mixed race makes you sound like an f-ing Chinese take-away!" whenever I asked him to use this instead of “coloured”.

He was an unrepentant product of his generation and as an actor who could rarely get cast in the English casting system, due to colour bias, I often asked him to describe me as "dual heritage". But this was immediately rejected as well and 'half caste' was used - which I certainly didn't like.

Whilst on the other hand, the Americans had "open" castings in which any actor, male or female, black, white, pink with yellow spots, could audition - and they were light years ahead in this.

And that is why I personally liked reading for Americans.

The star maker and I were actually the same age, but our lives could not have been more different. We were like chalk and cheese. He was white, born into a Jewish family, and a hugely successful producer. Whilst I was of an Anglo-Irish-African-American and Catholic stock. (He would go on to make many many big movies starring, amongst others, Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks, Christian Bale, Mel Gibson, John Travolta - the list of motion-picture credits was endless, stretched the length and breadth of international television too; and not one of them had my name on it, unfortunately.)

“So, what gives..?”
I didn't see it coming. Star Maker had craftily lulled me into a false sense of security by talking about the flat he and his ex girlfriend lived in. (The wife whom he later divorced went on to marry an Earl; whose godmother was the Queen.)

“You're not usually lost for words,” he said. “So I know something is bothering you. So what is it?”
“I...well...” Damn my mouth, it had let me down when I wasn't even saying anything. But I didn't really fancy dropping an actor in it, however rude. Instead, I employed some of the usual phraseology. “I'm sure she will be fine.”
“I mean good.”

It must have rung hollow. “Look,” he persisted, like a resident of the small shipbuilding town he was from ... “We are going to be shooting in some very difficult locations... if you're holding anything back it's better to tell me now.”
Born a Libran, considerate with a selfless nature. To my Aries, passionate, enthusiastic - and about to drop a fellow actor in it – ways... I smiled, and then spilled the proverbial beans.

When we got back to the hotel the star maker peeled off. “I'll catch up.”

The reception staff. The waiters. The cloak room lady. PA... The star maker moved around the hotel like a man on a mission... whilst back in the room we sat waiting.

Finally the producer appeared through the door. He moved over to the board. He took her Polaroid down - and binned it. 

Apparently I was not alone. Every member of staff he spoke to that day related a similar story.

Although one fine actor lost the role that day, one that that may have set her off on the road to Hollywood stardom at a younger age, another potentially fine actor's Polaroid was pinned to the board in its place.  Her photo contained the heavy stroke of a pen where there was previously only a 'light pencil'. It read “vg/use”.

She looked quite relaxed I thought. Not at all sour faced. 

THEBIGRETORT Copyright (c) 2018

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