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Friday
May062011

Unsung Heroes: The Casting of 'Zodiac'

Hey there, film experiencers. Michael C here from Serious Film. After nearly two dozen episodes of this series I think it’s about time I touched on what is probably the most important under-the-radar job there is: the casting director.

Think about the challenges casting director Laray Mayfield was up against filling out the cast of David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007). 

The sprawling, decade-spanning narrative covers dozens of important speaking roles, various cops, reporters, and victims, which the viewer is expected to keep straight as they appear and reappear over the course of the story. Actors have to be cast who can embody the personality of the character in a way the script doesn’t have time to explain. Yet within those types, she has to find performers who can deliver a unique flavor that stands out from the pack. Dermot Mulroney, Donal Logue, and Elias Koteas all make believable cops, but no one is going to confuse one with the other.

John Carrol Lynch, loveable "Norm" no more.When it came to casting Zodiac himself, Fincher went with the bold choice of having different actors appear as the killer in order to fit the conflicting descriptions the surviving victims gave in each incident. Mayfield and Fincher somehow manage to pull it off without distracting or confusing the viewer. Each of the various Zodiac incarnations has a distinct feel – the Zodiac at the lake is more thuggish than the sinister Zodiac who threatens the woman and her baby on the highway – but the technique never calls attention to itself.

Mayfield outdid herself with the casting of the more substantial roles of the Zodiac suspects. With a story this maddeningly ambiguous the suspects need to project everything and nothing. We need to believe we may be in the presence of evil, but not tip the scales so far that we can’t buy it when the leads don't pan out as hoped. The casting of John Carroll Lynch – loveable Norm from Fargo – as lead suspect Arthur Leigh Allen is a particular masterstroke. In that riveting interrogation scene the viewer studies Lynch’s face along with the cops trying to decipher if they are witnessing the sneering arrogance of the Zodiac or just dumb belligerence. 

Along with her intuitive casting choices, Mayfield distinguishes herself with the depth of her talent search. Names like Anthony Edwards, Ione Skye and Charles Fleischer aren’t exactly at the top of every casting director's  A-List, but they’re perfectly deployed in Zodiac. They slide into their roles with utter believability and their underused star power in small roles adds immeasurably to the film.

It’s outside the box thinking like this that led Mayfield to provide The Social Network with one of the most memorable ensembles of recent years.

There is little fame and glory to spare for the casting director, yet one hears over and over that it is in the casting that most films are made or doomed. As a viewer, all I can judge is the finished project, and going by those results I think it’s safe to say Laray Mayfield is doing her job as well as anyone working today.

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Reader Comments (7)

This is all so true- I'd never thought of the film from this angle!

May 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSVG

Zodiac also follows the Golden Rule of casting: Hire Philip Baker Hall whenever humanly possible.

May 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

Chloe Sevigny gave an interview about this film recently and it was so interesting to hear her thoughts...she basically talked about how scared she was to act in this because she felt like she was in over her head with the scale of the production and David Fincher directing. I forget what her performance was like in it...it's been so long.

May 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBia

Michael - amen. One thing that you didn't touch on that i found so interesting about it casting-wise, I wrote about this once, is that Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Anthony Edwards, though they're quite different as actors are all "soft" men in a way... persona-wise, lacking the sort of agression or violent charge that comes with a lot of male stars, epecially in regards to their voices. It had the affect of making all the violence pervading their lives even more disconcerting. To me at least.

May 6, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

^Bia. Don't worry, she was the same as always.

May 6, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercici

Nat - True, true. When I was looking for screen shots I was struck by how much of the film is just men sitting around talking. I can't imagine how a man's man action star would operate in this context. They even bring out Clint Eastwood at one point for Mark Ruffalo to shake his head at in disbelief.

May 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

Hear, hear!

May 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris
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