March 15, 2001
Excerpt from round-up of casting directors who would be nominated if there were an Oscar for Best Casting.
Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan's masterful comedy/drama You Can Count on Me has at its heart a formidable casting challenge, met by the filmmakers with an unqualified casting triumph. Of course, as with all such casting credits, the hiring of the leads--the raw, soulful Mark Ruffalo and the movingly decent Laura Linney--can't be ascribed entirely to casting director Lina Todd. But she was at Lonergan's side when Ruffalo's phenomenal audition convinced them he was the only actor for the part of the troubled drifter Terry. And Todd later witnessed Ruffalo's first read with the already cast Linney, who would play Terry's seemingly more together sister Sammy.
The challenge for the filmmakers, articulated also by the film's nervous funders, was the apparent lack of physical resemblance between Ruffalo and Linney. From the start, Todd could see beyond that.
"There was a lot of concern about whether they would pass as brother and sister," said the New York-based Todd last week. "That was never really an issue for me, because I feel that brothers and sisters have something between them that's not just about their look. I have two children; one is fair and one is dark, and they don't look that much alike--but there's something in the way they relate when you see them together that marks them immediately as brother and sister."
It was that intangible quality that Todd and Lonergan recognized in Ruffalo and Linney--what Linney called finding a "language that will make us feel like brother and sister."
The script opens with a 20-years-earlier prologue, in which we briefly see the parents who created this divergent pair, as well as a pair of child actors playing the young Terry and Sammy. More crucial to the world of the film was the supporting cast, which includes Matthew Broderick in a complicated-jerk role similar to his turn in Election; Jon Tenney as a bachelor who's just a little too creepily nice and handsome; J. Smith-Cameron as a dour, quiet co-worker who prefers bright colors on her computer screen; the hollow-eyed Josh Lucas as a sullen deadbeat dad, and Lonergan himself as a matter-of-factly undogmatic priest.
A few of Todd's choices, though, point to one of her strengths: innovative youth casting. (She's the one who cast the extraordinary Adam Hann-Byrd in Jodie Foster's Little Man Tate and found the winning leads of the teen lesbian romance All Over Me.) For the part of Sammy's sensitive young son, Todd confessed she called a colleague and said, "half-joking, 'I need a little Culkin!' She said, 'Maybe there is one.'" Phone calls were made, and 8-year-old Rory Culkin, the youngest scion of the famous family, was found. "He was so shy and quiet--he had never acted before," Todd recalled. Culkin's unformed, curious quality serves the part perfectly.
For the tiny but heartbreaking part of Terry's girlfriend, whom we see smoking dispiritedly in a dreary tenement apartment in an early scene as Terry packs up to leave, Todd called on an actor with warm associations from her work as a child actor, Gaby Hoffman (This Is My Life, Sleepless in Seattle, Uncle Buck). Though Todd said it took "a little persuading" to get Hoffman interested in a one-scene part, the actress loved the script.
"On paper, the scene is so short, but it has to remain in your mind as you get to know Terry," said Todd. "At first the character is described as thin and waiflike. Gaby's gone through a transition from a girl to a full-bodied woman, but she still has some of that waiflike quality."
Indeed, Hoffman's previous work as a cute tyke makes this lost, dark-eyed character resonate all the more. And it's a perfect illustration of the way a casting director can help a filmmaker tell his story.