BACK STAGE WEST
March 14, 2002
When Robert Altman crossed the Atlantic to cast his period murder mystery Gosford Park, it was casting director Mary Selway who had the lucky challenge of making introductions--and of filling the film's 46 roles.
"It was the easiest sell I've ever had," she said of persuading British actors, from dames to models, from Oscar nominees to relative unknowns, to work for cut rates for many weeks in Altman's famously egalitarian milieu. "The moment you said 'Robert Altman,' everybody wanted to work with him." Still, it was a "jigsaw to assemble. It wasn't easy to always work out the structure of who should be who. Also it's very difficult for Americans to 'get' our appalling class structure, which still exists, sad to say."
Embodying English class divisions was crucial to Altman's concept, given shape in Julian Fellowes' script and developed further by the actors on the set, of an English estate in which upstairs conflicts among the "toffs" intertwine fatally with the intrigues of the downstairs servants.
"There were some people who absolutely could not go downstairs--it would have been ridiculous, for instance, to put Kristin Scott Thomas downstairs," said Selway. "But there were some who could have gone either way, like Helen Mirren or Eileen Atkins. In the smaller parts we had to be careful of that class thing; it can't be acted, it should be effortless."
Indeed the rich pleasure of the film isn't only in watching the name actors--Thomas, Mirren, Atkins, Maggie Smith, Stephen Fry, Michael Gambon, Emily Watson, Alan Bates, Jeremy Northam, Charles Dance, Derek Jacobi--hobnob and misbehave in lovely surroundings. At least as fulfilling if not more is to note the filigree of such perfectly chosen servants as phlegmatic Adrian Scarborough, hardy Sophie Thompson, or diabolical Richard E. Grant (an Altman regular by now), or such outsized social strivers as needling James Wilby, simpering Tom Hollander, and heartbreakingly awkward Claudie Blakley.
Smoldering Clive Owen and sweet Kelly Macdonald, the closest the film has to romantic leads, are both deftly placed--as are the film's two Americans, the "under-rated" Ryan Phillipe, as Selway called him, and Bob Balaban, as an oblivious, implacable film producer (also one of Gosford Park's producers). For the part of a young, unloved daughter, Selway cast an inexperienced young model, Camilla Rutherford, who fits quite touchingly into the mise-en-scene.
Selway had nothing but praise for her director, not least because he "doesn't read actors. He totally trusts the casting director that they're wonderful actors; he'd just meet people and talk. He really casts emotionally, completely instinctually. He has such courage, such confidence as a storyteller. He's supremely interested in the human condition."
Altman didn't use a casting director to assemble some of his most famously funky casts--Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts. It is to Selway's great credit that despite its English accent and period setting, Gosford Park has the same recognizably three-dimensional population, and the same doggedly serene but gimlet-eyed take on human behavior, as all of Altman's best.