Welcome to a look Inside the Holocron. A collection of articles from the archives of *starwars.com no longer directly available.
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Robin Gurland, Casting Director
Episode I was a very atypical assignment,” begins Robin Gurland. “The casting started in July 1995.” This was almost two years in advance of principal photography. “I’ve never had the luxury of such a lead time in casting before, but fortunately Rick McCallum had the foresight to know that we’d need an in-depth pre-casting period. It allowed me to look as long as I needed to get the perfect people.”
Casting, Gurland says, is far from an exact science. “There is no finite specific set of tasks,” she explains, “no checklist. There could always be somewhere else to look. And every agent in the business had people available to work on this Star Wars film!”
The casting project began atypically as well, Gurland notes. “There were no principals attached. I could look at anybody.” Star actors are often identified at a film project’s inception, but Gurland had a blank slate to work with. “Outsiders kept saying that we would ‘of course choose unknowns’ for the parts, but the truth is that I had no constraints. It didn’t matter whether someone was unknown or famous. All we wanted was the right person for the part.”
As for her techniques of casting, Gurland comments that “first instincts are usually best. This was true here in the cases of Ewan and Natalie. We went through the whole review process nonetheless, looking at everyone else, but we came back to our origins.”
Her quest began with brief summaries from writer-director George Lucas and Producer Rick McCallum. “I had thumbnail sketches of the characters from George to start with. Two months later I was working from the script itself.” Gurland worked on finding players for the two youngest roles (Anakin and Padme) first, then moved on to the Jedi Knights eventually portrayed by Ewan MacGregor and Liam Neeson. Around these principal actors she built the rest of the cast. “By January 1997 or so, I was fully casting the whole film,” she says.
Casting Anakin Skywalker was a particular challenge. “I first saw Jake Lloyd when he was five years old, when I was first starting the process. Of course, he was much too young at the time, but I was looking towards the future. Every six months or so I would check back in on him, to see how he was developing and what kind of identity was emerging in him.” Anakin’s character sketch carried not just traits but a very specific age, and at first Gurland thought Lloyd simply wouldn’t be the right age at the right time to play the part. “But he really stood out,” she says. “In the end, as a start date for principal photography was finalized and as George settled on the age of the character, Jake’s age worked out as well as his personality, and we had our Anakin.” Keeping an eye on promising talent and following up on her prospects over the course of the whole casting process allowed Gurland to settle on ideal choices time and again.
Gurland enjoys her job very much. “It has been wonderful to see how much talent is out there!” she says. “This big search will be helpful for future projects. I like working with actors-tweaking performances for auditions, and seeing what you can get out of a little bit of material. I also love talking with actors about the philosophy of theater.”
To hopeful future film performers, Gurland suggests “get in something, to get yourself seen! Theater, low budget films, anything. Be an extra on a film, just to try it out or get started.” Good intentions alone are not enough, she says. Letters pledging enthusiasm and asking ‘just give me a chance’ don’t get anywhere when there are so many people with demonstrated ability to review . “As an actor you need proof to show what you can do. Even a small part in a bad film can offer a chance for a noticeably good performance. As long as the role is not fighting your basic sensibility, or something repugnant, then take it and do your best,” she advises. Gurland stresses the need for a serious commitment, sounding a little like our favorite Jedi Master when she says this. “Do your homework, and know what you’re talking about,” she adds. “Acting is not something to be undertaken on a whim. You need to love your craft.”
The casting of Episode I was an enjoyable process for Gurland for many reasons. “Fortunately, our ideas about the principal actors were all aligned. George and Rick backed me up 100%,” she says. “I didn’t have to buy into any of the industry game-playing. We ended up with a wonderful cast that brings so much to the film.”
Which brings Gurland to the threshold of Star Wars: Episode II. Has the casting process begun for the prequel sequel? “Not formally,” she says. “But I was just noticing some interesting possibilities the other day….”