BROOKE GLADSTONE: While the trend is away from casting actors according to race, that doesn't mean that looks don't matter. Looks matter!-- as Garfield learned during his last trip to the West Coast.
BOB GARFIELD:They flock here to Los Angeles to convert their looks into Hollywood careers, because let's face it, not everybody is a natural talent like Keanu Reeves or Heather Graham. Most of the wannabes are just striking faces on an 8 by 10.
ROBIN HARRINGTON: We get like a big stack of like 25 or so submissions in the mail every day. Literally I have every person's hopes and dreams sitting on my desk, and they all think that they're going to be movie stars.
BOB GARFIELD:Robin Harrington is the co-owner of Dragon, the talent agency, a bulky elevator ride above Wilshire Boulevard. Dragon is not the ordinary Hollywood magnet for the impossibly gorgeous, however. The head shots here are conspicuously thin on square jaws, high cheekbones and perfect, pearly smiles. In fact a good part of the clientele is-- pretty heinous-looking, which works out very well for them because at the moment, as measured by the casting breakdowns with physical specifications for roles in TV, film and advertising, we are in a raging bull market for the unsightly.
ROBIN HARRINGTON: Braces, freckles, pimples, too skinny, heavy--it's rare that I see the breakdown that is looking for the gorgeous beauty. It's all about real people right now -- like we are looking for in-bred.
BOB GARFIELD: There will always be a demand for gods and goddesses of course, but the trend now is toward geek-chic -- and worse.
ROBIN HARRINGTON:They're looking for an African-American man, maybe like 35, 40-- who is missing a thumb, and it's not like we really have, you know, a missing thumb department; something like - you know what I mean? Can't they just use a makeup artist or something?
BOB GARFIELD: Well, noooo-- unlike get reeaall!
CATHY CARLTON: The majority of the people that I cast these days are beyond real.
BOB GARFIELD: Casting agent Cathy Carlton sits in her West L.A. office sifting through 8 by 10's.
CATHY CARLTON: Like this guy right here -- Chip.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, he's not hideous but, you know, Omar Sharif he ain't.
CATHY CARLTON:No. This girl -- she's about 6'2" -- sweet as can be, you know? She works, she works a lot. But she's definitely not beautiful. And we have Bunny Summers who is just a sweetheart and it's all about her weight and her jowls and she just makes the best of it and loves it. You know, booked her many times. You know she just enjoys her, her layers there!
BOB GARFIELD:It may seem counter-intuitive in a town where superficiality runs so deep that a young woman would regard her weight and jowls as a meal ticket, but there you are. Take Vincent Schiavelli. He is not strictly speaking a handsome guy. His ultra-drooping eyes gave him a Basset Hound look that is so severe he's only been able to get parts in 80 movies. 80 movies. Just to put that in perspective, Brad Pitt has been in 23 movies. Of course none of Brad Pitt's was Rescue from Gilligan's Island.
VINCENT SCHIAVELLI: My face is my fortune, baby. But on the other hand, somehow the particular nature of my looks people might tend to think that I am a certain way that I'm not.
BOB GARFIELD:He's not deeply depressed, for example, or deranged or a ghost, even though he played one in Ghost. He's a trained actor who likes to take advantage of what he calls his physicality - without the parts being about his physicality. When directors call looking for that strange-looking guy with the eyes, he'd prefer to say no, but--
VINCENT SCHIAVELLI: You have to do them because you have to work, because you have bills to pay and you have expenses and so on, and so forth. Then it's like [SIGHS]! Okay - let's go to work. Yeah.
RICH SILVERSTEIN: I think we like to laugh, and we don't laugh at beautiful people.
BOB GARFIELD: Rich Silverstein of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners the San Francisco ad agency has often cast TV spots with the unbeautiful. A recent commercial for e-Trade was about a grotesque Gloria Swanson type getting an erotic pedicure from her poolboy. Another, for Frito Lay, used a family of overweight trailer trash to demonstrate Frito's new crush-proof packaging. [CLIP OF FRITO'S COMMERCIAL PLAYS] They say there are no small parts -- only small actors. These are extremely large actors cast for their girth, but Silverstein says he had no difficulty getting people to audition.
RICH SILVERSTEIN: Andy Warhol was so right. Everyone can be famous for 15 minutes, and no one says no.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, but you've got to wonder when the agent calls saying Frito-Lay is looking for obese, obnoxious losers, are you available -- what goes on in the actor's mind in terms of self-image, in terms of self-esteem, in terms of just plain human vanity -- doesn't that take a toll?
WOMAN: I've played with some very interesting people such as Herve Villachez from Fantasy Island.
BOB GARFIELD: Meet Coco Barat of the comedy team Coco & Penny. Once upon a time she was a buxom young character actress and comedienne who got tantalizing close to success in New York. Now she is in Hollywood, much older, much heavier, garishly clad and coiffed - all teased hair and leopard skin - still trying to break through.
COCO BARAT: I've done Law & Order and I played a landlady. [LAUGHS] Very often I play a gypsy. In Carlito's Way I played a fortune teller. They're not casting me as a glamorous young girl.
BOB GARFIELD: When Goodby, Silverstein was looking for a grossly sexual Gloria Swanson, Coco jumped at the opportunity.
COCO BARAT: I just loved that one. I wish I could do that one -- it was wonderful!
BOB GARFIELD: You wish you had the part where the idea was to look repulsive.
COCO BARAT: [LAUGHS]! I guess so. I don't mind being me. I don't mind at all.
BOB GARFIELD:I'm reminded of the words of James Baldwin (which I read just now in Bartlett's Quotations) -- the price we pay when pursuing any art or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side -- but maybe the reverse is true as well -- the benefit we get from ugliness is a more intimate relationship with art. [THEME MUSIC] 58:00
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price, Katya Rogers and the award-winning Alicia Zuckerman; engineered by George Edwards and Irene Trudel, and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from David Serchuk, Kathleen Horan and Sean Landis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large, Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Cappello-- our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. We'd like to welcome our newest station, WUWM in Milwaukee. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at email@example.com. And don't forget to tell us where you live and how to pronounce your name. This is On the Media from National Public Radio. I'm Brooke Gladstone.