Big-shot directors sign up actors for repeat performances

By Daniel Fierman
Updated November 17, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

It’s been a fetish of Hollywood directors for years. Billy Wilder did it. So did John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock. Contemporary practitioners Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, and Paul Thomas Anderson like to do it with three people at once — sometimes more. And Woody Allen might just be the worst offender of them all.

Now wash your mind out with soap — we’re talking about reteaming with actors. It’s happening a lot throughout this holiday season: M. Night Shyamalan wrote a part for Bruce Willis in his Sixth Sense follow-up, Unbreakable; Cast Away finds Robert Zemeckis back with his Forrest Gump star, Tom Hanks; O Brother, Where Art Thou?‘s Coen brothers hired John Turturro for a fourth time; What’s Eating Gilbert Grape‘s Lasse Hallstrom and Johnny Depp are now indulging in Chocolat; The Limey‘s Steven Soderbergh and Luis Guzman are sitting in Traffic, which also features Albert Finney, fresh from the director’s Erin Brockovich; and David Mamet is reusing just about everyone in his new movie-biz satire, State and Main.

”If they’ve had a good working relationship, directors feel they can get more out of an actor,” says veteran casting director Billy Hopkins. ”And it allows actors to stretch. Take Mia Farrow. When she did movies for Woody Allen she did things no one thought she could do — and that no one else would let her do.”

Or as Sam Raimi, who cast Gary Cole in The Gift after using him in A Simple Plan as well as in the CBS series American Gothic, puts it: ”I knew when it came time for Gary to lay down in the snow face-first [in A Simple Plan], he’d do it without squawking.”

Reteaming is all about comfort. A second film is like a second date — things are just that much easier. ”A shorthand develops,” says Patti LuPone, who has starred in four Mamet stage productions, and appears in State and Main as well as his just-wrapped The Heist. ”If you don’t have a history with someone, there’s all this carefulness. David knows he’s not going to offend me by asking for something.”

Of course, it’s not just the folks behind the camera who get to play employment office. While he was struggling to launch Thirteen Days, Kevin Costner suggested director Roger Donaldson, based on their experience shooting 1987’s No Way Out. ”I met with him when he was shooting For Love of the Game,” says Donaldson. ”There’s no doubt that I’ve got Kevin to thank for it happening.” And director Kevin Lima says he landed his first live-action feature, 102 Dalmatians, in large part due to the rapport he developed with Glenn Close on Disney’s animated Tarzan. ”It helped that [her gorilla] Kala and Cruella DeVil are both basically cartoon characters,” says the director, laughing.

The only danger in working with friends may be slipping into cronyism. ”People can get blinded by friendship — take Sydney Pollack,” says one casting director. ”He has cast Robert Redford in films where he shouldn’t have been playing the part.” (Anyone remember Havana?) And sometimes familiarity breeds boredom: Allen may have allowed Farrow to stretch, but things got pretty thin by the time Alice was released.

Mostly, however, actors and directors all but break into a chorus of ”Kumbaya” when asked about the advantages of return engagements. ”You have a repartée built in. You know each other’s sensibilities and what the tenor of the set will be like,” says Turturro. ”It makes the work more interesting. It makes life more interesting.”

Says Traffic‘s Guzman, who has appeared in three of Steven Soderbergh’s last four films, ”It’s like somebody walking their dog. They unleash the dog knowing it’ll come back. That’s the relationship I have with Steve.” ”I’d say that’s pretty accurate,” says Soderbergh, who will reteam with Erin Brockovich‘s Julia Roberts and Out of Sight‘s George Clooney and Don Cheadle for Ocean’s 11.

For some filmmakers, relying on familiar faces is simply a matter of pride. ”There’s a great bit in Jim Bouton’s [baseball memoir] Ball Four,” says Mamet. ”the manager says to a player: ‘I see you with a different broad every night. You must be a lousy lay.’ That’s how I feel about working with lots of different actors.”