‘The New World’ offered casting challenges

GLENDORA, Calif.

— Though she is typically hired as a casting director for
all roles in a film or TV show, for the new Terrence Malick film, “The New
World,” Rene Haynes served exclusively as the casting director for the
American Indian roles.

As so many do in the entertainment industry, she literally fell backwards
into her current profession. “It’s fantastic for me,” she said. “I was
working in Montana as an artistic director for a theater company after I
graduated from college. The theater company was listed with the local
chamber of commerce in Great Falls. The chamber called me and I happen to
be available to cast Native extras around the seven reservations in Montana
for a film called ‘War Party’ in the mid-1980s.”

Haynes learned a valuable lesson in that first experience. “I stayed with
it because of the test I passed with the local community — I treated
everybody with the same respect. I admired the community for looking out
for their own. That always impressed me. I had files on every Native person
in Montana who wanted to be in the movies. ‘Dances With Wolves’ was my big
project that called for me to cast Native extras. That really started the
ball rolling for me.”

Since then, she has cast several notable films that have featured Native
actors. Haynes called it “finding the perfect person for the role” and
among those experiences she noted Adam Beach for his role in “Squanto,” his
first major role.

She also highlighted “Dance Me Outside,” for which she consulted with the
director and producer and suggested Beach, Ryan Black and Michael Greyeyes.
“I was very proud of Michael as the title role in the TNT movie ‘Crazy
Horse,'” she noted. She also consulted on the casting of the voice of
Pocahontas — which resulted in Irene Bedard — for the animated Disney
film of the same name (Greyeyes and Bedard were both later cast in “The New
World”: Greyeyes as Rupwew and Bedard as Pocahontas’ mother in a dream
sequence).

Leading up to “The New World,” Haynes’ other noteworthy experiences
included casting Graham Greene in “Skins,” which earned him an Independent
Spirit Award nomination.

Her recent find is Nakotah LaRance, who had his first acting job in “Into
the West.” “I love finding actors who get that first break and really rise
to the challenge,” she said.

As many fortuitous jobs in cinema begin, Haynes got a phone call to meet
with producer Sarah Green about “The New World.” “It was predicated on
Terry [Malick]’s approval,” she said. “I had a great first meeting and we
all became a team. Francine Maisler cast every non-Native role. Because
Francine is such an acclaimed casting director, the producers wanted to
denote that she was the casting director and I filled this specialty
niche.”

Of course, Malick is legendary in Hollywood for being exceptionally
media-shy and very selective about his projects, each of which is unique in
its own way. “My first reaction when I read the script was that I had
jumped into a painting by a great master,” Haynes reflected. “It was unlike
any screenplay I’ve ever read — beautiful, visual and rich with texture.”
Of her reaction after digesting the script, Haynes noted: “I didn’t feel
like it was going to be a challenge so much as a great adventure. Just to
get the call to be in the room with Malick was an enormous honor.”

As she knew that there was a great need for Native talent for “The New
World,” Haynes relied on her detailed and comprehensive database of Native
actors that she has accumulated over the past two decades. “Technically
speaking, there were not a lot of principal roles — under 20 for me to
think about,” she remembered. “All of the male Natives were people I knew
or worked with or had great faith in. You don’t refer someone to Terrence
Malick who you don’t have great faith in.”

With that in mind, a conversation with Malick led to a key initial casting
decision. “It was great fortune to me when Terry and I were talking about
the male characters and the way they moved being important,” Haynes said.
“So I asked if I could bring him dancers. I have known Raoul Trujillo, who
played Tomocomo, since 1990. Not only is Raoul an amazing dancer, he’s one
of the most talented actors I know. We enlisted him to find other young
Native dancers. Raoul was a huge important aspect of that. It was a divine
coming-together — the role, the man and his contributions to the project.”

With suggestions from Trujillo and approval from Malick, Haynes cast a
formidable group of Natives, including Marcus Frejo, Lyle Kochamp and
Lawrence Santiago (Powhatan warriors); Chief Robert Green of the Patawomack
Tribe and Chief Thomas Two Feathers of the Meherrin Tribe (Powhatan
counselors); and Myrton Running Wolf (Tockwogh). Key additional members of
the male cast included Wes Studi as Powhatan war chief Opechancanough and
August Schellenberg as Chief Powhatan. “That character is not unlike
Prospero in ‘The Tempest,'” said Haynes. “August has that grand statesman
persona. The casting of the men was a very smooth process.”

One key female part was filled by Rulan Tangen as a Powhatan priestess.
“She was part of Raoul’s contingent that he brought in — she was a fellow
choreographer,” Haynes said. “She helped design the main female character’s
movements and training.”

Of course, that main character was Pocahontas, the most difficult Native
role to cast and one upon which the entire success of the film rested. “The
big challenge was always going to be finding the girl,” said Haynes. “New
Line [Cinema], Sarah and Terry were saying ‘travel and find her.’ As long
as we were able to do that, I knew this would be something special — I
could tell they cared about finding the right girl.”

At first, Haynes relied upon her successful system for casting a female
lead. “We knew all of the young Native women who were coming up into the
right age range, and we knew we would target them,” she said of the
professional actresses who are on casting directors’ radars, “but we were
not afraid to find an unknown for this. At that point, we were not
disclosing that we were looking for a Pocahontas. We just said that it was
an untitled Terrence Malick film.”

Ideally looking for an older teenager because she could work longer hours,
Haynes and her team, including casting associate Jeff Ham and assistant
Joanne Brooks, had 500 responses to an initial e-mail. After sending out
audition materials, they got nearly 200 audition tapes back. “Based on
that, we decided where to go in America to have open calls,” Haynes said.

“I did a lot of traveling for eight months. By the time we were winding
down to having our final sessions where Jeff and I made our presentation of
the top 20 ladies, I got a call from my office.”

The call that Haynes received would change movie history, untraditionally
as it were. Haynes office had been casting “Into the West” simultaneously
with “The New World,” and a striking photo was sent to her for the former
project. Brooks suggested that Haynes see the young 14-year-old woman in
the photo for the lead role in the Malick film instead of the TV project.
At the time, the precocious teen, a very talented singer, was
street-performing on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Calif.

“Her passion, simplicity and excellence was what interested all of us,”
Haynes said of Q’Orianka Kilcher, who was cast as Pocahontas after six
callbacks. “What got her the role was the undeniable fact that she was
luminous on camera. It was in her stillness — someone at that age who was
so self-possessed and could be still and quiet and bring this beautiful
creature to life — that was the deciding factor. It was the perfect person
and the perfect role meeting at the perfect time.”

Showing obvious pride in her work on “The New World,” Haynes reflected on
Malick’s ability to bring the entire project to life on screen. “This isn’t
a normal filmmaker, in the best sense of the word,” Haynes said. “Everybody
who came to the table on this project came with a great amount of
dedication — this was art for art’s sake. Every person in this film is
absolutely an artist.”

Of her place in the massive operation known as Hollywood, Haynes spoke
reverently of her specific purpose, leading up to “The New World” and
likely going well into the future. “We’ve been a bit lucky with Native
films in that since we don’t have big budgets, we don’t have to rely on the
bankability of actors,” she said. “‘Into the West’ and ‘The New World’ have
really stepped it up. Films with Native characters that get made — even
with non-Native actors as the leads — get some wonderful Native talent in
the public eye.”

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