How was your day last Thursday? Fine, thanks. Took the kids to school, thawed some chicken from the freezer—that kind of thing. How was Laray Mayfield's day? Nothing special—the Middle Tennessee native fixed some coffee, sat down in front of the TV, and watched the movie she cast rack up more Oscar nominations than any other film made in 2008.
Scratch that—more than only eight other movies in the history of movies. With 13 nominations, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button tied Gone With the Wind and From Here to Eternity for sheer volume of Oscar nods, surpassed only by All About Eve and Titanic. Mayfield was its casting director, and even she was floored when she discovered how many times the film had been recognized.
She wasn't the only one. At 5:45 a.m., Mayfield called to congratulate Benjamin Button actress Taraji P. Henson, who picked up a nomination for best supporting actress. When they ran into each other again four days later at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, they couldn't remember anything about their conversation besides a lot of hysterical laughter and crying.
"Bless her little heart, she was so surprised," says Mayfield, who grew up in Nashville and now spends roughly half the year here. And the good news kept rolling in. By the end of the day, it seemed that the one of the few people involved with Benjamin Button who didn't get an Oscar nomination was its casting director.
That's because, as Mayfield readily admits, the casting director's art is largely invisible. The more seamlessly a movie is cast, the easier it is for a viewer to accept the movie's world. That was crucial for Benjamin Button, which asks audiences to buy Brad Pitt as a man who ages backwards. The premise is already a lot to swallow: Too familiar or showy an actor in the wrong part could rupture the illusion.
Instead, the movie deftly mixes marquee names (Pitt, Cate Blanchett), chameleonic supporting players (Tilda Swinton, Jared Harris, Henson) and a wealth of colorful character types whose résumés are more familiar than their names. The late Ted Manson may not be a household word, despite credits ranging from Fried Green Tomatoes to Talladega Nights, but you're unlikely to forget his small role as a human lightning rod.
Even though the math was sometimes difficult at first—"I had graphs up around all over my office: 'Is he 77 in 1925, or you mean when he's 77 in 1986?'," Mayfield recalls—she says the movie's multitude of speaking parts was less a challenge than a delight.
"It was not difficult at all to cast—it was just joyful, every different type of character, every different stage of it," Mayfield says. "It's also amazing because when you work with David, you have the time to do it properly."
"David" is Benjamin Button director David Fincher, Mayfield's friend and collaborator practically since the 1986 day she arrived in L.A. A filmmaker whose dark, technically adventuresome movies have made him a contemporary cult figure on a par with the late Stanley Kubrick, Fincher made a name for himself in the 1980s during the music-video boom years. Mayfield, a single mom, had left Nashville to work with another music-video director, David Hogan, who went on to join Fincher in the groundbreaking production company Propaganda Films. Fincher made her his first assistant, and it was at his urging that she moved into casting.
"The first thing I cast for David was a Jody Watley video," says Mayfield, who laughs loud enough to be heard above the clatter at Fido. "I cast three sailors from the 1940s or something. I don't remember the very first job, to tell you the truth. I found a Polaroid not long ago, and it had that cast with the date written on the back: 1989. I gave it to David."
Fincher asked her to step up as casting director on 1999's Fight Club, and since then she has cast all of his films. A particular challenge was 2007's Zodiac, whose scrupulous attention to the details of the Zodiac murders in 1970s San Francisco demanded not just good actors but fidelity to actual people.
"David and I are equally meticulous with reality details—we're both Virgos," Mayfield notes with amusement. "But we also think it's a respectful way to portray the characters, to stay as closely to the way they are in real life as possible. The reason you're telling a story about this person to start out with is because they were interesting and had an interesting story to tell."
Mayfield's friend Dub Cornett, a Nashville producer and filmmaker, says she's turned down a lot of work because it didn't meet her standards. "She's a real no-bullshit person," Cornett says. He also notes how much she adores actors, even trying to keep an eye out for those in trouble—such as the late Brad Renfro, the former child actor from East Tennessee whom Mayfield cast in 2002's The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys.
"I got him two extra years, but I couldn't keep him," Mayfield says. "He had the most extreme addictive personality I've ever seen. I'm grateful that I got to know him, and I know in my heart that our relationship gave him a little bit of light in his life. He was a sweet, darling kid—darling."
Most recently, Mayfield had a thriller at Sundance called The Killing Room, and she'll work as casting director on Memphis filmmaker Craig Brewer's upcoming Nashville-set country-music drama Maggie Lynn. She plans to move into the producer's chair this summer for a film to be directed in Nashville by actor Vincent D'Onofrio, and she'll be back here in April as a strong supporter of the Nashville Film Festival.
As for Fincher's next move, Laray Mayfield says she can't wait to see what he chooses next from his stack of projects. Asked to describe her favorite kind of actor, she gives what she says is her stock answer: "The ones who have no Plan B."
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