For all its perpetual popularity and continued reverence, Amy Heckerling’s high school-set classic “Clueless” almost didn’t happen — or, at the very least, didn’t happen in the way most people (including Heckerling herself) expected it to. Originally imagined as a FOX television show, the project eventually became a FOX feature, before being punted to Paramount in the interest of a better budget.
When the film did arrive in theaters in July of 1995, it was a major hit that boasted a cast filled with up-and-comers that went on to make their mark on Hollywood (look no further than this week’s big Marvel release, “Ant-Man,” starring “Clueless” so-called Baldwin Paul Rudd in one of his breakout roles). Despite the film’s somewhat fraught journey to the big screen, the final product doesn’t hint at much upheaval or strife, and its casting, though split between FOX and Paramount, never feels anything less than absolutely cohesive and correct.
In her new book, “As If! The Oral History of ‘Clueless,’ as Told by Amy Heckerling, the Cast, and the Crew,” journalist Jen Chaney gives the deep-dive treatment to Heckerling’s most beloved film just in time for its 20th anniversary. Chaney’s book fully explores the creation of the film, but a recent (and generous-sized) excerpt available at Vanity Fair gives readers a peek inside the casting that made the film so phat, in the parlance of the movie in question (it seems a bit much to call a book a “Betty,” but it is one fine piece of movie journalism).
A glance at the film’s final credits doesn’t do too much to convey the full scope of its wild casting ride, listing Hollywood stalwart Marcia Ross as the only casting director on the project. Ross, however, came on board after the film had left FOX and casting director Carrie Frazier had placed Alicia Silverstone in the role that would turn her into a star, a particularly fortuitous bit of casting, as Heckerling already had her eye on the young actress before Frazier even mentioned her. Although Ross had to build her cast around the in-place actress, she put her whole heart into the project. The results speak for themselves, but Ross, who has gone on to have one of Hollywood’s most varied, successful and compelling casting careers, has plenty extra to offer.
After all, “Clueless” was the film that changed her life forever.
“In 1988, I had gone to Warner Bros. Television to be head of casting for Warner Bros. Television. Five years I was there, and I was overseeing all of the casting for all of the television series,” Ross shared in a recent wide-ranging phone conversation. “Having spent five years doing a lot of television, I needed to re-enter the film world.”
Ross was eager for something new, and although she hadn’t heard much about “Clueless” before she got the gig, “Clueless” had heard about her. “I was really trying to get back into making movies. So low-budget independent; stuff like that. And I got the call and they said, ‘We don’t have a lot of money,’ and I said, ‘To me, it’s an opportunity to get back into features and it’s okay with me that it’s not a lot of money.'”
Ross’ philosophy, even back then, was set: “I’ve worked on some low-budget features now, and when you don’t have a lot of money, your casting director doesn’t make a lot of money. If you love the project and you’re passionate, then you understand that you work for what they can afford to pay you if you love the material.”
“So I get this call and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ And I quickly start preparing … I went in and I laid all this stuff out. I showed them it, and Amy, I remember, it was a great meeting. She was looking at this stuff, going, ‘Who’s this?’ and ‘who’s that?’ She’s looking at everything, and then I guess that was on a Thursday. And on Monday, they asked me to do a movie,” Ross recalled.
With Silverstone already in place (a feat of perfect casting that Ross is more than happy to attribute “one hundred percent” to Frazier’s professional genius), Ross set about rounding out the rest of the talent, a situation made all the easier by Heckling and producer Scott Rudin’s own eyes for stars-in-the-making.
“Amy has a great eye for casting. And also Scott Rudin, who even then was just a very accomplished and important producer. I had known Scott, kind of, when I worked in a talent agency in New York in the ’70s. Scott was a casting director, so he’s very connected to casting,” Ross remembered. “He has a really fine eye for talent. It’s not just important to him as it is to everybody, but he really gets it. He does.”
“In the beginning, I just started casting sessions … I think Paul had it on the second session, and Breckin [Meyer]. They were all there in the first three sessions; these people all came in,” Ross said. “Jeremy Sisto told the story that he read for four different parts, because he did. He started as probably Josh and then he ended up as Elton, but he must have read for four different parts. Breckin, no. I put him in the second day and honestly he just was it. The only other person that really came close is Jeremy Renner, who I just met. I brought him. He was a teenager practically.” (You read that right: Jeremy Renner could have been Travis Birkenstock.)
Although the film already had its leading lady in place, finding the right co-star to play Josh, her ex-step-brother and eventual paramour, wasn’t so easy. Ross shared, “We were going back and forth for a long time, and then we decided we had to do a screen-test. We screen-tested Paul with a couple of other guys, and I have to say — I’ll never forget the day — they had Alicia in the costume. The skirt with the socks — she was in that outfit for the screen-test. And I don’t know, when she put that outfit on and she walked out, that was — she was completely it. The costume and her were one, and you knew she was it. You could see it right then. But when you see the test, you see it: They really connected. The scene was just lifted right up by the two of them acting together. I think that was what sealed it.”
Ross’ work on the film didn’t just lay the groundwork for her stars to break through into the big time, it also pushed Ross into a big job she didn’t otherwise see coming. “Just as I was finishing ‘Clueless,’ I got a call from the Walt Disney Company to see if I wanted to come interview for a job and do the casting for features for Disney and Touchstone. But at the time I was just finishing the film and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back into executive life,” she remembers. “A couple months later they called me for a callback to really find out if I want a job, and at that point I spoke to Scott Rudin, [who] picked up the phone and called Donald De Line and told him what he thought about me.”
“I know for a fact that’s why I ended up at that job at Disney, and I spent 16 years there. I was running the film casting department because, I’m sure in addition to whatever my resume and all I’ve done, that nod from somebody like Scott Rudin is very meaningful. He knows how I feel about that. I thanked him for that and it meant a lot to me. It changed my life, having him make that call.”
Casting isn’t just Ross’ profession, though, it really is her passion. “I found my life’s work. To me, seeing someone I like that I believe in and has talent, and then being able to actually do something about it, is everything to me,” Ross mused. “My whole 35-year career, that’s very consistent for me about what I love about casting. I love great acting and talent, and I like to help them get the opportunity.”
Ross’ casting career now includes a tremendous variety of features — her recent projects include “Prom,” “John Carter” and “Oblivion” — but “Clueless” and her other teen-centric features, from “The Princess Diaries” franchise to “10 Things I Hate About You,” remain close to her heart. “It’s a moment in time where I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking and looking back at my long career in casting, and it’s hard for all of us in show business to stay relevant and to feel like our work has value and meaning beyond the immediate moment of the thing coming out,” Ross reflected.
“It’s always a surprise and always very touching and special to me that people still talk about these movies. Very, very touching,” she said. You might even say it was phat.