Mary Selway

Formidable casting director

Sunday 07 July 2013 03:29

Mary Selway, casting director: born Norwich 14 March 1936; married Norman Rodway (marriage dissolved), (two daughters with Keith Buckley); died London 21 April 2004.

Mary Selway was Britain's most formidable and influential casting director. Casting directors don't just cast good actors: their job is much more difficult than that. They have to persuade directors to cast good actors. In this great skill Selway excelled. She was charming, persuasive, stubborn, tireless, perceptive, intuitive and, above all, passionate about her work.

Born in Norwich in 1936, Selway attended the Italia Conti stage school in London before brief stints as a model and as a PA at the then fledgling ITV. Work with the legendary casting director Miriam Brickman followed, and then at the Royal Court Theatre under Lindsay Anderson. By 1970, she had begun casting films.

Her career had astonishing range: from big studio blockbusters like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Out of Africa (1985) and Notting Hill (1999) to more modestly budgeted masterpieces such as Excalibur (1981), Withnail and I (1987), and Gosford Park (2001), to micro-budget efforts that she particularly believed in like Defence of the Realm (1985), The Trench (1999) and The Mother (2003).

Actors loved Mary Selway, and she went out of her way to make the ghastly humiliations of the casting process as humane and dignified as possible. She was fascinated by and addicted to the talent of others, and the discovery of new talent gave her the greatest pleasure.

She would take more joy from bringing an unknown face to a three-line part than in hooking the hottest Hollywood star: and although always in demand from the biggest-budget films in town, she made sure to work on tiny films made for two-and-six if she happened to believe in the director or the script. One sensed the deep legacy of her days at the Royal Court, a building that seems to leave its agreeable stain on all who have worked there. She had that particular rigour and belief in the worth of our work.

A large part of a casting director's job is in actually doing the dreaded deals and in this Selway was formidable. She became widely respected for being both fair and sensible in an area of the business not noted for either attribute. Nor was she for a moment intimidated by the pomp and ceremony of Hollywood, and the prickliest of LA agents would behave a little more reasonably when Selway got on the phone.

In Britain, with its precarious and whimsical boom-bust film industry, she often found herself having to hold projects together through sheer will-power, charm and chastisement, as chunks of funding fell apart, or the Treasury suddenly changed course yet again without bothering to warn anyone. She commanded such respect that actors and, more importantly, their agents would listen to her and trust her, and be prepared to wait just a little longer for that elusive green light.

Over the last 35 years she cast 104 feature films and the roll-call of her directors is breathtaking: Scott, Spielberg, Boorman, Pollack, Altman, Weir, Polanski, Apted, Roeg, Schepisi, Zinnemann. Selway was the top banana, and not just because of her encyclopaedic and ever-morphing knowledge of actors: she was also funny, wise and young.

Although she was always perfectly turned out and supremely elegant, the chic didn't hide (or didn't for long) the mischievous and subversive woman who had marched for the miners, camped at Greenham and supported the ANC before most of us had heard of Nelson Mandela. She was irreverent and couldn't care less what people thought of her. She hated the posturing and bullshit that abounds in show business and would not put up with it. She filled any room she was in with her laughter and curiosity and she contributed far, far more than just actors to the films she worked on.

After the breakdown of her marriage to the actor Norman Rodway, Selway lived with Keith Buckley, with whom she had two children, the agent Kate Buckley and the actress Emma Buckley. Later, well into her fifties, whilst producing the film Wuthering Heights (1992), to her own and everyone else's astonishment, she fell profoundly in love with another woman, and until her death found great happiness with the esteemed American producer Ileen Maisel.

Mary Selway was the most glamorous of women. I remember her, last summer, arriving for a casting session on my latest low-budget effort. We had taken production offices in a wholesale warehouse just off a particularly scruffy bit of the Caledonian Road, in north London, and Mary rocked up in a white BMW, the hood down, the Ray-Bans on, dressed to the nines, spitting feathers at the "fucking hours" it had taken her to get there, then laughing hysterically at the thousands of tins of Italian tomatoes, at us, and at herself. She was glorious.

Roger Michell

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