Tales from the Casting Couch: Hollywood's Ugly Open Secret

Gwyneth Paltrow, Charlize Theron, Lisa Rinna on the infamous couch.

October 11, 2010, 9:50 AM

Oct. 12, 2010— -- The Oscars, the Walk of Fame and the Hollywood sign are some of Tinseltown's famed icons. But as with most fairy tales, there is also a hardcore underbelly.

Now Gwyneth Paltrow has spoken out about one of the industry's dirtiest secrets – the casting couch.

In the November issue of Elle Magazine, 38-year-old Paltrow revealed that early in her career she had a brush with someone who "suggested that we finish a meeting in the bedroom."

Her reaction?

"I left," she told Elle. "I was pretty shocked." Paltrow said she could see how someone who didn't know better might worry that their career would be ruined if they didn't perform a specific sexual act.

In an interview with People nearly five years ago, Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron disclosed that before she launched her acting career, she was asked by her modeling agents to go to a well-known director's house. The ostensible reason was because there was a casting call for extras. When she showed up, the director was in his pajamas, making drinks.

"I thought, 'Wow, this is really not formal, this whole casting procedure,'" Theron said in People. "Us girls, we're smart: You leave."

Helen Mirren also went on the record recently, reported The Guardian, speaking out against director Michael Winner for "allegedly treating her 'like a piece of meat.'" The incident occurred in 1964 when Winner made her flaunt her body and turn around at a casting session. "I was mortified and incredibly angry," said Mirren.

Lisa Rinna, whose new reality show "Harry Loves Lisa," co-starring her husband, Harry Hamlin, debuted last week on TV Land, told PopEater's "Naughty But Nice" column that she, too, was a victim of the casting couch. Columnist Rob Shuter wrote that the then-24-year-old actress "walked away in tears after the disgusting encounter, but that hasn't stopped her from thinking about the producer or that moment every day."

Although these incidents happened years ago, the passage of time hasn't necessarily eliminated the scourge.

Last year Megan Fox told Britain's GQ magazine, "Any casting couch s**t I've experienced has been since I've become famous. It's really heartbreaking. Some of these people! Like Hollywood legends. You think you're going to meet them and you're so excited, like, 'I can't believe this person wants to have a conversation with me,' and you get there and you realize that's not what they want at all."

Casting Couch: Hollywood's Secret

Late last month, Myleene Klass, a British singer, celebrity interviewer and model for the British chain Marks and Spencer, told Now magazine that'd she'd been made an offer, over lunch, several months earlier: "A newly married Hollywood star asked me to sign some kind of sex contract with him," Klass told the publication. "I just thought, 'Mate, which planet are you from?'

"Then his P.A. came over with a confidentiality contract," Klass said. "I just thought, 'Oh my God, your poor wife.' I don't want to be a marriage-wrecker." The story also reveals that, in July, Klass has been offered "more than the interview" by three stars.

Although casting-couch scenarios may occur at any stage of an actress's career, it's typically the newbies and wannabes who tend to get the greater share of the propositions.

"Because the risk to reputation is very high to the casting professional, most of the mischief – and worse – is perpetrated by producers," said Toni Cusumano, a casting director and owner of Toni Cusumano Casting in New York.

"Inexperienced actresses from their late teens to early twenties who audition for roles in low-budget independent movies are the most gullible and the most at risk," said Cusumano.

As a result of this lack of experience, she said, actresses believe it when a producer tells them they'll be going to Sundance, even though a completed movie must first be submitted to that festival for possible acceptance.

"Sundance is not a guarantee, but many producers make strange promises that a seasoned actress would know not to believe," she said.

Cusumano added that young males – "either arrogant or desperate" – have also been known to offer sexual favors to female casting directors in return for a role.

Vinnie Potestivo, a casting director and owner of Vinnie Potestivo Entertainment in New York, said that the business is rife with people who pretend they're producers.

Potestivo, who casts primarily for reality-television programming, said it's not unheard of for males to create faux-producer identities and advertise in reputable publications for entertainment projects that don't exist. The cattle-call is to attract young women, the most attractive of whom are often pursued with an eye toward receiving sexual favors.

Whether actresses succumb to casting-couch come-ons depends on how desperate they are for the part, said casting director Lila Selik, owner of Lila Selik Casting in Los Angeles.

Secrets of the Casting Couch

"Agents will tell their actress-clients if the role requires nudity, said Selik. "But actresses without agents would not have this knowledge and would, therefore, tend to believe the producer when he asks her to disrobe for the role. But performing sexual favors is not part of any role."

Not surprisingly, casting-couch incidents may have ramifications long after the event occurred.

"While there may be a promise that they will get the job, most actors are aware that engaging in the sexual act only keeps them in the running and they may never be called back," said Samuel L. Sharmat, a psychiatrist in New York who works extensively with performing artists.

Sharmat likens the shame that may follow to a woman giving in sexually to a persistent suitor. Some women are scarred by the experience, he said, while others see it as a quick solution to a pesky situation.

"Any psychological damage is completely dependent on the psychological makeup of the woman – how well she is able to navigate these uncomfortable situations and what level of meaning these situations have for her," he said.

Cusumano advises actors and actresses who've been propositioned is to report the incident to the casting director or, if no casting director was involved, to the publication or outlet that published the audition announcement.

Potestivo says it's important to perform due diligence and check out the credits of the so-called producer on a reputable entertainment website, such as imdb.com. "A reputable professional will have business cards to show legitimacy," he said.

"Many actresses are afraid of posting bad experiences online, for fear that sharing the information will backfire," he said. "But she can at least share what happened with fellow actresses."

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