Tomorrow’s stars blocked by A-listers, warns Shakespeare In Love producer

David Parfitt has used many of his films and productions to launch up-and-coming stars, which he said was 'exciting'
David Parfitt has used many of his films and productions to launch up-and-coming stars, which he said was 'exciting' - SIPA US/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Shakespeare in Love’s producer has warned today’s young actors are being denied starring roles because film financiers only want established A-listers.

David Parfitt helped Gwyneth Paltrow to stardom as she claimed the best actress Oscar aged just 26 for her role in the acclaimed comedy. His acclaimed features also showcased the young Kenneth Branagh.

The producer said that even low-budget films that would once break new talent are now expected to boast stellar casts rather than take risks on unknowns.

He said: “In film, television and theatre, we are up against this all the time. The level of star that the sales agents and financiers are looking for are stars that used to get a £25 million or £30 million-film made.

“If it’s £2 million or £3 million, the level of casting that’s now being requested is the same. They’re always looking for the people who’ve already broken through.”

He added: “The way we always used to work was ‘we’re finding the next big thing’ – and that’s much more interesting. So we’re not breaking as many new stars as we should be.”

Gwyneth Paltrow in 1999 aged 26, receiving the Oscar for best actress for the film Shakespeare in Love
Gwyneth Paltrow in 1999 aged 26, receiving the Oscar for best actress for the film Shakespeare in Love - TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP

Parfitt co-founded the Renaissance Theatre Company with Branagh, producing acclaimed Shakespeare productions including Henry V and Much Ado about Nothing. He went on to produce The Madness of King George and The Wings of The Dove with Helena Bonham Carter, both nominated for four Oscars; Shakespeare in Love, winner of seven Oscars; and The Father, which received two Oscars.

His acclaimed theatre successes include Spike, Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s show about Spike Milligan: “We’ve had success touring without huge stars, just very good actors. But it’s very hard to go out there now with a new straight play, unless you have an absolute stellar cast.”

He added that sales agents and financiers have lists of “acceptable” stars with individual gradings: “Lists come through with ‘A-plus, A, A-minus, B…’ You go, ‘this is ridiculous, this person’s a fabulous actor’, and they go, ‘well, they’ve not had a hit for a while’. It’s very brutal…

“Those lists vary between sales agents and financiers. So what’s ‘A-plus’ to one is ‘C-minus’ to another. You’re trying to balance the requests from financiers, sales agents and distributors - and at the same time cast brilliant people.”

Andy Paterson, the producer behind the Oscar-nominated film Girl With A Pearl Earring, cast the young Scarlett Johansson.

Scarlett Johansson was originally rejected because of the pressure to cast a more well-established actor
Scarlett Johansson was originally rejected because of the pressure to cast a more well-established actor - HO/REUTERS

He recalled the pressure to cast an established name, initially turning down Johansson, even though she had impressed him at her audition. He originally told her that she had not got the role “because I knew I couldn’t finance the film with this unknown actress”, but he soon realised that “she’s the one”.

“I found a way to finance it and called her to say, ‘it’s yours’,” he said. “She literally told me to get lost because we’d broken her heart. She shot Girl With A Pearl Earring 10 days after finishing Lost in Translation and those two films together launched her.”

Addressing the risk inherent in making original, independent films, Paterson said: “Financiers try to offset that risk by demanding bigger and bigger names, but there is increasing doubt [over] whether that strategy actually works for audiences.”

One producer, who preferred anonymity, said that he wanted to bring a play to the West End, following its touring success, but he has encountered pressure to abandon his cast for stars: “It’s a big debate with our investors. They go, ‘yes, of course, you must take it to the West End, but you will be recasting’. ‘Well, no, I’d rather not’.”

Parfitt said: “This is not about anyone blocking anything. But, in a difficult market, distributors want to protect themselves by getting the biggest possible names they can at whatever level of film. Sales agents are trying to pre-sell films, often before they’ve been seen, just with a script and names and that’s their only route through.”

While he has worked with many high-profile stars, including Dame Judi Dench, he recalled that Kate Beckinsale’s role in Much Ado About Nothing was a turning-point, one of the films leading to her becoming a “superstar”.

Ultimately, he noted: “A star name won’t save a bad show.”

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