The Filming of To Kill a Mockingbird: The Casting of Scout & Jem
Exclusive Excerpt from “Why to Kill a Mockingbird Matters”
Another Big Thank You to author Tom Santopietro for hand-picking another excerpt for us – this time about the casting of Scout and Jem – from his book “Why to Kill a Mockingbird Matters”. This is the second in our two-part series on the filming of To Kill a Mockingbird, courtesy of Tom. If you’d like to read the first excerpt, about the casting of Atticus Finch, click here.
Boatwright [an aspiring agent from Reidsville, North Carolina] had never cast even the smallest off-Broadway play, but after meeting with Pakula [producer] – “a most remarkable man”- for three hours, she succeeded in charming and cajoling her way onto the production as director of child casting. She next met with Bob Mulligan [director], who signed off on Boatwright’s participation but strongly admonished her: “I want children- no show biz professionals! “
Armed with energy, savvy, and Mulligan’s dictum ringing in her ears, Boatwright soon waded through hundreds of interviews. She began in New York, but soon realized that the northern boys and girls “didn’t have the rhythm, the poetry of growing up southern – it never would have worked.” Southward she headed, interviewing Shirley Temple wannabes in Richmond, Winston-Salem, Charlotte, Nashville, Dallas, and Atlanta. None were right but one thing remained constant: “The mothers were just as pushy in the south as they were in the heart of Manhattan.”
Her style was intimate, sitting close to the youngsters, talking to them, and asking them to read: “I tried to make them feel comfortable. I served ginger ale and cookies. I met some real characters; one of the little boys eating a cookie said “This tastes like my foot when it goes to sleep…” Some of the children wanted to audition, while others were present only because they had been forced by their parents, but the lines of potential Scouts and Jems seemed to grow by the day, with no end in sight. Feeling burned out, and no closer to casting the roles, she called Pakula to moan: “Alan? I don’t think I can talk to anyone who’s under thirty ever again… I’m locked in my hotel room. I haven’t been able to leave it for twenty-four hours because of the crowds of mothers and children just sitting waiting for me in that lobby downstairs- I saw over a hundred children today… and they all began to look alike.”
An exhausted Boatwright was no closer to casting either Scout or Jem when in walked nine year old Mary Badham, clad in jeans, a striped t-shirt and sporting, in Boatwright’s words, “a gamine haircut.” Badham had arrived at the auditions courtesy of Boatwright’s good friend Genie Watt-Stokes, with whom Boatwright was staying during her sojourn in Birmingham. It was Genie who told Boatwright that little Mary Badham might be worth an audition, and when the youngster walked into the room, an exhausted Boatwright slowly looked up and thought: “Hmmm… definitely not a Shirley Temple clone.”
Smiling but nonchalant, Mary thought this acting business sounded like fun but was not particularly concerned about winning the role. It was her mother, the proper Mrs. Henry L. Badham, who seemed most interested in the idea. Having done some acting in her native England, most notably a radio version of George Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan, she liked the idea of Mary following in her footsteps, but Mary’s audition almost never happened, because Henry Badham, a retired Air Force general, had no interest in a possible acting career for his daughter. In his blunt statement to Boatwright: “We don’t think nice people work in show business.”
In the baroque world of personal southern geography, however- a world so interconnected that on a flight from New Orleans to Birmingham, Alan Pakula told the social, friendly Boatwright “If you speak to even one person you know on this plane I’m going to kill myself!”- it turned out that a cousin of Boatwright’s mother was related to the Badham family. This fact, combined with a push from Mary’s brother John, finally convinced Henry Badham to acquiesce to the audition. In the words of Mary’s mother: “What could be the possible harm?… Henry dear- what are the chances the child will get the part?”
Aside from playing dress-up and putting on skits for her parents, Mary had never acted, and she prepared nothing to read for Boatwright. In later years she did vaguely remember “something about chopping some wood”- – but what caught Boatwright’s immediate attention was the youngster’s forthright personality:
“How old are you?”
“You look younger and smaller than nine.”
“Well, if you drank as much buttermilk and smoked as many cornsilks as I did you might be smaller too.”
Chatting with the youngster about her life- southern to the bone, Badham, in Boatwright’s recall, “pronounced ‘nine’ in two syllables”- the casting director was even more delighted to learn that Badham possessed a die hard Scout-like desire to always tag along after her brothers, insisting on taking part in every last one of their games. She even had two Calpurnias in her life in the figures of Beddie Harris and Frankie McCall. Nonchalant, winning, and resolutely non show-biz, Badham charmed Boatwright, who concluded the interview, ran to the phone, dialed Pakula and excitedly told him : “I found Scout!” (One of Badham’s classmates, Elizabeth “Bimi” Woodward was also in the running for the role; evidently the loss grated, as she told their mutual classmates that the director and producer really preferred her for the role of Scout, but that her mother “had nixed acting as ‘tacky.’”)
Making her red letter day even better, Boatwright found her ideal Jem that very same afternoon when Philip Alford, a thirteen year old eighth grader, walked in for his audition. With a boy next door affect and, in Boatwright’s words, “an angel face”, Alford projected a polite but rather indifferent attitude towards the idea of acting in a movie. The son of a bricklayer foreman, Alford had actually appeared in amateur theatre productions of The King and I and The Man Who Came to Dinner, but when it came to acting he could take it or leave it. He was more interested in sports than acting, explaining that he wanted to be Tarzan- not Johnny Weissmuller. As it was, when the same James Hatcher who had told Mary Badham’s mother about the auditions called Philip’s mother and suggested that Philip audition as well, Philip turned the invitation down- until he learned it would allow him to skip half a day of school.
Alford, it turned out, lived a mere three streets away from Badham, and although the two youngsters did not know each other, the combination of his looks, nonchalant boy next door persona, and southern working class background (he lived in Birmingham but spent summers at his grandmother’s house in the Maycomb-like small town of Piedmont, Alabama) heightened Boatwright’s interest. Even more to the point, it was immediately evident to the casting director that Alford possessed genuine acting talent. Alford met with Boatwright for no more than five minutes, returned home, and promptly forgot about the audition.
Every day life resumed until three weeks later, when Alford was asked to come to New York for a screen test. Heading north on the train because his mother was afraid of flying, Philip stayed in Manhattan for three days while meeting with Mulligan and Pakula. Badham flew north at the same time with her own mother, and the two children were paired together for their screen tests. Mulligan was immediately struck by the fact that they looked like brother and sister, and the discrepancy in their sizes felt just right: Alford was four feet eight inches and seventy-six pounds, small enough to pass as “Jem”, but big enough to lord it over Scout and Dill.
Mulligan, in fact, did not ask either youngster to read from the Mockingbird script. Instead, he put them before the camera and asked them questions about their lives, the better to gauge how natural they appeared on camera. Did they each came across as genuine children, or as jaded seen-it-all- veterans from a road company of Gypsy? The verdict: both Mary and Philip read onscreen as utterly natural. Said Mulligan: “They both had a quality I was looking for. They were bright. They were alive. They both seemed to have active imaginations.” Mulligan purposely kept it all low key- no hangers on, no studio executives: “The only one they had to deal with was me. I made it as much play as I could.”
It all passed pleasantly, if vaguely, and Mary and Philip returned to Birmingham, happy with their New York adventures. Both youngsters may have assumed they were about to resume their normal routines, but Robert Mulligan now had other plans in mind. After their informal but carefully calculated screentests, he felt absolutely certain that he had found his youthful leads, two unstudied, natural sounding, southerners who would react to the filming just like regular children- as an adventure. Calls were placed- by this time Mary’s mother had overcome her husband’s objections- and Mary Badham of Birmingham, Alabama was officially and enthusiastically on board to play Scout. At which point, on New Year’s Eve of 1961, the phone rang in the Alford residence and Philip’s father was asked to have Philip in Los Angeles by early February for the start of filming. The role of Jem was officially Philip’s.
In the end, after traveling thousands of miles and conducting hundreds of interviews, Boatwright had found her Scout and Jem on the same day, in the same town. Two youngsters who lived a mere three blocks from each other had been chosen from nearly two thousand applicants spread across seven southern states. In Boatwright’s view: “It was just miraculous- serendipity.”
Hope you enjoyed this excerpt! And, if you liked this one, please check out the excerpt from author Tom about the casting of Atticus Finch here.
–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub
Here’s a short trailer about the book, narrated by author Tom Santopietro.
And, for those of you who weren’t lucky enough to win our contest, you can order the book on amazon by clicking the link below: