In his recent memoir — Did I Tell You This? (now on sale from Text Publishing) — Sam Neill confesses a slight annoyance over the fact that Universal Pictures once touted Jurassic Park (now streaming on Peacock!) as a big-budget Steven Spielberg effort devoid of any major star power. Three decades later, however, the Dino-classic stands out as a rare example of how to perfectly cast a summer blockbuster.
Neill absolutely nails the role of Alan Grant, a child-averse paleontologist who becomes a reluctant parental figure to John Hammond’s grandchildren when the titular theme park goes to hell. Laura Dern brings just the right amount of heart and skepticism to paleobotanist Ellie Sattler. And then, of course, you’ve got Jeff Goldblum delivering an inimitable brand of quirk to chaos-savvy Ian Malcolm.
There’s a very good reason why Colin Trevorrow brought these actors back for last summer’s Jurassic World Dominion: No one else can do what they do. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Jurassic Park this month, SYFY WIRE caught up with the film’s casting director, Janet Hirshenson (Hook, The Lost World), to learn more about how she and Spielberg put together an iconic ensemble 65 million years in the making.
The inside scoop from Jurassic Park's casting director
Did you ever think you’d be talking about this film three decades later while you were working on it?
I don’t know if I knew how big it would be, but I figured it was gonna be interesting. When this came around, there was no script yet. They were writing it, so I just used the book to pull out sides. I’m not terribly surprised [by its success]. It’s Steven after all.
What was the early process of casting Jurassic Park?
I would first make lists for all the major roles. [I made] lists of various possibilities of actors — some that I liked more than others. Pretty immediately, Jeff Goldblum was my favorite [for Malcolm].
What were some of the qualities Steven wanted for the leads?
We needed people that came off really smart. These are scientists so [we needed actors who were] smart, active. For the Ellie part, you needed a woman that would get down in the dirt and wouldn’t be running around in high heels or something.
I’d known Laura Dern for a bit; she had tested for Ferris Bueller, actually. I think [producer] Kathleen Kennedy was a real champion of hers. Laura, I believe, was on location shooting somewhere [and] probably sent in a tape ... I think once she came in and met with Steven, there was barely any money left, so she had to do it for not great money. All the money really went to the dinosaurs. They had to make the dinosaurs work if there was gonna be a movie.
Photo: Murray Close/Getty Images
How did you land on Richard Attenborough for the John Hammond role?
It was a pretty quick no-brainer. It was like, "If Attenborough will do it, let’s do it. Why not?" He obviously comes off very smart, he has a nice sense of humor, he’s kind of cuddly. I think that was pretty quick, "Just go there," and also with Sam Neill. They just seemed likely suspects.
What were you looking for when it came to Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello)?
For Lexie, we needed a girl with a great scream, for one thing, and [Ariana] had a great scream. I think the audition was, "Come in and scream," plus a little reading. And Joey had done a movie when he was, I think, 6-7 years old. I can’t remember the name of the movie. It was a really sweet, lovely, little movie and he was just a really great kid.
Can you talk about casting some of the smaller supporting characters?
Everybody wanted to be in the movie. It was one of those [projects where] you got more actors than you usually do for small parts.
Wayne Knight [Dennis Nedry] was doing Seinfeld and he was so fun. That was also probably a pretty quick [addition].
Samuel Jackson [Ray Arnold] had just started getting attention for Spike Lee movies ... I don’t think I even brought him in to read for me at all. I just brought him in for Steven. He came in, sat down, reeled off the lines, and we were both thrown back. He was just so f-in' good. Because in the Spike Lee movie [Jungle Fever], he had played a crackhead, so this was a very different part. He was unlike anybody else. I think Steven and I probably sat and smiled at each other.
Bob Peck [Robert Muldoon] was totally Steven. I didn’t really know who he was and Steven wanted him immediately. Martin Ferrero [Donald Gennaro], I loved him, he’s one of my favorite actors. And BD Wong [Henry Wu]…I think he had recently done M. Butterfly on Broadway and is also just a wonderful actor. For those parts, it was, "Let’s see what interesting, fun actors we can put in it."
Any actors who didn't make the cut?
I auditioned a lot of people. Sort of a wide range and a lot of actors that normally wouldn’t come in for just the casting director. Usually, they go right to the director. But being what it was, people came in and just went on tape. We auditioned Jim Carrey for Malcolm and then Goldblum came in and, of course, blew me away. He’s Goldblum, nobody’s like him. I think Steven pretty quickly also [knew] that was the one.
What can you remember from Jim Carrey’s audition?
He auditioned for a very long time. He was really into it. I think he really wanted the role. He was good, it was a totally different way to go. I remember he came in very enthusiastically.
Was he going for more of a comedic approach?
Kind of. The Jim Carrey approach. So yeah, it would have been a little more comedic. Jeff was comedic in his dry, Jeff Goldblum-y sort of way, anyway, but yeah, it becomes a different way to go. But by that time, I think we were pretty much geared into Jeff Goldblum.
Were there any notable alternate choices for Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler, or John Hammond?
Oh, I don’t remember. It’s a long time ago. All my books are at the Academy, so I don’t even have them around. But I taped a lot of people.
How arduous was the casting process?
Twelve weeks is usually what my term is. Sometimes, there’ll be a lingering, dangling actor — or somebody will drop out during production occasionally and you have to recast something. I don’t think it was arduous ... I don’t think we had to do any additional casting or recasting or anything during production. It was pretty set.
Steven began filming Schindler's List as soon as principal photography had wrapped on Jurassic Park. Was there any casting overlap between the two movies?
I had brought in Embeth Davidtz [who ended up playing Helen Hirsch in Schindler's List] for Ellie’s part ... I didn’t [cast] Schindler’s List, but there was an overlap, so we probably talked about it a little bit.
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Did you get to visit the set at all?
I did visit the set a couple times when they were shooting, because who wouldn’t want to visit that set?
Anything you can remember from those visits?
I got to meet one of the dinosaurs. It was half a dinosaur. I think it was like maybe the dinosaur head or something.
At what point did you know the movie was going to be huge?
I think it was a hit right away ... The dinosaurs were good [and it had a] bunch of good actors.
What did you learn about Steven as a storyteller?
That he was very straightforward, very clear. He loved what he did. He was very easy and nice to work with. He was kind to people. His Amblin complex at Universal was so much fun to go to. They had their own chef there, a little courtyard. When we would [audition] kids, there was a big arcade room and there were all kinds of cool video games for kids to play with. It was always fun.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity*