Watching Tom Cruise slide across the floor in his tightie whities lip synching “Old Time Rock & Roll” in Risky Business will be forever etched in our collective celluloid memories. Now imagine Kevin Bacon—well, maybe he’s not too much of a stretch—Sean Penn or Tom Hanks—all actors who auditioned for the role of Joel Goodsen, performing that scene. It was a moment among many that some say was Cruise’s breakout role in the 1983 “teen sex comedy,” celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The woman who might be responsible for giving Cruise that next shot at stardom is casting director Nancy Klopper.
Revisiting the plot of Risky Business, written and directed by Paul Brickman, making his directorial debut, we find Joel, a promising candidate for Princeton University, egged on (pun intended) by his buddies to have the “time of his life” while his parents are on vacation. It was released on August 5, 1983, and 40 years later, the quick-witted one-liners and palpable chemistry between Cruise and Rebecca De Morney as call girl Lana, who becomes his girlfriend for a couple of days, “no charge,” have stood the test of time.
Rounding out the cast were the ensemble players: Curtis Armstrong as said buddy Miles Dalby, Bronson Pinchot as brainiac Barry, and Joe Pantoliano, aka Joey Pants, as Guido, Lana’s industrious pimp. With a line-up of talent such as this, Klopper had her work cut out for her.
Nancy Klopper was born in Ohio and set her sights on Los Angeles right out of high school to get into the entertainment business. She began her career with the famed casting director Lynn Stalmaster as his receptionist—a job she got from a temp agency—and learned the ropes for the next six years. Venturing out on her own under the banner of Nancy Klopper Casting, she got the opportunity to cast The Onion Field, Eddie & The Cruisers, Office Space, Ray, and The Devil’s Advocate, to name a few of her credits from the 70s through the aughts. But it was back in the early 80s, with Mommie Dearest, An Officer and a Gentleman, and Risky Business, that her career really catapulted.
Below the Line spoke with Nancy via Zoom video, where she regaled stories of casting Cruise and De Morney in their career-making roles, a shocking turndown by a famous actress for the role of Lana, and other actors who auditioned but didn’t make the cut. Klopper also recalled other casting moments from classic films she worked on throughout her illustrious career.
Below The Line: Nancy, let’s go back 40 years, shall we? Where were you in your career when Risky Business came to you?
Nancy Klopper: That is so funny. That’s exactly where we should begin because I’ve been thinking about this in preparation for our talk, but also by coincidence, I had lunch with a friend the other day, and she said, “You know, I grew up with (producers) Jon (Avnet) and Steve (Tisch) in Great Neck (New York).” She had known them since they were kids. Now, I came here from Ohio immediately out of high school, and I didn’t go to college. I just thought it would be really fun to do something in entertainment.
So I went to an employment agency that no longer exists. It was called Good People, and they called me and said, “Do you want to go on a one-day temp job answering phones for (casting director) Lynn Stalmaster?” I had just seen this television movie called Hustling that Jill Clayburgh starred in, and I remember she and the film were fantastic. I had a TV in my room that was this big (gestured a small box), and I remember watching the credit casting by Lynn Stalmaster, and I thought, “Wow, I’d love to meet her. She would be a fun person to work for.” And so, when I got this call for a one-day temp answering phones, I was like, I am there!
BTL: What do you remember most about working there?
Klopper: The offices were dumpy and had awful shag carpeting with a lot of dust [laughs]. I started at the front desk and tried typing the contracts. In those days, you had an electric typewriter, and there were like five pages of the contract, and all I did was make mistakes. I spent my whole day doing white-outs, and they moved me away from there and in the back, and that was where I learned everything!
Toni Howard was my boss. She’s now an agent at CAA. Funny, I didn’t know that Lynn was a man and that he worked a lot from home. So, people would call and ask, “Is Lynn there?” and I would say, “No, she isn’t. Can I take a message?” And it was so embarrassing. But finally, he came in one day, and I met him, and he was the nicest man. He was a real gentleman, but he was also a real artist. He had great artistry, and he was one of the great eyes of our business.
BTL: What do you feel that you learned there that you have taken with you throughout your career?
Klopper: You learned by observation. You learned by osmosis; you learned by absorption. I was very, very lucky because I found something that really clicked for me. It was something I felt instinctively: this is for me; I could be good at this. I think that was a lucky moment in my life.
BTL: You set your sights for entertainment and there you are. What was the first big thing that you cast for them?
Klopper: It was a one-day thing, and it turned into six years! Oh goodness. I worked on The Rose. I worked on The Onion Field, and that was a thrill for me. I loved that Joseph Wambaugh book about a murder that took place in the onion fields. I love murder stories, and those were probably my two favorites. I was probably 20 at the time, and then I worked on An Officer And A Gentleman.
Working for Lynn, it was a really, really busy office, so it was phenomenal training. We would be working on half a dozen movies where we’re going through all different phases of production or casting, or we might have two or three TV series that are regulars. We might have movies-of-the-week. I’m telling you, there could have been 15 things going on at once, and so it was almost like speed work and also constantly meeting actors.
BTL: By the way, I’ve always had a soft spot for Richard Gere. How was your experience casting him?
Klopper: He’s a lovely, lovely man. I remember flying to New York, and he was on my flight, and it was the days of 747s where they had a staircase that went up to another floor of the plane. I remember sitting up there with him for the whole flight and talking, and he was just a nice man. We originally offered it to John Travolta, who turned it down. He was very interested in flying at the time, and I think he was in flight school. We flew Eric Roberts out to L.A., and he came with his manager, and we put them up at a hotel, and they came in, and we met with them, and (director) Taylor (Hackford) said to them, “Tomorrow you come back and let’s read some scenes together.” They went to their hotel, checked out, and flew home! I have no idea why, but that happened. It was a big search, and then Richard was already on the ascent in his career. They flew him to L.A., and they wined and dined him. I remember they took him to Ma Maison for dinner, and they wooed him, and he said yes.
BTL: I could talk to you forever about that film. We might have to do a part two but we’re here for Risky Business. How did you get the job to cast it?
Klopper: If I could backtrack for one second, when I worked for Lynn, Steve Tisch and I knew someone in common, and she said, “You know, you should call Nancy Klopper to cast one of your shows.” And they did, and it was a movie-of-the-week, and we connected and clicked very much. When I decided I was ready to leave Lynn and go on my own, I told Taylor Hackford, and he said, “Well, you can have my next movie,” so that gave me a sense of security. Then Steve Tish introduced me to his friend, Marty Davidson, who was a director and a friend of Steve and Jon (Avnet), and he was making a movie called Eddie and The Cruisers. It was all in New York, and so that was my first job on my own.
I cast Eddie and The Cruisers with Michael Pare, and I had a ball. Living in New York was so much fun. One day I had maybe a month left, and I got a call from Jon saying, “We have a movie, but you have to meet the director, and he’s in LA.” I took the red eye, and I met (writer/director) Paul Brickman. I got that job. I went back to New York. I was finishing up on Eddie and the Cruisers, and then we started Risky Business in New York because I was already there. So, we started casting, and I immediately found the supporting cast.
BTL: Who did you cast from New York?
Klopper: You know, they were so interesting. Curtis Armstrong (Miles) was there, and Bronson Pinchot (Barry) I saw in a play called The Yale Woof and Poofs, with him and Kevin Bacon. We were finding these fabulous New York actors, character people, that were in the theater. I don’t think any of them had any movie credits. I met many, many, many people for the lead role.
BTL: Speaking of Kevin Bacon, he went out for the role along with Sean Penn and John Cusack. Is that true?
Klopper: He came in for it. Sean Penn came in, that’s true. John Cusack came in, too. They were all great. We brought people from New York, we had people from L.A., and we even brought an actor from Chicago, Kevin Anderson, a really wonderful actor. We did these screen tests at the end of the day, and we looked at each other and said, “We don’t have him.” Kevin, Sean, or John—they were fabulous actors—but we didn’t end up testing them because, if I had to give you an example of what we were looking for, it was Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. When I read the script, I thought that’s what we needed. I remember saying that to Paul, so it was a combination of a very good-looking and sexy, really cute leading man who was young but who also had a great sense of humor. It was a very painful four or five months into it. I was maybe 24 years old, and I felt enormous pressure.
BTL: What did Tom have that won him the role? Did he have you at “hello” with that smile?!
Klopper: [laughs] I would say Tom had done some things, but he wasn’t on the ascent the way that we described these other people. I think Richard had Looking for Mr. Goodbar under his belt, so much more than on the ascent. Tom had played a very small role in Endless Love. He was doing The Outsiders when we met him, and that was a big ensemble piece. So he came in; he had a gold tooth because the character in Outsiders had a gold tooth, and the hair was kind of greased back. And so, even though that look was not what we needed, when he walked into the room, he had major charisma.
He had real star quality. He auditioned with the opening monologue that you hear in the movie. “The dream is always the same.” That’s how it begins. He was great at it, and we looked at each other, and we sort of knew; it was like an enormous sense of relief. He then had to fly right back to his location; I think they were in New Mexico, and we were continuing our search for the female lead.
BTL: What was the process in casting the call girl Lana?
Klopper: That was also tough, even though there were good people. She had to be young; she had to be 20, but she had to really have the sensuality and sexuality of a woman.
BTL: Is it true that Michelle Pfeiffer turned down the role?
Klopper: She did. Boy, you’ve really done your homework. You know, when someone turns down a role and I know them, I will call them to find out why and to see if I can change their mind. So I did call her, and I said, “This script was phenomenal. What don’t you like?” And she said, “I don’t like that it glamorizes prostitution.” I didn’t really know quite how to argue with that. Obviously, I didn’t really agree, but you have to respect their opinion.
BTL: Obviously, Rebecca de Mornay had no problems playing a call girl.
Klopper: Not at all. But the story of how she came to be in it is pretty interesting. I called Harry Dean Stanton. He was a phenomenal actor, besides the fact that he was the kindest and most gentle human being. I said, You’re always with these beautiful girls, Harry, whenever I see you. Do you know anyone who’s right for this?” And they were together at the time. They had met on One from the Heart. She was an extra in it. So she was very much an unknown.
Rebecca came in, and I worked with her for a long time to prepare her for her audition. She was very, very raw, and then she came into the audition, and everybody thought, “Well, she’s a real possibility.” So that weekend we flew Tom in again from New Mexico, and he arrived at 5:30 in the morning and went to Steve Tisch’s house in the Hollywood Hills. Rebecca came, and the screen test was a little handheld Sony cam.
They read a few scenes together, and we knew we had it, but it had to go to David Geffen. He was the executive producer of it at Warner Brothers, and he said to us when we began, “You don’t have a green light until you have two stars.” He looked at Tom and Rebecca and immediately said, “Go make your movie. You have it.”
BTL: Do you often work with actors to prepare them for their audition?
Klopper: I did it when it was necessary to do so. Sometimes I knew ahead of time what the director was looking for, and so I would guide them, just give them tips if the director saw it like this, and that was very helpful to them when they came in to read for the director. Some casting directors work with actors a lot, coaching them. I was not that person. I could give them tips here and there, saying, “This is how he sees it or whatever,” but I wasn’t a coach like many are now.
BTL: When I watched it again recently I couldn’t help but notice the chemistry between Tom and Rebecca was so palpable.
Klopper: Actually, it didn’t happen in the beginning. Jon Avnet got a hold of Tom and said, “You know what? You have to really make her feel desired.” And he did, and she did, and they became a couple. They were very much together for quite a while after.
BTL: One surprise casting in the film is Megan Mullally.
Klopper: Yes. Oh, my gosh, Megan Mullally. In fact, she played a tiny role in the movie. She played a call girl. We tested her because she was so good with comedy timing. She was gifted. She was living in Chicago, and we brought her to L.A. and tested her, and we loved her. So we cast her in a small role. I would imagine she got her SAG card.
Not long after that, a friend of mine was Ellen Burstyn’s agent, and Ellen was doing a comedy series (The Ellen Burstyn Show), and they couldn’t find their lead girl, whether it was her daughter or what, but they were looking for a young girl for the lead. I got on the phone with Ellen and said, “Megan Mullally, go lock her up.” And she did. So we have a great bond to this day. We both have the smallest hands on earth, so whenever we see each other, we touch hands.
BTL: So now what are you doing these days? How’s life?
Klopper: I retired from casting, which I’m very happy about. It just wasn’t fun anymore for me. If something’s not fun, you have to do something that fills your soul. So not to say if something unbelievable came my way and knocked me off my feet, maybe I would consider it, but I am enjoying what I’m doing. We formed a homeless task force in my neighborhood in Pacific Palisades, and I’ve been on it since 2014. I literally go out and engage the homeless seven days a week, and I love them. I could fill up another interview with that! It’s frustrating and painful, but really rewarding.
The other thing is that I’m on the board of The Friends of the Semel Institute at UCLA, which is all mental health-based. I’ve only been on that for a couple of years, but I am loving it. Every year, The Friends of the Semel, along with the board of the Resnick Hospital at UCLA, which is a mental health hospital, get together and have an event called WOW, Wisdom of Wellness. This past year, Oprah Winfrey moderated it for us, John Batiste performed, and the Surgeon General spoke. I was lucky enough to get Selena Gomez to give us a grant, which was very generous and specifically to be used for young people. And so we formed a Gen Z group that now wants to have its own event. So I’m working on their event.
BTL: You’re keeping busy, but do you miss casting?
Klopper: I love the creative process. Over time, that creative freedom went away, and the studios took over a lot and said, “This is who we were going to cast.” It was so much fun to have someone come in and give a great reading, and the director looks at you and says, “You did it.” That creative process is the only thing that I miss, but I was lucky enough to be in it when it was really fun, when there was a lot of creative freedom.