by Lisa Boghosian Papas
When America’s premier filmmaker Woody Allen set out to cast starring roles for his 1996 film Everyone Says I Love You, talent agent Aleen Keshishian helped put actors Natalie Portman and Edward Norton on the big screen.
After seeing an audition of Norton for his Oscar-nominated role in Primal Fear, and having represented Portman as one of her first clients at International Creative Management (ICM), Keshishian called her former employer Juliet Taylor-the top casting director in the country with whom Allen has worked with for 25 years-and told her that she had some unbelievable talent for his picture. Keshishian sent tapes of their work to Taylor who passed them to Allen. An audition was all it took for the two to make the cut.
“It’s all about relationships in this business,” says Keshishian, who started at ICM at the age of twenty-five. “Because of my relationship with Juliet, I knew the kind of roles Woody Allen was looking for and was able to help find the right talent for the parts. Agents’ contacts with studios, directors, and casting directors really can help actors get roles.”
In an industry where getting work is forged by “relationships,” Keshishian admits that who she knows has played a key role in her own career. After graduating Magna Cum Laude from Harvard University, majoring in art history, Keshishian moved to New York to get a job in the entertainment industry. Having been involved in arts throughout her life, performing professionally as a youth at Lincoln Center and Children’s Theaters around America, as well as interning prior to graduation for casting director Paula Herold, through the AGBU Summer Internship Program, Keshishian set out to do the near impossible: to work with Taylor, famed for her role in casting talent for directors such as Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg.
With thousands of qualified résumés piled high upon Taylor’s desk, it was through a “connection” that Keshishian’s bio managed to float its way to the surface. “I was lucky,” says Keshishian, “in that a classmate of mine from Harvard was working in the production office for Woody Allen and overheard someone say that Juliet was looking for an intern. He suggested me, they pulled my resume to the top, gave me a call and a meeting, and then offered me the job.”
As an assistant to Taylor, Keshishian learned the skill of weeding through thousands of pictures and résumés, and narrowing down the selection to two or three choices. She also gained experience in the theater by working with the director and stage manager of the Broadway production, A Street Car Named Desire, which starred Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin.
“Basically,” says Keshishian, “when you are a casting director you are a buyer. A lot of people tell you that you have to audition their clients because they are brilliant and are perfect for your part. The casting director is responsible for filtering that list down and then helping the director find the actor with the right look and feel for the role.”
After a few valuable years in the business, Keshishian began to question whether she wanted to be in casting for the rest of her life. Seeking guidance from her brother, film director, Alek Keshishian, who by that time had already made Truth or Dare and With Honors, Keshishian was advised to check out a career as a talent agent. Simultaneously, she received a phone call from ICM asking her if she had ever considered becoming an agent and if she would be willing to come and talk with the Chief Executive Officer of the company. After a three-hour interview, quizzed by top New York talent agent, Sam Cohn, about actors, plays, and movies, Keshishian was offered the job as an agent and was told she could represent whomever she wanted-actors, directors, or writers.
“I came into the interview not really knowing what I was interviewing for,” says Keshishian. “As it turned out, because of my experience with Juliet, I was able to skip the entire training program that most people need to complete before becoming a junior agent, and began as an agent right away.”
In the highly competitive playing field of agents, Keshishian learned quickly to swim with the sharks. Though in the first week of work Keshishian could hardly find the bathroom at ICM let alone give advice to actors who had been in their careers longer than she had been alive, she emerged, after six months of sleepless nights, confident in her knowledge of the business. Armed with a prudent work ethic grounded from her experience with Taylor, Keshishian has set her own stage now and has earned an impressive list of clients ever since.
Today, among the actors she represents is Natalie Portman, the young star playing Queen Amidala in Star Wars. “I started working with Portman when she was a 12-year-old unknown and now she’s an 18-year-old star,” says Keshishian. “My job is to guide her career. That means reading dozens of scripts in order to find roles that would be good for her, and essentially doing anything it takes to get her a meeting with the director. Once a role has been offered to her, her lawyer and I negotiate her deal.”
As part of that deal, Keshishian lobbies for where Natalie’s name will appear on the poster and on the screen, how big her name will be, whether her picture will be on the poster, and whether she will get to approve her picture if she doesn’t like the way it looks.
In addition, Keshishian’s job includes protecting her clients from roles that might potentially damage their future. In the case of Portman, Keshishian relates how she was offered to do the movie Lolita as well as Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer. Both films were turned down-Lolita for its sexual content and The Horse Whisperer because the schedule was going to mean that she wouldn’t be available to star in The Diary of Anne Frank on Broadway which she had wanted to do since she was a young girl.
“In order to steer my clients down the right path, I have to read every script I can,” says Keshishian. “My colleagues and I talk to the studios, producers, and casting directors to find out what films will be made in the upcoming year and which roles are available.
Her rapport with film directors is another way that Keshishian is able to score parts for her clients. One of the directors she works closely with is Spike Lee. Whenever he casts a movie, like his last, The Summer of Sam, Keshishian helps him with his casting-not just from her own list of clients, but from her entire agency’s roster. “The lead of Spike Lee’s last movie, Adrien Brody, happens to be a client of mine,” says Keshishian. “Brody got the part when Leonardo DiCaprio turned it down. Spike watched Brody’s tape, flew him in for an audition, and gave him the role despite the fact that no other actor even had a chance to meet on the project.”
In the same way that her colleagues give her information that helps her find jobs for her clients, Keshishian transmits information to the ICM staff regarding films at Miramax. Her responsibility is to call executives at Miramax and find out what movies they are going to make and to try to get ICM’s clients jobs in those films. That means she has to read all of their scripts and work with her colleagues and Miramax to put together the actors’ deals.
At just 31, this Armenian talent agent says she owes much of her success to her parents who taught her that if you want something, you have to believe in yourself and work hard to achieve your dream. Now working 10-14 hour workdays and traveling on occasion, Keshishian loves to spend any spare time she has with her fiancé, Kit Troyer, a classmate of hers from Harvard, and their friends in New York City.
As for highlights of her career, Keshishian says the biggest one yet was having her assistant promoted to agent. She was thrilled when her client Skeet Ulrich from the movie Scream got an extra bonus after the movie grossed 100 million dollars in the States, and when television’s E.R. star Julianna Margulies publicly thanked her for her work at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. “When a client appreciates you, it reminds you how great your job really is,” she says.