During last year's national RWA convention, I had the chance to meet Alexis Harrington during the book signing event. We talked while she signed books for readers about her penchant for creating characters in the image of movie actors.
Recently I asked her elaborate. Here is what she had to say:
On July 17, I took time away from a project that I really couldn't afford to interrupt, and made a wild dash out Highway 224 along the Clackamas River here in northwestern Oregon. I drove for about thirty miles, following a beautiful stretch of highway through the Mount Hood National Forest, following obscure road markers that meant something only to the informed, and I was one of those informed. I saw a couple of signs that said TIG and another couple that said only "P." It was like going on a treasure hunt or a road rally.
So, what prize waited at the end of this quest? Three of my fictional heroes: Jake Chastaine, Tyler Hollins, and the one I put on pause to take this trip, Jefferson Hicks.
Okay, obviously I wasn't going to find these guys. But I was looking for the man who'd inspired them and served as their model, Kevin Costner. He and his production company, Tig Productions, have been in the Pacific Northwest filming The Postman since March.
Just about every writer I know envisions some real person as the models for her heroes and heroines. Some writers imagine acquaintances, or amalgamations of different people, or real friends.
I've done this too, for secondary characters. For example, a weaselly delivery driver who came to an office I once worked in was "cast" in the role of Evan Peterson in Homeward Hearts. A fellow RWA chapter member served as the delicate and dotty Susan Price in A Light for my Love (no, the chapter member doesn't know).
However, to cast my primary characters, I use actors and actresses, and I admit I have my favorites. What's the advantage? I want my readers to form their own mental images of my characters, so I can't very well tell them who is starring in these roles, although the actors' initials usually appear in my dedications. But I can watch Kevin Costner, or Brad Pitt, or Joe Lando on video and take note of the sound of the man's voice, the way he walks, what his hands look like, even the way his beard grows. And since these guys are oh- so-easy to look at as well, it doesn't take much effort to picture them in a love scene with my heroine.
Once in a while, I learn through fan mail that my descriptions of these men are exact enough to tip off an especially savvy reader. And back in 1983, when I read LaVyrle Spencer's Hummingbird, the book that inspired me to start my own novel, I saw Tom Selleck in Jesse DuFrayne. I later learned that Tom Selleck was indeed Jesse's model.
Occasionally the actor literally demands that I create a role for him. That was the case with giving Kevin the role of Jake Chastaine. When I saw Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall, I knew I had to write a story for him, so I invented Dylan Harper and gave him Harper's Bride, my October ‘97 release. Other times I hold auditions, so to speak, trying out different actors for a part. Not surprisingly, this is the way the movie business often works too.
Some scripts are written with a specific actor in mind, or a director or producer might look at dozens or even scores of people before settling on the right one. Gone With the Wind is a good example of that. Filming had already begun before David O. Selznick found Vivien Leigh to play Scarlett.
When I go to the movies or rent a video, I keep my eyes open for possible talent. Sam Elliott always makes a great cowboy because he lives the western life every day, and as he once said in an interview, he's the only actor around who can grow a genuine cowboy mustache. I saw a tiny gem of a movie, The Ballad of Little Jo, and discovered Suzy Amis in a great role of a woman who masqueraded as a man for years. She won the part of Kyla Springer in Desperate Hearts.
Of all my books to date, though, I think that A Light for my Love had the largest Hollywood cast. Besides Kevin Costner, it starred Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Burgess Meredith, Jessica Tandy, Gary Oldman, Anthony Hopkins, Danny DeVito and Daniel Day-Lewis. What a line-up of major stars. And I didn't have to pay them a dime. In the most unlikely pairing, I gave the role of Travis McGuire to Rick Springfield, and Chloe Maitland was Meryl Streep. Well, it was easy for me to picture them together, and that's what is most important because then I can write convincingly for my readers.
What about that trip to the Mount Hood National Forest? Just yesterday I got back the photos I took of the Clackamas County sheriff's deputy whose job it was to keep people like me out of the movie set. I also got a picture of the movie crew's parking lot, and one of a portable toilet.
As for Kevin, he still works for me, but I've never met him.
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