It was in the fall of 1995 that Showgirls—about a wide-eyed young dancer trying to secure her big break, replace the aging star in a musical extravaganza—(think 42nd Street but set in Vegas and porny), the most reviled and revered film of the decade, premiered. Feelings about the work, even after 25 years, have yet to settle, remain as unresolved as ever: Masterpiece or piece of shit, or, in the words of critic Adam Nayman, “Masterpiece of Shit”? The answer is “all of the above,” is “none of the above,” because Showgirls is beyond good or bad, is beyond category altogether, and seems more miracle than movie, created by God or accident, not by man or by design.
Which is why it’s so difficult—almost impossible—to imagine Showgirls actually being written. Could a writer have sat down at a computer and typed out this line of dialogue: “Must be weird not having anybody come on you”? Yes, and that writer was Joe Eszterhas, off of Basic Instinct.
Or directed. Could a director have guided an actor, Robert Davi, to deliver that line, and deliver it tenderly, wistfully, practically with tears in his eyes, as a kind of paternal benediction to the stripper/lap-dancer leaving his club to turn topless chorine? (The sex-worker version of going respectable.) Yes again, and that director was Paul Verhoeven, also off of Basic Instinct.
Or, most especially, cast. Could a casting director have auditioned and selected Showgirls’ lead, Elizabeth Berkley, oozing sex so profusely she appears moist in every scene, even the ones in which she isn’t lubricating a metal pole with her saliva, or engaging in thrashing swimming-pool intercourse with Kyle MacLachlan (clinging to the side of that pool for dear life), and whose only previous role of note was playing the second banana on Saved by the Bell, a Saturday-morning situation comedy on NBC aimed at tweens? For a third time, yes, and that casting director was Johanna Ray.
The down and dirty on Johanna: she was born Johanna Bennett in England in 1939 and began her career as an actress. In 1960, she married American tough-guy actor Aldo Ray and stayed married to him until 1967. Her first job as a casting director came in 1981 with Hell Night, starring Linda Blair. Among her most recent credits is Twin Peaks: The Return, which aired on Showtime in 2017. She also cast the 1990 Twin Peaks pilot, and is the longtime collaborator of David Lynch.
This interview was conducted on the telephone because of corona, but I’ve been interviewing Johanna informally for years. By which I mean, talking to her over coffee (all my conversations are interviews—a professional hazard), usually at a sleepy café in West Hollywood where a former child star once eavesdropped on us. So I imagined our exchange happening there, at a corner table by the picture window looking out onto Doheny Drive.
You—or at least I—would expect a casting director to be flinty-eyed and hard-boiled. Johanna is neither. She has red hair and a calm, soft, shy manner and a sweet smile. Her gaze, though, is animal-bright and sharp, assessing smoothly and quickly. And it’s no trick to see how she’d put actors at ease while simultaneously gauging their talent and suitability.
LILI ANOLIK: O.K., Johanna, let’s start. How did you meet Aldo Ray?
JOHANNA RAY: I was a day player on a Jayne Mansfield movie being shot in London, Too Hot to Handle [released as Playgirl After Dark in America]. And Aldo was starring in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England with Peter O’Toole—Peter’s first movie, I think. [Johanna thinks wrong. It was actually Peter’s third movie.] My dressing room was next to Aldo’s. I was immediately attracted to him, and he was flirting pretty outrageously with me, but having been brought up the way I was, I wouldn’t speak to him, since we hadn’t been formally introduced. There was another actor in his movie that I was already friends with, and I asked him to introduce us. And that’s how we started up. My father had been a general in the army. His retirement job was as honorary physician to the Queen. So there were lots of newspaper headlines about the daughter of the general and the Hollywood actor and this forbidden romance. And it was forbidden, because once my parents found out Aldo had been not only married and divorced once but twice, they were horrified. They refused to let me go to America with him. I just moped and cried all day, every day, until my father said, “O.K., O.K., you can go.” Two weeks before my 21st birthday, I arrived in Aldo’s hometown of Crockett, California, where he’d been constable, and stayed at the house he’d bought his parents. He threw me a surprise party and invited the whole town. Then he told me he had to go back to L.A. to get a job. He asked his brother if we could stay with him. But his brother’s wife said not unless we were married. So Aldo came to me and said, “Well, we have to get married.” And that was that.
L.A.: Tell me about auditioning for Lolita.
J.R.: Aldo was only 13 years older than I was, but I looked young for my age, and everyone assumed that he was my father when we were together. In fact, someone once complimented him on how well behaved and polite his daughter was. And Aldo loved it! He loved that. He said, “You’d be the perfect Lolita.” And he arranged for—well, it wasn’t an audition with Stanley Kubrick, just a meeting. Kubrick didn’t seem very interested, to tell you the truth. And, anyway, Aldo really didn’t want me acting anymore. He told me if I wanted to marry him, I’d have to give up my career. And I was only too happy not to have to work.
L.A.: And yet, work you would. You became a casting director, and one of the best in the business. How did that happen?
J.R.: Aldo was an alcoholic. So, when our two sons were small, I spent a lot of time at home by myself, watching TV. In those days, TV Guide would list every actor that was in every single show, down to the small parts. I’d take note of an actor, then look him up. I realized that all the actors I liked ended up becoming stars. After Aldo and I split, I got a job as an assistant at a big agency. I met a casting director, and I called her and asked her how she did it, and she said, “You have to start at the very bottom, and the money’s terrible, and the hours are long.” So I knew immediately that, being a single mother, there was no way. I put the idea right out of my mind. But a few years passed, and by that time I’d worked in all aspects of the business—for a producer, in public relations, as a story editor. A friend of mine who was a casting director had been hired by a producer on one project, and was going to be hired by him on his next project, only the project kept getting delayed. Finally, she couldn’t wait any longer and took another job. And, of course, as soon as she did, the first job, a movie called Hell Night, a sort of Halloween knockoff, came through. She recommended me. The producer hired me, I think, because he was impressed that I’d been married to Aldo. And being married to Aldo did help. Because I’d read scripts for him and made excuses to his agent when he was too drunk to come to the phone, so I understood things from an actor’s point of view.
L.A.: You seem to specialize in Lynch villains. You cast Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet . And you cast Robert Blake as the Mystery Man in Lost Highway . As the Mystery Man, Blake scared me so much I was afraid to walk to my car once the movie was over. [Turns out I was right to be scared. A few years after the release of Lost Highway, which is about a man who kills his wife, Blake was tried for killing his wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley. It was the biggest murder trial in L.A. since O.J.’s. And, like O.J., he was acquitted but then, like O.J., was found liable in a wrongful-death civil trial.]
J.R.: Robert was someone I’d had a crush on after seeing him play a motorcycle cop in Electra Glide in Blue [1973, directed by James William Guercio]. We sat next to each other at a dinner party at David’s after Lost Highway was shot. By that time, my crush had somewhat dissipated, and most of our conversation was Robert bemoaning the fact that he’d had a face-lift. He also mentioned not understanding his role in the movie. He said, “What the fuck was that? I had no idea what to do or what I was doing.” Which was so funny. And did I ever tell you this? One of the actors who played a detective in that movie, John Solari, was a former hit man, or at least his agent told me he was. And I think it must have been true because he went on TV after the Robert Blake thing—and I don’t know how he got away with this—but he said, “I know Robert Blake didn’t kill his wife because I offered to do it for him, and Blake said, ‘No, thank you.’” In his mind, that proved Robert was innocent! You know, I think John had a little crush on me. He kept offering to cook me a spaghetti dinner.
L.A.: What did you say?
J.R.: I said, “No, thank you.”
L.A.: In 1990, you cast the pilot of Beverly Hills, 90210, and, I have to tell you, Johanna, that show loomed large in my middle schooler’s erotic imagination. I had a picture of Luke Perry taped inside my locker.
J.R.: Oh, I loved Luke. I brought him in for the pilot, but the director didn’t go for him. In fact, the director actually came into my office, where I had a pile of headshots on my desk. He picked up the top one, and it’s Luke, and he said, “This is exactly who I do not want.” And it’s only because he was away and couldn’t be in the casting session that Luke got cast at all. Aaron Spelling made all the decisions instead. Luke never even got a callback for the pilot. But he did get cast in the actual series, so that was good.
L.A.: That same year, 1990, you also cast another seminal TV show, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Your son Eric played the brooding Leo Johnson, the trucker–drug dealer who terrorizes his wife, Shelly, the prettiest waitress at the Double R Diner.
J.R.: Eric wasn’t my idea. He was David’s. Eric was working as my assistant on the show because he didn’t have a job at the time and I knew he had a good eye for actors. I thought I’d help him out. One day, David drew me aside and said, “I like Eric for Leo. He has that Dennis Hopper quality.” I said, “Really?,” because I didn’t see it. And actually it’s an alarming thing to be told—that your son is like Dennis. But I knew David meant it as a compliment. Then David said, “Do I have your permission to cast him?” And I said, “Of course.” Until that moment I’d wanted Brad Pitt. As it happened, Brad was unavailable because he got another pilot. But he came in and we met. I was very taken with him, though he had terrible skin. Terrible skin. It’s amazing how beautifully it cleared up.
L.A.: Pitt was later cast as one of the leads in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, another movie of yours. His character’s name is Lieutenant Aldo Raine, a tribute to your late ex-husband. Kismet, or just the way Hollywood works?
J.R.: Quentin’s always said that Aldo was one of his favorite actors. In fact, when I was casting Kill Bill Vol. 1 and I walked into Quentin’s house, the first thing I saw—right in the foyer—was an enormous poster of Four Desperate Men [1959; directed by Harry Watt; starring Ray]. Quentin actually wanted to cast Aldo in—what was the name of his first movie? Reservoir Dogs? But Aldo turned it down, didn’t even audition. Aldo never had the actor’s mentality, so he didn’t know who anyone was. I mean, he didn’t want to be an actor. He thought it was sissy. It made him embarrassed and ashamed. He’d always say, “I’ll never wear makeup in a movie. And I refuse to wear jewelry.” Too bad, though, that he wasn’t around to see Inglourious Basterds, the poor thing. He’d have rather liked it, I think.
L.A.: Who do you consider your biggest discovery?
J.R.: I don’t know. Julia Roberts, maybe?
L.A.: So you cast Mystic Pizza?
J.R.: No, but funny you should ask. I cast a film called Satisfaction [1988, Joan Freeman], about an all-girl rock ’n’ roll group, and Justine Bateman was the lead. I loved Julia immediately. Such a personality. She brightened up the room as soon as she walked in. What happened was, after Satisfaction, I worked on another film. The producer on that film was producing Mystic Pizza, and he told me that I was going to cast it. Then he said, “You have to do a courtesy meeting with the director.” I went in for the meeting, and I’d just picked up photos of Julia that I’d taken on location in South Carolina, and I’d blown them up to 8-by-10. I said, “She’s perfect.” Well, lo and behold, I didn’t get the job, and Julia ended up getting the role. And everyone thinks Mystic Pizza was her first role because no one saw Satisfaction. But, no, no, she got her start in Satisfaction.
L.A.: At last we arrive at Showgirls. Tell me how you became involved with the film.
J.R.: There already was a casting director for Showgirls, and she called me and said, “No way am I working on this misogynistic script.” She asked if I’d be interested in replacing her. And I said, “Absolutely.” You see, I was a fan of Paul Verhoeven’s. I loved his Dutch movies. His American ones as well—RoboCop and Basic Instinct.
L.A.: Did you see the script as misogynistic?
J.R.: I saw it as All Above Eve on the Vegas Strip. I don’t remember if I thought of the script as misogynistic. But I do remember I spent a lot of time with it because I was auditioning so many actors and actresses—casting went on for six months—and reading scenes with them, and all of that. And I started saying, “You’ve got great tits. I like nice tits.” I mean, that was just something I’d say around the office. For no reason. I couldn’t help myself.
L.A.: The script is highly quotable. I re-watched the movie twice before we spoke. And I find myself saying, “It doesn’t suck,” anytime anyone asks my opinion on anything.
J.R.: That’s what Nomi’s always saying!
L.A.: Yes, such a good line. So, O.K., the two big roles, Nomi Malone and Cristal Connors, were both played by then little-known actresses, Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon. Was that on purpose or out of necessity?
J.R.: There was so much nudity in the script, and nudity disqualifies a lot of people. I think we just knew that we had no choice but to go with an unknown because stars wouldn’t want to do it. But I prefer casting unknowns anyway. It’s much more fun—the thrill of starting someone’s career off. With Showgirls, I spent a lot of time in Vegas, a lot of time in strip clubs. Nomi could’ve been a stripper. In fact, I found a stripper who I thought was perfect. She was just so beautiful. She came to L.A. and she auditioned and Paul was interested in her, but then she didn’t do well in the callbacks because she wasn’t a trained actress and she got so horribly nervous. Really, though, Nomi could’ve been anyone. Paul was very open. But, of course, whoever played her had to be able to dance.
L.A.: I found a copy of Eszterhas’s script. He describes Nomi’s dance style thusly: “She is all explosive energy—it is very sexy and very fluid, but there is also a kind of vibrating jerkiness to it…. What she does is almost primal.” I’ve watched Elizabeth Berkley dance, and I wouldn’t have thought her movements were trappable in language. “Vibrating jerkiness,” though, about covers it.
J.R.: The impression I got from Paul was that the dancing was almost more important than the acting. And Elizabeth turned out to be a fabulous dancer. Here’s something I remember: she was living with her parents while she was auditioning. I think she was living with them even when she was filming. Here’s something else I remember: it was the dance audition, and the audition was over, and Paul was chatting with the choreographer, and Elizabeth was on the floor lying on her back, at his feet. It’s like she was dancing-lying-down type of thing, but very sexual, very sexual.
L.A.: Eszterhas, in his memoir Hollywood Animal, says this: “Paul was always a little vague when asked how he’d cast Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi Malone. He said he’d seen her in an ‘open audition’ and was immediately impressed. But I knew the real story from Charlie Evans [a producer on the movie]. Charlie had auditioned Elizabeth in his New York hotel room and had called Paul after the successful audition. Charlie recommended her enthusiastically.”
J.R.: I had heard that. If I remember correctly, Charlie wanted to be more involved with the casting. But I think his deal was that he’d be a producer in name only. He was the brother of Robert Evans [producer of Chinatown]. And then I heard that he’d met with Elizabeth, and I didn’t know what to think of that. Yeah, I would hate to think what could have gone on in that hotel room.
L.A.: And Joe Eszterhas, in his book on the Monica Lewinsky scandal, American Rhapsody, quotes Gina Gershon, who was bitching to him about working with Elizabeth: “I’m trying to help her get through a scene … and she’s telling me what she’s going to do to Paul’s [Verhoeven’s] dick that night.”
J.R.: I don’t know anything about what went on between Paul and Elizabeth. But Paul—well, Paul was a flirt.
L.A.: You do remember reading with Elizabeth, though, don’t you?
J.R.: Oh, definitely. And she was so good! To be honest, I don’t remember anyone other than her being a contender.
L.A.: Except for Charlize Theron, right?
J.R.: That’s right. Only Charlize went by the nickname Charlie then. What happened was, a friend of mine who was a manager, and he was an important manager, was standing in line behind her at the bank. He called me and said, “Johanna, you’ve got to meet this girl. She’s so beautiful. She’s a model, but she hasn’t done any acting.” And, literally, I was the first casting director she ever met, the first audition she ever went on, the first scene she ever read. And she was amazing. She got very close to Nomi. She fell out over the dancing. She was a dancer, but she’d injured her knees. So there were certain positions she just couldn’t do. It’s too bad, because had she been able to dance she might have ended up with the role.
L.A.: I’m sure Charlize would’ve been great. But Showgirls is inconceivable without Elizabeth Berkley. And just as inconceivable without Gina Gershon.
J.R.: Gina I knew as a theater actress. I’d seen her in several plays and was impressed, and hung out with her a little bit. She was never overly friendly, but then it was explained to me that she had bad eyesight and couldn’t see.
L.A.: Did Gina seem to have a different attitude towards the material than the other actors? I’ve read interviews with her, and she’s talked about figuring out after a few days of filming that the movie wasn’t going to be the hard-hitting, dead-serious drama she thought, so she adjusted her performance accordingly. She said to Jezebel, “I decided to make a character that the drag queens would want to perform … I started having fun with it. I thought it was the only way to get through it.”
J.R.: Gina said that? Oh, that’s great. It’s interesting to know that she caught on about it once they started shooting, and I wonder how early in the process did she catch on. Well, I wasn’t in on the joke. I didn’t find out that Showgirls was a different movie than the movie I’d cast until the premiere. I was shocked. I was horrified. I was dismayed. I mean, especially considering, you know, for six months I was reading those scenes over and over again with all the actors. I can still remember sitting in the theater and watching that scene at the very beginning, the one where Nomi gets picked up by the cute truck driver and she threatens him with a knife. Well, when we were auditioning, we kept the knife half hidden. It was very subtle, a thing she had with her just in case. So it was a complete surprise to me when she thrust the knife right under the guy’s nose.
L.A.: You had a bad reaction at the premiere, so I guess you weren’t surprised by the bad reaction of the critics. “Bashed in a way that is beyond imagination” is how Verhoeven described the reviews.
J.R.: Showgirls got such a bad rap from critics, from everybody, really. And what happened to Elizabeth was so awful. [After the film was released, Berkley was dropped by her agent, and pilloried by both the media and the public.] It was really unfair.
L.A.: It’s strange, because the movie is about the making of a star, and it seemed like that’s what was going to happen to Elizabeth with Showgirls. In a 1995 article for Premiere, she talks about shooting the scene in which Nomi auditions at the Stardust, and re-writing, in her head, the headline on the poster, changing it from “Cristal Connors Is a Goddess” to “Elizabeth Berkley Starring in Showgirls.” And then it turned out Showgirls unmade her.
J.R.: And she was so good.
L.A.: She’s getting her revenge, because the movie is now considered a classic, thanks in large part to her performance. When did you start to notice that the critical tide was turning?
J.R.: Right away, actually, because I had a friend and he loved Showgirls so much that he saw it 14 times within the first two or three weeks. He was a very smart guy—the editor of a movie magazine—and he could not get enough of it.
L.A.: Verhoeven is a bit of a rascal, so it’s hard to know if he’s serious or not, but in interviews he’s said that before Showgirls bombed he and Eszterhas were planning on making a sequel. Sort of a Nomi-does-the-movie-biz thing, and set, obviously, in Hollywood. He claimed the working title was Bimbos. If the financing ever comes through, would you be up for casting Bimbos?
J.R.: No, I’d probably turn that one down. Well … unless, of course, I read the script and thought, It doesn’t suck.
Lili Anolik is a Writer at Large for air mail and the author of Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A.