Career Lessons From Casting Agent Ros Hubbard

As a HOLLYWOOD STAR SPOTTER, casting agent ROS HUBBARD’s career has spanned more than three decades. And, at 72, she’s still a regular at the piano at The Groucho Club, CATHERINE ANN HEANEY discovers

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The first thing that strikes you about Ros Hubbard’s central London flat is the high-gloss cerise pink front door – a brash, joyous colour that gives visitors their first clue as to the woman who lives behind it. The Dublin-born casting director has lived in London for more than 40 years and, with her husband and business partner John, has blazed a trail in the film world, casting movies such as The Commitments, Evita and The Mummy, and discovering actors like Kate Winslet, Orlando Bloom, Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan. Spend even ten minutes in her company and you begin to understand why, in a notoriously fickle industry, she is still going strong after more than three decades in the business – a combination of charisma, sharp intelligence and an irresistible sense of humour. She works full-time, travels widely and is a veteran party-goer. “I’ve lived a very wild, happy, mad life,” she says. “I’m 72 years of age, but I think what keeps me going is that I work with young people. You have to be on the ball around young people!” My own guess is that her young colleagues have their work cut out for them keeping up with her.

Born Rosalin Cox, in Dunville Avenue, Ranelagh, she was the youngest of four children. Her father was an electrical engineer for the ESB, who died when she was eleven, and although her mother had trained as a nurse, she went on to be a businesswoman. “She had a great way about her, although I think she never got over her very sad childhood. We were all told that we were different and great and marvellous and I think it was needed in those hard times in Ireland. It gave us incentive and drive.”

After school at Roslyn Park in Sandymount, the young Hubbard wanted to go on to university. “My mother was not having that. She decided I was already over-educated, so out I went and I worked in California for two years. But I still think it was a third level education, going to America, because I learned how to handle myself in strange situations. But I missed Dublin dreadfully.” In the end, the lure proved too strong, and she returned in 1963. “Best city ever,” is how she describes the Dublin she came home to, vividly evoking a happy-go-lucky scene of friends and parties and beaus, and “hops” at Bective and Wanderers. “It was so sociable. Everybody knew everybody, which of course was a bit small-towny, but it’s a very comfortable atmosphere to live in. You were very safe. There was lots of silly small-mindedness too, of course, but you could have a very nice life.”

My mother was not having that. She decided I was already over-educated, so out I went and I worked in California for two years. But I still think it was a third level education, going to America, because I learned how to handle myself in strange situations. But I missed Dublin dreadfully.

Hubbard got a job at the Betty Whelan modelling agency and found in the older woman an early mentor  – “she was terrific and the first really glamorous woman I ever knew. She taught me a lot”. It didn’t take long, though, for the signs of that nascent drive to come to the fore: at the age of 21, along with two friends and a handful of models, Hubbard set up her own agency and ran it for several years. “We made no money, we went broke, we had a great time,” she says of those days. “Our offices were in Fitzwilliam Place – right beside Peter Owens’ advertising agency. So we were right in the thick of it, and that’s how I met John.”

The two first encountered each other during the Cork Film Festival – John, who was “English and reticent” worked in a Dublin advertising agency and a friend introduced them. It was a slow burn. “He proceeded to ring me for weeks on end – but he never asked me out.” Taking things into her own hands with characteristic chutzpah, Ros invited him to the Ireland-America ball, of which she was a committee member (“I was beginning to be a bit of a mover and shaker by then”). “So he came along,” she remembers. “He said, ‘What are you doing tomorrow night?’ I had two dates, but I said ‘Nothing’ – because I knew that it would be the end of this fella if I said I wasn’t available. Haven’t been able to get rid of him since.” They married in 1968. To this day, she cites her husband as her mainstay and the person who unlocked her potential. “John is the one who, I think, made me more ambitious. He encouraged me to get in touch with the fact that I could do anything. I think I just lived on sheer blarney up to then.”

It was at this point, shortly after their marriage, that  he moved back to London, with Hubbard following a couple of months later. He found work at the ad agency FCB, going on to become a creative director, while she went back into fashion, as PR for the British Menswear Guild. Around this time they also started trying for a family. “I had several miscarriages,” she says. “It wasn’t easy for me. And then I had Amy, and that was a brilliant, fantastic thing. And I gave up working, of course.” They moved to Mill Hill, a suburb of North London. “We decided it was a good place to bring up children because it was so suburban – it reminded me of Dublin a bit – fresh air, plenty of schools.” Three years later, their son Dan was born and six months after his birth, Hubbard found herself unexpectedly thrust back into work. Making a commercial for Woman’s Own the week before Christmas, John ended up without a model. The casting director refused to find another so close to the holidays, so Hubbard was drafted in and, naturally, came up trumps. Next thing she knew, she was getting steady work – “I travelled and travelled and travelled and became, I’d say, the queen of the commercials”. It was the beginning of the path that would eventually lead her to becoming one of the biggest names in the business.

I was belting into meetings and then belting back out to collect the kids from school. I did everything I could but I was still a rotten mother. I felt very guilty.

All of this professional success, though, demanded sacrifices of her family. It was a balancing act that took its toll and, she says now that if she had one piece of advice for young people, it would be to “keep a slice out of work”. “I was belting into meetings and then belting back out to collect the kids from school. I did everything I could but I was still a rotten mother. I felt very guilty.” Again, it was her relationship that sustained her. “Because John and I are so ridiculously close, I think that that helped a lot to leave some heart in me.”

Whatever ambivalence she may have in hindsight, at the time she threw herself into the business, casting commercials and revelling in the quick wit and big personalities of the people she met in the advertising world. John was still working full-time, but after taking some time off to recuperate from a knee injury, he decided he didn’t want to return to his job and that maybe he and Ros should try setting up on their own. “All I could think of was the two cars outside the door and the roof of the house which was being extended and oh mother of Jesus … But anyway, I said, ‘Great! It would be marvellous if we worked together!’ and it just started like that.”

It was the 1980s, a heady time in advertising, and the fresh vision that the Hubbards brought with them couldn’t have come at a better moment. They were responsible for casting the iconic Levi’s 501s commercials (remember Nick Kamen stripping down to his smalls in the launderette?) and their first break in television was the ground-breaking Max Headroom Show. With its computer-generated host, it was revolutionary, but appealed to their idiosyncratic sensibility. “There are a few jobs we’ve done where you think, well only we could have done it, because we’re mad. You know, we kind of understood that a computer could be a person.”

Just being in the room with an actor, you realise how privileged you are. You do know. There’s a star quality in people, definitely. And the audience knows it as well, but they don’t talk it, they just feel it.

And then came the really big break. After a memorable meeting in Soho’s Groucho Club, Alan Parker gave the Hubbards the job of finding a cast of unknowns for his 1991 adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments. Hubbard remembers this as an exciting time of great camaraderie, with the production office set up in their house in Lansdowne Road (they had sold Mill Hill by this stage, and bought in Dublin). Then there was the thrill of doing open castings in local pubs, listening to bands, finding and nurturing young Irish talent. It was, in short, “an absolutely mega casting experience”. It set the Hubbards on their way, and they went on to cast major blockbusters, such as The Mummy, The Bourne Ultimatum and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, as well as a host of Irish films (Angela’s Ashes, Ordinary Decent Criminal) and cult television shows like Father Ted.

After more than 30 years of dealing with directors’ whims and actors’ egos, does she still enjoy the work of casting? “Just being in the room with an actor, you realise how privileged you are,” she confirms. As for discovering talent, she says she knows very quickly when she has found someone special. “You do know. There’s a star quality in people, definitely. And the audience knows it as well, but they don’t talk it, they just feel it.” However she regrets the way that, in these box office-driven times, the fate of so many films rests on the involvement of stars. “I wish we weren’t governed so much by big names. Particularly on the smaller independent movies we cast, there’s a real pressure to cast big, big names. The risk is not being run any more like it was in the good old days. There are more Harvard businessmen running the business these days, rather than moguls who used to go out there with a nose and an eye, and say ‘I know this is a winner, let’s do it’.”

Hubbard doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon – she’s working on a new film set in Prague, and another project is in the offing with her friend Idris Elba (of The Wire and Luther fame). “I like being in the office,” she says. “Otherwise I’d be in front of the box watching Homes Under the Hammer every day. I know I’d be a complete disaster if I retired.” But in recent years, she has also started to enjoy the benefits of slowing down – if only for a week at a time. “My sister said years ago, ‘you work hard, you play hard’. But the play-hard has been cut down a bit now, and we’ve taken to going to spa retreats and doing yoga and generally looking after ourselves. I no longer have to stand at the piano in the Groucho Club till three o’clock in the morning, singing and clapping. Well, I do it once in a while,” she says with a wry laugh. “I wouldn’t mind dropping dead that way. If I die with a glass in my hand, singing a song, I’ll be happy. I don’t want to die with my boots on – I want to die with my high heels on!”

Take your time, find your own magnificence and, you know, realise that it’s going to be okay. If you don’t do it today, you’ll definitely do it tomorrow. Things will come to you.

Her daughter Amy and son Dan have both gone into the business, both successful casting directors in their own right, and Hubbard clearly takes enormous pride in their achievements (she admits, “we’re workaholics, all of us”). And then there are her grandchildren, who she says have shown her a new way of life. “You are suddenly aware of the speed of life and how things pass so quickly. When you’re the mother, you don’t get that because you’re nearly dead for a start – you’re trying to get them to go to sleep, you’re washing clothes in the middle of the night. Then, you get grandchildren and you realise, ‘You know what? They’re great just as they are’.” She feels that more than ever, there is pressure on young people do everything early – and her advice to her beloved granddaughters would be to just wait: “Take your time, find your own magnificence and, you know, realise that it’s going to be okay. If you don’t do it today, you’ll definitely do it tomorrow. Things will come to you.”

The family maintains close ties to Ireland, a beautiful second home in Dingle, where they spend as much time as they can. Would she ever move there? “I’m still a Dubliner. To John, Dingle is completely home and for me, if he’s happy, then it’s my home too. But I do love the buzz of London.” She has made the city her own in the 40-odd years she has lived there. When she first moved and was still missing home desperately, a family friend gave her a good piece of advice. “He said to me, ‘You’re going to have to make London into Dublin. So my advice to you is go the same restaurants, don’t overdo it – don’t keep looking for new places’.” She took this to heart and, to this day, has a set number of places that she frequents – clubs like The Groucho, The Ivy and Soho House, and any of Richard Corrigan’s restaurants. “I like belonging to clubs here. And I like to be known when I walk in – I feel more comfortable. Because we’re spoiled from Dublin, I think – we have that familiarity.”

The whole time we have been talking, the photographer has been snapping away, capturing this animated woman in front of her “disco kitchen” with its neon lights that change colour. It’s a very Hubbard touch, a nod to a unique spirit who brightens up the room.

Catherine Ann Heaney

This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our June issue, out Thursday June 2.

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