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The Outsiders' Rob Lowe Reveals Francis Coppola's Unusual Audition Process

It should come as no surprise that Francis Ford Coppola has an unusual auditioning process. His productions are the stuff of legend. The chaotic shoot of "Apocalypse Now" that drove the filmmaker to near madness was captured in the documentary "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse" (via The Washington Post). The wild making of "The Godfather" was milked for a Paramount+ miniseries starring Dan Fogler as Coppola, though some of those tales may be more myth than fact (via Los Angeles Times). Then there's "The Outsiders," a film with origins that lie not with any producer or studio head, but instead with a librarian and a group of students.

Coppola, without question, forges his own path, and whatever drive is behind his unique decisions can oftentimes make the behind-the-scenes of his movies just as interesting as what he captures in front of the camera. According to one of the stars of "The Outsiders," Coppola did not run his auditions for the 1983 film in a typical manner. The proof is in the pudding, though — "The Outsiders" stars numerous actors early in their career trajectories, including Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Tom Cruise, and Rob Lowe, who detailed the process of making it into a Coppola picture years later.

Francis Ford Coppola herded auditions like you would herd cattle

Auditions for "The Outsiders" were not held in a room with a casting director and a small group of production staff. They were instead held on a soundstage with actors called in as groups, Rob Lowe wrote in 2011 (via Vanity Fair). "This looks like a cattle call with every important, young working actor in the universe. Emilio [Estevez], ever the old soul, smiles and shakes his head. 'Hey, it's Francis.'" Estevez's father, Martin Sheen, had witnessed Francis Ford Coppola's unusual style when making "Apocalypse Now."

Performers were often told while onstage to switch roles on a dime, keeping everyone on their toes as they jumped into performances with no preparation. Lowe recalled Tom Cruise coming out of the soundstage and saying he had read for Sodapop, for instance, the role Lowe would end up taking.

Lowe also revealed that Coppola played Italian music while throwing different roles to various actors. "My tastes run toward Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, so I'm a little foggy on the genre of extremely emotional Italian music emanating from the turntable. Francis has an assistant with him, no one else, and she turns down the music. Francis walks to the edge of the illuminated area and looks out at us. No small talk, no introductions. He gets right to it," Lowe recalled.

Unusual? Definitely. But considering the number of stars who launched careers off of "The Outsiders," it's difficult to argue with Coppola's results.

Coppola defended his choice to have an open casting call

Francis Ford Coppola himself spoke about the audition process for "The Outsiders" in 2021 (via The Guardian). "If my company was famous for anything, it was casting new, unknown actors. I believed in the concept of open casting calls – but I tried to do them in a way that was appropriate for the film we were making," Coppola explained. 

The director said he had future massive talents like Nicolas Cage, Robert Downey Jr., Dennis Quaid, and Mickey Rourke sitting on benches in a circle and he would swap roles and have the performers watch each other perform the same parts. "No one knows more about acting than other actors," he claimed. 

In a special feature on a home release of "The Outsiders" covering the audition process uploaded to YouTube, producer Fred Roos said of the audition process, "No actor had ever been through that kind of experience." To be fair, they also hadn't been through the clearly one-of-a-kind trip that is working with Coppola.