For two years in the 1930s, Hollywood producer David O. Selznick barnstormed around the United States in a headline-grabbing search for the woman who would portray Scarlett O'Hara in his movie version of Margaret Mitchell's most popular novel ever written, Gone With the Wind.
Thousands of women were auditioned, including female students attending every southern college with a drama department, while big-screen lovelies like original front-runner Talullah Bankhead, Paulette Goddard, Lana Turner and Jean Arthur lined up for their screen tests. The casting question became a national parlour game with every new name floated drawing immediate approval or condemnation -- "Dear God, Lois, NOT Janet Gaynor," Mitchell wrote to a friend.
When Steven Schipper, artistic director of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, launched a hush-hush project to have Toronto actress/playwright Niki Landau pen a new GWTW stage adaptation, he conducted no auditions for the role of the conniving Georgia peach. He knew who would play Scarlett before the actress did.
During last January's run of Patrick Marber's After Miss Julie, in which fast-rising Toronto actress Bethany Jillard starred as the haughty and horny aristocratic title character, Schipper took her aside to measure her willingness to return in 2013 to be in what has known simply as the secret play. Jillard was curious and keen, agreeing to sign a confidentiality agreement that did nothing to reveal what she was getting herself into.
"I was so stoked about it," Jillard recalls during a recent lunch break at the theatre. "It was the role of a lifetime but I had no idea what it was. It was all cloak and dagger."
She went home to Toronto, attempting to figure out which novel was being adapted. She investigated what was new in the public domain, but when she sat down with the package sent from RMTC, she had no idea what was on the title page of the script inside.
GWTW was never on her radar -- she hadn't read the book and had never seen the famous movie starring 26-year-old British actress Vivien Leigh as Scarlett and Clark Gable as Rhett Butler.
"So I opened up the envelope and saw it was Gone With the Wind and I went, 'Oh, my goodness,'" says Jillard, 29. "I only said it because it was so iconic, not because I really knew it."
She sat down and read an early draft of Landau's adaptation in one sitting. Like so many before her, Jillard fell under the spell of the American Civil War epic that follows Scarlett's riches-to-rags-to-riches story.
"What I got from it right away is why Gone With the Wind is under people's skin, why it is what it is," Jillard says. "I got swept away by the story. I knew why we want to tell this story."
Jillard's career is on the upswing after well-received Stratford Festival performances as the innocent Cécile Volanges in Dangerous Liaisons, Lady Anne in Richard III and young Kate in The Little Years. She showed she could carry a show by herself with her 2008 star turn as the titular peace activist in My Name is Rachel Corrie. Her After Miss Julie made a convert out of Schipper.
"Bethany is simply an acting phenom, a luminous star in the Canadian theatre sky," says Schipper. "A shape-shifter, wise beyond her years, Bethany is genuinely mesmerizing. Offstage, she's friendly, down-to-earth, vibrant and generous. Luckiest for us, she's one of the few actors in the country with a waist small enough to play Scarlett."
Yes, what about that celebrated corseted waist Mitchell famously describes as being 17 inches, "the smallest in three counties?" Any actress with the audacity to appear on stage as 16-year-old Scarlett knows she will be scrutinized for that impossibly narrow waist, green eyes and perfect brown curls.
"Well, Scarlett would love it, to have people checking her out all of the time," says Jillard, a natural blond who will wear a wig. "I'm aware of the challenge she represents because people will be looking me over. Does she have green eyes? Let's measure that waist for real. For the record, it's not 17. I'd say 25. That's superficial stuff. For me, that's not who Scarlett is."
Landau was responsible for whispering to Schipper that Jillard was her only casting suggestion.
"Bethany has got this amazing charm," Landau says. "Scarlett O'Hara has got to charm the pants off of you. It's the actor that puts the physical descriptions out of your mind. Once Bethany read for me, she was Scarlett O'Hara. I never had to think about it again."
Jillard thought her temptress character in After Miss Julia was a great preparation to play Scarlett. The former lived with a reckless abandon and in her flouting social convention paid the price. Both characters have a yearning to be more alive, to not settle.
"The tragic thing is that Miss Julie kills herself because she has been so hurt," says Jillard. "Her victory is killing herself as the end of the play. Scarlett, because of who she is, destroys her life, too. She discovers too late that she and Rhett, who she was convinced never loved her, were a love match."
And what's not to like about donning a closet full of great gowns that have been custom-fashioned for her with the most extravagant material? Sometimes the hoop skirts that boast a 1.2-metre diameter make it hard for her to get through a door.
She giggles: "They are such an integral part of the telling of the story that it doesn't seem so shallow to say I'm excited about wearing the dresses."
Gone With the Wind opens at RMTC on Jan. 10 and runs until Feb. 2
A rose by any other name... but a pansy?
Margaret Mitchell named her heroine Pansy O'Hara, from Gone With the Wind's inception in 1926 to the finished draft in 1935.
In fact, she was so enamoured with the name that she always referred to her manuscript as Pansy.
Her editors at Macmillan Publishers were mostly satisfied with the moniker, but late in the process, Mitchell began to reconsider. She entertained Storm O'Hara for a while; then Robin, eventually discarded due to its tomboyish connotation, before the unfamiliar Irish name Kells surfaced briefly.
Then, for no particular reason, Scarlett popped into her head and stayed, creating one of the most unforgettable names in fiction.
Despite having to redo the galleys, the reaction from Macmillan was: "Three cheers for Scarlett O'Hara."