Kevin Huvane, power agent and managing partner of Creative Artists Agency, could speak volumes about wheeling and dealing in Hollywood. His longtime client roster includes Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Julianne Moore, Sarah Jessica Parker, Halle Berry, Jennifer Lopez and Melissa McCarthy. That’s just the women — he also represents Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Vin Diesel and Jon Hamm.
A boisterous personality in an often buttoned-up world, Huvane, 57, has been reluctant to give interviews — about his clients or himself. But he knows a thing or two about the rise of the celebrity-fashion partnership — beginning with his first client, SJP, up to Kate Hudson. While an agent’s job is to make money for his or her clients as well as his company — CAA’s 2014 revenues were $647 million and the firm is valued at nearly $2 billion; private equity partner TPG holds a majority stake — Huvane stresses the importance of keeping it personal.
Here, he talks to WWD about going with his gut, his early brushes with greatness, and why celebrities can’t stop inking deals with designers.
How did a working-class kid from the Bronx get into in theater and movies?
No one in my family was involved in show business. My father worked for the bus company and my mom was a feminist housewife. One of my classes junior year at Regis High School was theater and I remember being 16 and seeing Meryl Streep in “Measure for Measure” at Shakespeare in the Park and thinking, “I am in the presence of greatness.” I could feel it. Cut to my summer job as bellman and elevator operator at the Wyndham hotel on 58th between Fifth and Sixth. All the Brits and old Hollywood stayed there — [Laurence] Olivier, Henry Fonda, Carol Burnett, Peter Falk. I was doing the midnight to 8 a.m. shift and John Cassavetes would come in with Gena Rowlands and I would just talk to them about what they were doing. He said, “Have you ever seen a movie be shot? I’ll send a car for you and you’ll come up and see.” Gena Rowlands was shooting “Gloria” in the Bronx, so here I am going up to where I grew up in a Lincoln Town Car instead of the subway. I would ask questions like, “What does that person do?” “How does this get done?” I went so often that they had a chair with my name on it.
So was your first job as a production assistant?
No. I worked at the Wyndham throughout high school and all four years of Fordham — Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy would give me $50 every time I went back to school — and everyone gave me tickets to their plays. Elizabeth Ashley, who was doing “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Martin Sheen, who was doing “Death of a Salesman.” I was planning to go to law school but all my friends there were miserable so when the owners of the hotel offered me a job, I took it. One day there was an actor who didn’t like his suite, so I went up and convinced him to take another suite and this woman in the room pointed at me and said, “You should be an agent.”
The next day I get a call from Nat Lefkowitz from William Morris and I think I’m being punked. Then I get a letter hand-delivered from the chairman of the board of William Morris saying, “My wife and I had dinner with our friend Cynthia Freeman [whom he described as the Jewish Barbara Cartland] and she said, ‘I saw some kid in action today who I think should be an agent.’ Do you want to come over and talk about the training program?” I jumped at it.
Was this your first instance of going with your gut?
My mother always stressed intuition. I don’t have a five- or 10-year plan and I never did, but I was taught to recognize opportunity when it happened and the lightbulb went off. I started working on St. Patty’s Day. I remember getting off the subway and having to cross Fifth Avenue with the parade going on, and being of Irish descent, I thought it was good luck.
How long were you at William Morris?
I stayed seven years and started out as a theater agent but you also had to do television and film. Sarah Jessica Parker was my first client. She was the third “Annie” and she had done “Square Pegs” and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and was in “Footloose” at the time. I just fell in love with her. One of my other first clients was [Oscar-winner] Melissa Leo, who was in “All My Children” at the time. And I met Julia Roberts at 17 in a bar. She had done nothing at that point.
Were your marching orders at William Morris to sniff out new talent?
That was not encouraged there. They wanted us to sign already established movie stars. I knew I wasn’t capable of signing the big movie star, but I could discover new talent using my intuition, so I would pay attention. The word you hear all the time is “no” anyway and I just ignored that and if I believed in someone I’d really push. With Julia there was that extra something special. I put her in “Miami Vice” and an HBO movie called “Baja Oklahoma” where she played Lesley Ann Warren’s daughter, then we put her in “Satisfaction” and “Mystic Pizza.” Eventually you build up a track record so when you have someone new they go, “He was right before.”
When did you first know that celebrity endorsements and fashion deals were going to be big?
When my partners [Richard Lovett and Bryan Lourd] and I took over CAA 20 years ago, I thought celebrity endorsements and having an association with different brands was going to be important, so we created a department for that. When we started noticing people asking “What are you wearing?” and designers feeling it was very important to have their clothes on people, we thought we should pay attention. When Wanda McDaniel at Giorgio Armani would call you and say, “We’d like to dress so-and-so.”
When did such deals become about more than just being in an ad campaign?
You started seeing a relationship build between certain artists and a designer, and we thought that could be a great experience artistically, not just about business. A lot of the artists that I represent love the collaboration because they actually have a say in it and they love the reflection it has on them.
What’s a specific example?
I remember when Nicole Kidman did the Chanel No.5 ad. It was her idea to get Baz Luhrmann to collaborate on that short film, which was picked up everywhere. It’s like making a mini movie and the budgets are that way, too. When you see Kathryn Bigelow directing Penélope Cruz in a Schweppes commercial, it’s really cool. It’s become such an extension of who they are. Their association with the brand brings a certain cachet to both parties.
Does every one of your clients have to be a “brand”?
I present them with the opportunity to create their brands and build the right partnerships with their brands. When I started out, people didn’t really think in terms of anything other than their core business. Right now a lot of peoples’ appetites are to build a company and build their own brand to be in control of all that while still keeping their artistic integrity and that, to me, is the most exciting. I look at Jennifer Lopez, who has a thriving movie career, she’s on “American Idol,” she’s got clothing, she’s about to go Vegas and her series on NBC “Shades of Blue” starts in January. She is a great businesswoman. Years ago people would have looked at that like, “What is she doing moving away from acting?”
Which fashion deal first set the standard we have today?
For me, when Sarah Jessica was making the deal with Steve & Barry’s. Here she is this fashion icon saying “I want to make clothes that are fashionable yet affordable, but I want a say in it; I don’t just want to be a figurehead.” “Sex and the City” had gone global, which made her even more valuable in every other area of her life.
How do you describe the culture at CAA?
Our culture is everything here and collaboration is everything — people sharing information and everyone helping out is really important and it’s always clients first. That’s why we don’t do a lot of interviews because it should be about them, not us. But I’m very proud that as we’ve grown larger, we’ve still kept the culture here, which is to treat everyone with respect, be kind and work harder than anybody. You can be aggressive, but you have to be aggressive with substance and handle your business in a fair, intelligent and kind manner. I know that sounds crazy for an agent to say.
As the person in charge of CAA’s training program, what do you look for in prospective agents?
I want to see someone who has a genuine interest and passion in not just deal-making, but the making of the product. Not just someone who has good business sense. It’s not a numbers-crunching business. You are dealing with personalities and emotions and you need to have people who know how to navigate that beautifully. The bottom line is, if you do great work, money flows, but if your eye is always on the bottom line you miss the artist.
What’s your personal measure of success?
I went to my high school reunion and noticed how many people hated what they did. For all the people who said to me, “Why are you going into the mail room, are you nuts?” Thirty years later, I’m the guy who loves what he does.