Honing a double-edged sword

Special to The Times

Anisa and Olissa Brooks are the first set of identical twins of the day to audition for “Mardi Gras,” a teen sex comedy about three guy friends -- Mike, Bump and Ira -- who head to New Orleans to get lucky. The twins, Sherman Oaks residents of Irish and Abanake extraction, wear the same outfit: black tank top, pinstriped short shorts and brown suede open-toed high heels. Their dark hair falls well below their shoulders, and they have a tendency to say the same thing at the same time.

“How long have you been doing the twin thing?” asks casting director Catherine Stroud of London/Stroud Casting, who is seated on an old sofa in a bare-walled room in a temporary production office on the Sony lot in Culver City. Behind her, an assistant operates a video camera.

“About three years now,” they reply in stereo, their voices loud and stark in the small, resonant space.


“But you were always twins,” deadpans Stroud, before adding as an aside, “They didn’t get my little joke . . .”

They smile politely.

Corniness is nothing out of the ordinary for the Brooks sisters -- or, for that matter, any pair of identical twins with Hollywood dreams. With most twin-centric plots involving evil doppelgangers, mistaken identities or sexual fantasy, challenging, complex parts can be difficult to come by. And even when great twin roles do come along, say in films such as “The Parent Trap” or “The Prestige,” it’s famous singleton actors who are cast and doubled on screen through camera trickery.

“In movies, twins are either killing somebody or they’re hooking up with the same person,” says Ashley Ummel, a leggy blond who, along with her identical twin sister, Sarah, is competing against the Brooks sisters for roles in “Mardi Gras.” “Or I also see roles [where] twins start making out with each other. And then they wonder why they can’t get anybody cast in that. Nobody wants to make out with her sister -- unless you’re that desperate to get a part.”

On-screen staples

Despite the small number of twin actors in competition for roles, twins appear on the screen more frequently than they do on the streets. A few of the many projects currently casting multiples are the “Sex and the City” movie, commercials for Clairol Herbal Essences and JC Penney, and a Dolce & Gabbana campaign.

Of course, the younger the actor, the bigger the advantage to being a twin because the law restricts the number of hours infants and children can spend working on movie sets.

“There are amazing amounts of roles for babies and newborns that people aren’t even aware of,” says Debbie Ganz who, along with her identical twin sister, Lisa, runs the management and casting company Twins Talent, based in New York. “It’s a lot easier to use multiples for major films and soaps because when you have twins and triplets, you can interchange them.”

The most famous beneficiaries of this are Dylan and Cole Sprouse and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, the latter of whom are actually fraternal twins despite their striking resemblance.

Unlike the Olsens, most fraternal twins bear no more likeness to each other than ordinary siblings. For them, pursuing twin roles usually isn’t a viable option. Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi and Gisele Bundchen all have fraternal twins -- Hunter, Marissa and Patricia, respectively -- who are also pursuing acting careers. (Joseph Fiennes, Eva Green and Isabella Rossellini, among others, have fraternal twins with jobs outside the industry.)

“People think that the twins that stay looking alike are the ones that are a little nuts,” says Debbie Ganz. “But we’re really not nuts. If I did not have a twin, I would still like my hair this way, still like the high boots I wear, still like the sexy shirts I put on. I’m supposed to not buy those things because my sister likes them? The truth is Lisa and I like the same hair. We like the same clothes. We both have the same taste. Looking exactly like someone and almost being a clone to someone, there’s a bond that can’t be explained.”

It’s a bond that Ashley and Sarah Ummel understand quite well. The sisters first announced their presence to the world when their dad was making an omelet for his pregnant wife. He began cracking eggs only to discover that nine out of the dozen were double-yolked. That night, he and his wife received the results of their sonogram and learned they were having twins.

After a childhood spent as self-proclaimed nerdy ugly ducklings who liked water polo, horses and anime, the girls grew up to be identical beauties. They earned business degrees while doing modeling work and acting in “CSI: Miami” and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” And while the San Diego-based duo is hardly pursuing Hollywood with the same dogged intensity of many singleton actors, many doors, both in the industry and in day-to-day life, have been opened to them by virtue of being twins.

“If we want attention anywhere, if we want to get into any club, all we have to do is dress the same and dress hot and, woo!” says Sarah Ummel. “It doesn’t matter who we are. It’s just like, ‘Oh, twins! Come on in!’ ”

Stroud perks up at the sight of their bright blue eyes, hair extensions, and sexy black mini-dresses. After engaging her with small talk and hitting the highlights of their resumes, they address the question of nudity, which will be featured on the DVD extras but not in the PG-13-rated film itself.

“I don’t know that we would want to show our boobies,” says Sarah Ummel.

“We don’t have boobs. Check this out!” says Ashley Ummel, pulling the draped front of her dress flat against her chest.

Stroud assures them that it’s not a deal breaker, and they in turn tell her that they’d be comfortable wearing tassels. This kind of “demureness” might not be acceptable coming from singleton actresses just starting out in the business. But the rarity of identical twins in the population -- they occur at a rate of approximately one in every 250 births -- changes the equation for them.

“If I send out a breakdown for an early 20s, cute, bubbly girl, I’m probably going to get, like, 2,000 submissions,” says Stroud. “But in the twins, we didn’t get 2,000 submissions. I’d say [we got] about 25, and not all of them are that good. We had to go outside the normal parameters. We went out to that contest Body Doubles. We went to agents outside of L.A. We had to do certain things we don’t normally have to do.”

A unique bond

Maybe it’s because outsiders can’t possibly fathom the realities of interacting with a physical replica, but many identical twins claim that the intensity of their relationship cannot be understood by anyone besides other identical twins. “I swear to God there’s a twin culture,” says Sarah Ummel, glancing at her sister to confirm that they’re in agreement. “Any twins we talk to, it’s like a breath of fresh air.”

“Even your mom -- as much as moms of twins understand more than anybody else, they still don’t understand like another set of twins,” says Ashley Ummel. “You know, being able to look at each other and laugh for 10 minutes.

“I mean, some people can get to that level with their husbands or their sisters or their brothers . . .” says the actress, recently married.

“But never to the point . . .” says Sarah Ummel.

“But not that same intensity, I don’t think. Sometimes I’ll be like, ‘Why do I feel so crappy right now?’ And I’ll call Sarah, and she’ll be really upset about something.”

One of the biggest challenges can be finding a spouse or significant other who respects the twin bond and is comfortable being outside of it. As Debbie Ganz puts it: “Most people are looking for their soul mate, and we were born with ours.”

Sarah Ummel is dating a man with fraternal twin sisters. And although rare, there are at least 150 quaternary marriages in the U.S. in which twin sisters have married twin brothers. Some of these identical couples have bought neighboring houses; others have chosen to live together under one roof.

These eccentricities of twin culture have given rise to a host of events and organizations geared to gathering multiples together. The largest twin festival in the world attracts more than 3,000 sets annually to Twinsburg, Ohio, a town founded by a pair of identical twins. Actresses such as the Ummels and the Brookses have the added advantage of meeting other multiples at auditions and modeling competitions such as Body Doubles.

At a nearby desk, a casting assistant makes calls requesting details of how much skin each set of twin actresses is willing to show for the “Mardi Gras” DVD. Would they appear in thongs? Boy shorts and full-coverage bras? Are they willing to go topless or perhaps even venture into the territory of full-frontal nudity?

“I just wish they would make a movie that actually went into what twins are and the psychology of twins and what twins go through,” says Sarah Ummel. “There’s a lot of material there that people just don’t even think about.”