SAG Awards: The Ensemble

“There is a palpable emotional power that comes from the collective harmony — and the contrasts — within a good ensemble,” says London-based casting director Jina Jay, who has tackled some of 2011′s most impressive ensemble efforts, including two Steven Spielberg films (“War Horse,” “The Adventures of Tintin”) as well as “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “Hanna,” “Coriolanus” and Ireland’s most financially successful indie film to date, “The Guard.”

The eagle-eyed Jay, whose casting process is always “passion-led,” has grown into one of the U.K.’s go-to casting directors for A-list helmers, thanks to her all-encompassing unturned approach and razor-sharp instinct for undiscovered talent.

For Spielberg’s “War Horse,” for example, Jay cast unknown stage actor Jeremy Irvine in the coveted lead role of Albert. Irvine had very little professional experience before scoring the lead in a Spielberg epic, having graduated from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts just one year earlier. Because it was a role “where it felt natural to cast an unknown,” Jay pulled in a team of young casting directors to help her conduct a search across the U.K. and Ireland for the perfect 15- to 25-year-old.

“Finding Albert was a huge challenge, and from the start it was our chief focus,” she says. No one quite hit the mark, until Irvine’s agents Hatton & McEwan emailed Jay a portrait of their client, asking if he could read for the role. Jay’s assistants Alex Duxbury and Katy Lake read 12 young actors the day Irvine first read, and Irvine’s was by far “the reading of the day,” Jay recalls. “His interpretation of the material was enchanting, capturing all the mess and loneliness of the teenage Albert, plus his profound joy and love for Joey (his horse).”

Spielberg agreed with Jay from the get-go that the fresh-faced Irvine was their guy. “Whilst we were all committed to the process of leaving no stone unturned,” she says, “Jeremy stayed with Spielberg as no other did.”

The broader cast of “War Horse” was drawn from across Britain, France and Germany, with the film’s 80-plus roles comprising diverse characters from different backgrounds, multiple European nationalities, and an age range of 7 to 70.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” the much-anticipated adaptation of John Le Carre’s 1974 spy novel, draws deep from the U.K.’s venerable acting pool, including Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Toby Jones and Ciaran Hinds. The portrait of a group of powerful, sometimes eccentric British spies represents a veritable jigsaw puzzle of interlocking plots and players. “In this film each actor needs to hold their own within a complex and shifting circle of relationships,” says Jay, “so it was clear from the outset that the challenge was how to put the pieces of that ensemble together in a way that was balanced.”

As far as future projects, Jay is especially excited about the upcoming “Anna Karenina” — another collaboration with “Hanna” director Joe Wright, with a script written by Tom Stoppard. “It’s all rich iconic characters based on a great iconic novel,” she says.

SAG Awards: The Ensemble:
Hunting in pairs | Jay displays eagle for rising talent | Expert opinions | Primetime wholes made up of great parts | SAG winners tend to head to Oscar glory

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