Oscars & SAG Awards: Casting Directors Are Unsung Heroes of Any Ensemble

The highest honor at the SAG Awards is for ensemble, meaning every actor was top-notch and worked well together. It’s harder than it looks, and it starts with the casting director.

Jeanne McCarthy, for example, had five weeks to fill 50 speaking roles for Bleecker Street’s “Captain Fantastic,” including six young actors who needed to handle tricky dialogue and to all look like Viggo Mortensen’s offspring.

The search for those kids embodies the challenges of the casting process, McCarthy says. “You can easily see 50 or 60 people for each role, and you have to keep going until you have real contenders. Once you find them, you mix and match to see how they work together.”

The kids did improvs and worked with Mortensen, to see if they really understood the characters and the dialogue about such topics as the Bill of Rights and Noam Chomsky.

For CBS Films’ “Hell or High Water,” Albuquerque-based casting director Jo Edna Boldin, working with L.A.-based Richard Hicks, needed to fill the David Mackenzie-directed film with multiple characters who surround the leads.

One of the many vivid performances, with limited screen time, is given by senior actress Margaret Bowman. People ask Boldin, “Where did you find that waitress?” She says, “Most people assume she was a ‘real person,’ which is a compliment to Margaret. But a ‘real person’ could not have done what she did.”

Boldin was convinced from the start that Bowman was perfect for the role, but she also tested other actresses. “You have to give the director several choices. Maybe it’s three, maybe it’s 12; it depends on the director.”

Sometimes there are special challenges: New Mexico has doubled for Africa and Afghanistan, “and I look high and low for people here who speak Farsi,” says Boldin, whose film credits this year also include “Gold,” “Magnificent Seven,” and “Independence Day: Resurgence.”

Casting directors work year-round; between film or TV assignments, they conduct general interviews with actors, catch local play productions and showcases, and study films and TV shows.

A casting director also works as a career guidance counselor (first piece of advice: get an agent), coach (helping actors find the right tone of the scene), and traffic cop (coordinating schedules, getting the right sides to the actor). Boldin for example, worked with actors to make sure their Texas accents were right.

When they are depicted in Lionsgate’s “La La Land,” some casting directors look pretty heartless, but others are genuinely rooting for the actors they see.

Casting is ultimately up to the director and McCarthy praised “Captain Fantastic’s” Matt Ross — himself a talented actor — and the producers. Aside from Mortensen’s on-screen family, McCarthy helped fill roles for individuals encountered by the clan: people in a store, a church, camping ground, and other brief meetings.

Most audience members think these actors just … happened. McCarthy — whose credits this year include “Collateral Beauty,” “The Meddler,” “Keanu,” “Office Christmas Party,” “The Accountant” and TV shows including “The People v. O.J. Simpson” — laughingly says the big myth is that anybody can do it. Every non-professional thinks he would be a good actor, and everyone involved in a film thinks she knows how to cast it perfectly.

As with every job behind the cameras, a casting director has to work hard to make it look easy.

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