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Crucial Casting Decisions Send Directors, Casting Pros on Quests

How crucial are casting decisions to a movie? Danny Boyle, who won the 2008 director Oscar for “Slumdog Millionaire,” probably sums it up best: “Apart from not dying while you’re making it, there’s nothing more important for the success or failure of your film. Audiences go to see actors, and if you cast the wrong ones in the leads, it doesn’t really matter if you have a great script, a great director, great locations and so on, because you’re screwed.”

Casting the right lead actor in “Steve Jobs” was tricky, admits Boyle. “While finding a look-alike for the real person has never been my focus — either in this or ‘127 Hours,’ you can’t cast someone who’s too distractingly different-looking, especially as everyone’s so familiar with Jobs.”

While there are other actors who probably look far more like Jobs, Boyle turned to Michael Fassbender, “who’s simply on another planet, he’s got such range and depth, and I’ve worked with some pretty good actors in the past.”

Ultimately, it was “purely instinct why I offered him the part,” he says. “You look at his work, and he’s very uncompromising. He doesn’t just pop in and out of things. He tends to go on a mad quest for a role, and you can see it.” In this regard, the actor “really mirrored” his character and philosophy. “’Uncompromising’ was the first word in Jobs’ bible, and I think it’s the same for Michael.”

“‘Uncompromising’ was the first
word in Jobs’ bible, and I think it’s the same
for Michael.”
Danny Boyle

Casting the right lead actor in the hit “The Martian” was even more crucial, “as it’s basically a one-man show, a sort of Robinson Crusoe survival story, set in space,” say director Ridley Scott. “The lead has to carry the whole thing, and he’s in almost every scene.”

The helmer quickly cast Matt Damon as the nerdy botanist, “because he’s got all the qualities you need for the character. He’s believable as an astronaut and scientist, with that ‘can-do’ spirit and optimism in the face of great danger, and Matt also has a great sense of humor and great appeal. I can’t actually imagine casting anyone else in that role, and without Matt I’m not sure the film would have worked nearly as well.”

“Brooklyn,” the story of Eilis, a young Irish immigrant in 1950s America, marks casting director Fiona Weir’s fourth collaboration with director John Crowley. “He was very clear from the start he wanted to cast an Irish actress, to keep it as authentic as possible,” she says. They quickly settled on Saoirse Ronan “for her ability to portray and communicate a great deal while appearing to do very little, which was essential for the role. And we were very fortunate that she’d just come of age at the right moment for the role.”

Weir and Crowley then tackled casting her competing suitors, “which was tricky as the choice had to be real, and the audience had to be equally torn between the two,” adds Weir. “We next cast Domhnall Gleeson, who’s a very subtle actor, so he was perfect as Jim, her suitor back in Ireland, who’s warm but quite constrained.” Casting Tony, Eilis’ American beau, was “harder to do, as he’s very joyous, and a lot of young American actors today tend to want to play more brooding, darker characters.”

The team finally settled on Emory Cohen (NBC’s “Smash”), “who brought exactly the right energy to the role.”
With his affection for period pieces and classic melodrama, Todd Haynes was probably the perfect choice to tackle the lesbian romance at the heart of “Carol.” The story of two women from very different backgrounds — Therese, a store clerk (played by Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett), an alluring woman trapped in a loveless, convenient marriage — needed actors “with depth and the right instincts, who could play period,” says Haynes. “Cate was already attached when I came on, and that was one of the big incentives of doing it, as we’d worked together before on ‘I’m Not There,’ and I knew she could perfectly capture the vulnerability of this woman and her complex, interior life.”

Haynes then brought on Mara, “and it was not a hard decision, based on what I’d seen her do and her remarkable body of work.”

For the character of Carol’s “friend,” Abby — who still carries a torch for Carol — Haynes wanted “a very interesting actress,” and says Sarah Paulson was “an obvious choice. She changes so much from role to role, and I love what she did with this.” Haynes was also a long-time fan of Kyle Chandler, cast as Carol’s husband. “I really admired all his dramatic work on TV, on shows like ‘Friday Night Lights,’ as well as his feature work, and he was totally game to do it — and that’s not always the case with men and smaller roles opposite very strong women.”

“Kyle Chandler was game to do it —­­­­ and that’s not always the case with men and smaller roles opposite very strong women.”
Todd Haynes

Long before Eddie Redmayne won the Oscar for “The Theory of Everything,” Tom Hooper was already considering casting him in “The Danish Girl,” reports producer Gail Mutrux.

“Tom had worked with him on HBO’s ‘Elizabeth I,’ and he gave Eddie the script while they were up on the barricades shooting ‘Les Mis.’ Eddie loved it, and was immediately attached, back in 2012.”

Then veteran casting director Nina Gold suggested up-and-comer Alicia Vikander as the wife, “and Tom loved the idea of casting a Scandinavian actress in a film titled ‘The Danish Girl,’” she adds. “It was crucial to get the two best available actors for these roles, and I think we did.”

“45 Years,” co-written and directed by Andrew Haigh, depicts a marriage in crisis, and Haigh, for whom casting is “everything — especially in a film like this,” knew that he had to find his female lead first, “as it’s told from her p.o.v.”

He quickly settled on Charlotte Rampling, “as I wanted someone strong who then crumbles,” and says he was “very relieved” when she “was so keen — and so quickly — to do it.” Haigh then cast Tom Courtenay as the husband with skeletons in the closet, “as, like Charlotte, he was so suited to the material, and brought just the right touch to his role.”

While there are a lot of dramatic two-handers this awards season, several high-profile films feature large ensemble casts, including Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.”

“He already had some people — and some of his regulars — in mind, like Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Kurt Russell,” says casting director Victoria Thomas, who previously cast “Django Unchained.” “But the big one was helping Quentin find the female lead, and then the sheriff.”

Thomas worked closely with Tarantino for several months. For the female lead, the director wanted someone who could be ferocious, tough and also handle humor and drama, she says. “We met quite a few actresses, but it came down to Jennifer Jason Leigh. And we saw several actors before settling on Walton Goggins for the sheriff.”

Spike Lee’s upcoming “Chi-Raq,” an impassioned rap reworking of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” set against a backdrop of Chicago gang violence, features an even larger ensemble cast, including such Lee players as Jackson, Wesley Snipes and Angela Bassett alongside thesps new to Lee’s film including Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, John Cusack and Jennifer Hudson.

“Casting’s always down to me,” says Lee, who reteamed with casting director Kim Coleman for the film. “It’s the first original movie from Amazon, and they wanted some names, some stars, but left it up to me.”

“Even though they don’t look anything alike, Will Smith was able to channel Dr. Amalu and his accent and very specific gestures.”
Peter Landesman

He cast Jackson “as a sort of rapping Greek chorus,” and Bassett and Cusack, “because they bring that gravitas, and their characters are the moral foundation of the film. It was especially brave of Jennifer to play a mother who loses her child to gang violence, considering what she went through in real life, having three family members murdered in Chicago.”

F. Gary Gray’s acclaimed hit “Straight Outta Compton,” which chronicles the birth of the incendiary rap group N.W.A, ultimately took four years, on and off to cast, he reports.

“I’m very hands-on with casting, and my No. 1 priority was finding guys who could perform and who were believable,” he says.

The director also wanted “complete unknowns with street cred — look-alikes for the original band members was bottom of my list.”

Despite some initial studio pressure to cast “stars and names,” Gray resisted, and ended up casting Ice Cube’s own son — “who’d never acted before” — to play his famous father, alongside Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell.

Like many of the people depicted in “Compton,” the hero at the center of “Concussion” is based on a real person,
forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (played by Will Smith), and still “very much alive,” notes the film’s writer-director Peter Landesman. But he doesn’t feel there’s added pressure or more responsibility to that person, even when casting a big star as an anonymous working doctor.

“I spent a lot of time with the real Dr. Omalu, but I feel my responsibility as a writer and director is really to (show) the most honest version of the character, whether it’s real or imagined, and the larger obligation is to the whole movie,” he says. “You can be paralyzed by feeling you have to ‘do right’ by someone, and sometimes movies about real people disappoint those very people.”

Like Boyle and others, he stresses that “physical resemblance” isn’t a priority in casting. He cast the star as the Nigerian doctor “for many reasons — including the fact that they have the same enthusiasm for their work. And even though they don’t look anything alike, Will really was able to channel the doctor and his accent and very specific gestures.”

And while Smith cleverly underplays the role, Landesman says, “he can’t help but exude his usual charm and charisma, which helps make a difficult subject entertaining. Will’s a huge star, and you want people to see your movie.”


According to director Lenny Abrahamson, casting the right actors as the two leads in the drama “Room” was a big challenge and crucial — “both for the way the characters have to interact and for the very naturalistic style I wanted. We decided early on to cast the mother first, then cast the boy, in case of any delays, as children change so quickly at that young age.” But Brie Larson wasn’t even on the director’s initial very short list of possible actresses, he admits.

“Someone told me to watch her in ‘Short Term 12,’ and I was immediately struck by her naturalness and believability. She’s delicate, but also has this great depth, and she’s not showy. And in person she’s very warm and funny and kind, and I also needed someone who could form a relationship off-screen with the kid, and I knew she could do that very genuinely.”

Abrahamson first saw co-star Jacob Tremblay on a casting video, and was immediately impressed with how polished and skilled he was. The challenge was to “take that well-coached skill but also bring out his innate naturalism that’d fit the movie’s style,” he adds, noting that any reservations he had about Tremblay “were the same ones I’d have had about any child actors – and he was still just 7 at that point.” After working with Tremblay on “various improvisations, and getting him to just be himself in front of the camera,” Abrahamson was convinced that he’d found “the right actor for a very difficult role.”

Child actors — or, in this case, non-actors — are also front and center in Cary Fukunaga’s harrowing war drama “Beasts of No Nation,” set in the West Africa and shot in Ghana. After first casting Idris Elba as the Commandant — “Steve Golin at Anonymous Content suggested him, and it seemed perfect as he exudes charisma and his family also comes from there,” Fukunaga says — the director faced the “biggest casting problem” of the whole movie — “finding the right kid to play Agu, as the story is told through his eyes.”

“We set up boot camp with… weapons training, stunts and acting…”
Harrison Nesbit

That task fell to Harrison Nesbit, who made his debut as a solo casting director on the film. “It’d be a tough challenge anywhere, but it seemed like an impossible task in Ghana, as there’s no film infrastructure and so much bureaucracy,” reports Nesbit who flew to Accra and spent five months there on the epic search. “It took one month just to get permission to visit local schools.”

Nesbit ultimately saw some 2,500 kids — “in schools, playing soccer, on the street” — before finding Abraham Attah, a 13-year-old with “an old soul” who displayed the needed confidence and creative ability needed for the part. “But he said ‘No’ at first to an audition,” says Nesbit. “It took a while to convince him, as he’d never acted before and was uncertain about the whole process.”

A couple of weeks before the shoot, Nesbit also began casting locals for the rag-tag guerrilla child army, “another big challenge as they were all non-actors, with no experience in handling weapons and so on. So we set up this boot camp with different stations for weapons training, stunts and acting and so on, so we could whittle them down.”
Five hundred attended the camp, and Nesbit finally chose “the best 160” for the army. “It’s the toughest casting job I’ve ever had, but it was all worth it in the end.”

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