Casting Directors for ‘West Side Story,’ ‘CODA’ and More Oscar Nominated Films Discuss Goals to ‘Represent the World As It Really Is’

Casting Directors Diversity Tragedy of Macbeth
Courtesy of Apple TV Plus

In the aftermath of #OscarSoWhite, there has been a shift, with actors of color including Viola Davis, Daniel Kaluuya, Mahershali Ali and Steven Yuen earning nominations. But the parts these actors inhabited were written specifically for a Black or, in Yuen’s case, a Korean actor.

It was only last year when Riz Amed, the British son of Pakistani immigrants, was nominated of “Sound of Metal,” that the Oscars hinted at a newer trend in diversity in casting.

“Hollywood is finally catching up and we’re able to represent the world as it really is,” says “West Side Story” casting director Cindy Tolan, adding that studios are “following the dollar.”

“If you’re more reflective of life and of the audience, then more people will be interested in your movie or TV show,” says “Macbeth” casting director Ellen Chenoweth.

That shift plays out in a major way in this year’s Oscars: When writing “Macbeth,” Shakespeare clearly envisioned the Scottish characters as white, but Oscar lead actor nominee Denzel Washington and a cast that includes Corey Hawkins (Macduff) and Moses Ingram (Lady Macduff), prove in Joel Coen’s newest adaptation that riveting and dynamic acting is all that really matters.

Denis Villeneuve sought a diverse cast for his take on Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” with Zendaya, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa and Chang Chen toplining, and Sharon Duncan-Brewster in a role that was originally written as a white man.

Perhaps nothing says more about the changes in the perception of casting than “West Side Story.” The 1961 film largely featured whites in brownface; even Puerto Rican Rita Moreno was forced to artificially darken her skin. But Steven Spielberg’s film features 20 Puerto Rican and numerous other Latino actors. (It even sparked a more modern controversy with complaints about the casting of Rachel Zegler, an American of Colombian descent, as Maria.)

And a different aspect of the push for diversity will be felt at the Oscars through “CODA,” in which three of the four leading roles were played by deaf actors, with Troy Kotsur earning a supporting actor nom, and winning a SAG Award as well. (The actor who played his wife in the film, Marlee Matlin, of course, has a previous Oscar statue of her own.)

Lisa Zagoria, one of three casting directors on “CODA,” says this year’s Oscars will carry weight in helping accelerate change. “With movies, these awards tell people that something worked,” she says.

Tricia Wood, who worked with Deborah Aquila and Zagoria on “CODA,” says the film’s recognition, coming on the heels of “Sound of Metal,” provides “such recognition for deaf culture. I just hope it continues to grow.”

(“CODA” itself marks a cultural change — the 2014 French version from which “CODA” was adapted included no deaf actors.)

None of this is completely new: nearly 30 years ago, Aquila helped cast Morgan Freeman in “The Shawshank Redemption,” earning him an Oscar nomination for playing “Red,” so named because he was originally written as an Irishman with red hair.

“But there’s a gigantic difference between the ’90s and now,” Aquila says. “We don’t have to get down on one knee and cry our eyes out.”

The shift has come from on high, says Francine Maisler, casting director for “Dune.” “Casting directors have long wanted to be inclusive and I feel like directors have always been open to it but have felt constraints about who they needed to cast in terms of star power,” she explains. “But now the mandate from studios is diversity.”

Tolan says casting directors are now asking directors whether they can consider all people — of different races, genders and abilities — for all roles. “We are saying, ‘Is everything up for grabs and more often than ever before?,’ the answer is yes.”

Wood agrees about support from the top, especially when it comes to race and ethnicity. “It’s a mandate for your cast to actively seek inclusion and look for ways to make it feel authentic,” she says. “Even with historical stories, they’ll say, ‘Is there a way to “Bridgerton” it?’ ”

Obviously casting for real people presents limitations, Maisler says, pointing to “Winning Time,” the HBO project about the Los Angeles Lakers she just cast — you would not cast a woman or a white, Latino or Asian man to play Magic Johnson. “For that, you need someone who looks like Magic Johnson,” Maisler says. “But when you’re not talking about real people, we start with a blank slate now. It’s only about who is best for the role.”

Chenoweth says that idea of who is best for the role is essential. “We’re not trying to be politically correct,” she says. Coen’s mandate was not about race but about finding actors who could handle Shakespeare.

“We had a lot of freedom to play around. There were name actors who wanted parts but if you’re not classically trained it’s a long shot and those mostly didn’t work out,” Chenoweth say. Hawkins, a Juilliard alum and Ingram, a Yale Drama School graduate, had the screen presence and the chops. “It’s thrilling to give young people these kinds of opportunities.”

Tolan points out that with “West Side Story” her search was expansive, as they looked at 30,000 hopefuls, including three casting calls in Puerto Rico.

“Steven said, ‘I want to be as inclusive as possible,’ and then he gave me everything I needed to do my job and trusted me enough to allow me to do it,” Tolan says.

The cast includes new faces and higher-profile Puerto Ricans and American-born actors of Puerto Rican descent such as Moreno, Ana Isabelle and Oscar-nominated Ariana DeBose (who also just won a SAG Award for supporting actress, the first Latina to win a film award from the guild). She says the fact that Maria was not played by a Puerto Rican “was not for lack of trying” but emphasizes that she feels Zegler is “extraordinary” in the role.

Tolan says as a lesbian she is particularly proud of the GLAAD nomination the film received — DeBose is an openly queer actor, and for the “tomboy” role of Anybody, played in 1961 by Susan Oakes, the new film featured the non-binary actor iris menas.

“It starts with Tony Kushner’s script and Steven Spielberg’s courage,” she says. “Representation matters and we need to keep doing it.”

The women of “CODA” say the biggest gap in representation remains actors with disabilities. “They’re only starting to be included,” Wood says, but are still represented in less than 1% of all roles.

Aquila is encouraged by the databases put together, at studios including Paramount and at SAG Diversity and SAG Inclusion, which can provide an array of potential names at the press of a button. But Wood says there’s work to be done, starting with the fact that many disabled people don’t have representation, so character breakdowns aren’t reaching them through normal channels.

“For now we’re reaching out to specific groups on Facebook and Instagram to get more of a response,” Wood says. And she still finds she needs to push harder for disabled performers with executives and directors. “On the film side at Paramount, I have to nudge. I have to say, ‘I need a role,’ and I want people auditioned,’” she says.

On the bright side, she says people are “open to being nudged,” citing a film she recently cast where an actress in a wheelchair was clearly the best actor. (The part was not written for a disabled actor but neither would her disability impact the story.) “They were hesitant at first but I asked if they’d include her in the callbacks and after that, they said, ‘OK we get it. We’re casting her.’”

Aquila says that kind of casting is the ultimate goal.

“We don’t want them cast because they’re disabled but because they’re best for the role,” she says. “And we want these people to be seen not as disabled actors but as actors who are magnificent talents.”