OSCARS: The Role Of Casting Director

Monica Corcoran Harel is an AwardsLine contributor.

A great film can feel a lot like a fantastic dinner party. Actors mingle and clash in the best possible lighting, and conversation is fraught with wit and emotion. The director usually gets the bulk of the credit. But before he or she can play the consummate host, someone must carefully select the right guests, send out the invites, and keep track of the RSVPs.

That would be the casting director, of course. It’s a job that can’t garner an Oscar, but its mighty importance is always felt behind the scenes. In his wildly amusing book If the Other Guy Isn’t Jack Nicholson, I’ve Got the Part, Ron Base writes of the near-casting decisions that would have changed film history. Imagine The Graduate starring wry Charles Grodin, for instance. Or a gum-cracking, mustachioed Burt Reynolds playing the paunchy, debauched astronaut in Terms of Endearment.

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This season, a bounty of films showcases the brilliance of casting directors who hit their marks. Case in point: Jamie Foxx as a freed slave seeking revenge in Quentin Tarantino’s socially controversial Django Unchained, Hugo Weaving playing roles outside of his gender and ethnicity — also a controversial turn — in Cloud Atlas and an assemblage of Academy Award nominees and victors in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.

Putting together a roster of stars is just a fraction of the work, though. In the case of Lawless, the project languished in uncertainty for almost three years and various actors were forced to jettison the film for other roles during the limbo. Originally, in 2009, the Prohibition era-Goodfellas had Shia LaBeouf, Ryan Gosling, James Franco, Amy Adams, and Scarlett Johansson in the cast. Three years later, when the film premiered in Cannes, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hardy, and Mia Wasikowska sauntered down the red carpet. Incidentally, LaBeouf never abandoned the cast and fought to attract talent.

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“Every project brings its own unique challenges,” concedes casting director Francine Maisler, who sought actors who would connect emotionally and physically with the time period. It’s a boon for the production that Lawless boasts the next generation of stars, like Chastain and Hardy. “Trying to realize (director) John Hillcoat’s vision and to present him with actors who find surprising and distinct ways of bringing the characters to life was exhilarating.”

For Victoria Thomas — who launched her career with Repo Man and cast Django Unchained — the leads are playing against type, which creates hype. “I think it was time to see Jamie in a badass spaghetti western hero role and Leonardo in a juicy bad guy role,” she says of Foxx and DiCaprio. “Jamie gets to be Clint Eastwood and Leo gets to be Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West.”

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Of course, Tarantino has a reputation for casting the most unusual of suspects. Thomas and the director artistically tangoed with a shared love for ’60s and ’70s character actors like Earl Holliman and William Devane. “I think Quentin and I were looking at the same television shows growing up, just in different houses,” she says. “So even though we were working together for the first time, I felt like there was a fairly quick connection.” For Thomas, who is African-American, the greatest challenge was the often brutal subject matter and the rampant use of the serrated n-word. “I had to get used to hearing that word said to me a lot by white actors in casting sessions,” she adds.

Cloud Atlas, the epic existential exploration that spans centuries with actors playing up to seven different parts, could be the longest journey for a casting director. It didn’t help that it was an independently financed movie and actors worked more for less pay. Lora Kennedy — who worked with the Wachowskis on Speed Racer — recalls her reaction when the brother and sister team sent her the David Mitchell book. “I was like, really? Who are we going to get to play all these multiple roles?” she recalls. Well, two years later, the complex project landed Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, and Weaving. “It morphed into a rep company with everyone taking on more and more parts.” Not everyone was thrilled with the casting, though. The fact that Caucasian actors were transformed into Asian characters sparked some criticism online. “No matter how we did it, there never would have been a solution to please everyone,” says Kennedy. “We switch ethnicities and genders.”

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Kennedy also worked with Ben Affleck on the political thriller Argo and was charged with casting 140 roles. Her biggest hurdle? “The sheer size of it. Just the magnitude of having to cast 100 speaking roles of white dudes who say one or two lines,” she says. To cast the Iranian actors, she consulted Tehran-born actress Shohreh Aghdashloo to make sure she connected with the right Persian actors, some of whom did not have agents. Aghdashloo’s daughter accompanied Kennedy on auditions to be sure that actors spoke the appropriate dialect of Farsi.

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The Master, set in the ’50s, called for more than 70 actors who could physically and emotionally convey the post-war ebullience of the decade. “That means no tattoos and no plastic surgery,” laughs casting director Cassandra Kulukundis, who has consistently worked with Anderson since Magnolia in 1999. “I looked at real soldiers and Park Avenue socialites,” she says. The exacting director Anderson, known for surrounding himself with many of the same actors in his films, wanted big names — like Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams — alongside up and comers. “I needed newcomers who could go toe to toe with Phil and Joaquin and hang with them,” she says. In order to prepare them for trading lines with such luminaries, Kulukundis worked with them like an acting teacher or a spiritual guide. “It’s more like a workshop than an audition,” she says of the exercises that they do together.

Kulukundis likens assembling a cast for an Anderson film to “building a quilt” because the actors must gel onscreen as a collective being. The combination, or constellation, of talent trumps individual stars. It also guarantees a level of trust among the performers. “The actors must have great chemistry and no fear on the set. That is most important.”

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No doubt, behind every good director is a great female casting director. Ellen Chenoweth has cast most of the Coen brothers’ films, while Juliet Taylor has worked with Woody Allen for nearly 40 years — going all the way back to Love And Death in 1975. (She suggested that he cast Owen Wilson in Midnight In Paris.)

It’s time the Academy reconsidered its cap on categories and went on to reward some of these women — OK, and a few good men— with an Oscar for their vision and instincts. As John Frankenheimer once said, “Casting is 65% of directing.”

  1. lets be real, most producers and directors are the ones making the cast lists, CD’s throw their personal prejudice around, anyone who has ever ACTUALLY been involved in casting a film of any good caliber knows, that the real producers, and the director sit for hours going over this. CD’s are great at contacting agents and getting availability….not that they arent great at what they do

    1. Exactly. The lower the budget – even if you get a Juliet Taylor to work with you – the more the producer does in this regard. Assuming you can cajole an agent or manager to read – even if you have to first cajole the assistant! – and the agent gets the actor to read, the director then hopefully gets a chance to do their wooing.

      The CD is very necessary, for checking avails etc, and occasionally will have some intel that “so and so is looking for something just like this” but the primary roles are always cast out of work borne primarily by the producer. Bit parts and ensemble roles are where a CD can add a ton of value mostly because the producer can’t focus the amount of energy required to land a top 200 name on scores of roles.

      1. Should also add, to say this in another way…I have a project about to start pre production. We have 3 major names attached, and my presumed CD hasn’t yet made a single call!

    2. Thats very sad you think that way. A good casting director is instrumental in creating a great film. Last years Oscar winner Octavia Spencer and nominee’s Viola Davis and Jessica Chastain all auditioned for “The Help” and were championed by casting director’s Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee (even when the studio wanted bigger “names”). Sure producers can make lists but it is the casting directors who truly know an actors talents and what they can do. A good casting director fights for the right actors and any good director will tell you they could not have made their movie without a casting directors help. Bravo Deadline for writing this article, there should be an oscar for casting!

    3. I hate to say it, but this is true most of the time. If you want to praise casting directors, usually you have to look at the small roles, not the big ones. The big roles are usually the work of the director and producers. This is not always the case, but probably 80% of the time. Same goes for music supervisors. Frequently, they just do the work on the licensing and the director has chosen most of the music. They usually earn their keep when a director has selected a song they can’t afford and they have to find cheaper music to replace it. Again, not always, but a lot of the time.

    4. That is such an ignorant comment. You obviously haven’t worked on films with quality CDs. Casting Directors have made such a difference in the films I’ve worked on – for the most part they are thoughtful, contributive artists with as much to do with the success of my films as anyone involved…

  2. Bravo, Deadline and Monica Harel, for this article!! Thank you for this kind of recognition, and thank you for recommending that we be considered for Academy Award consideration…you have made our day!

  3. CD’s are answering machines today. I’m an A list producer. The truth is they have no say. They are told who to see and we go down the offers. Yes, they cast a one line role, sometimes. But the days at CAA where the CD would call with people they found are over. The CD’s are right where the rest of the biz is.

  4. Actually, most good films have a Director and Casting Director that collaborate to call the shots. Producers sign the checks, ask us to get their “lady friends” SAG cards, and complain about giving out paid ads.

    Btw, I would happily cast you as a Troll

  5. The terrific/famous casting director Mike Fenton tried for years to get CDs an Oscar category. The thing about being a casting director is you get no recognition if the casting is great (it was the director) and all the blame if the movie sucks.

  6. Every year this same non-controversy rears its laughable head. I worked with Howard Feuer for six years and have only come across 2 feature CDs that weren’t either grotesquely self-important or bitter, whiny failed actors (and more often than not both!).

    If CDs merit an award the caliber of an Oscar, then so do production secretaries, script supervisors, first ADs, wardrobe shoppers, personal assistants and certain caterers. You can’t make a production job “creative” just because you work for creative people.

    (Now watch all of the CSA and their poor put-upon assistants come out with guns a ‘blazing!)

  7. This is ridiculous. The idea that casting directors are responsible for the leads in 90% of features is simply inaccurate, these ideas are formed and desicions made prior to them coming aboard. Now the smaller roles yes they present ideas for the director producers and studio to pick from. On TV pilots they work off the lists from the studio network and producers, so how on earth does one know how to give credit. They are good at moving bodies around to readings and setting deals for small roles, and that is an important, required and time- consuming function which I don’t want to belittle, but Oscars and Emmys? Silly. I say this as a producer in both mediums for over 20 years.

    1. I am a casting director who has cast probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 25-30 pilots. Never in my entire career have I received lists from the studio, network or producer – it is the exact opposite. We the CD’s are the ones responsible for initially generating these creative idea lists, they are distributed to the powers that be and then are discussed over several conference calls etc. Do we get creative input and ideas from the brass? of course, it is a collaboratine process. But the notion that we receive and work off lists that are solely prepared by people other than ourselves is LUDICROUS. You people are clueless as to the process and are insulting to casting directors everywhere.

    2. “they are good at moving bodies around…. which I don’t want to belittle”…??
      My only hope is that I never EVER find myself working for you, or those like you. And what a shame, whoever you are, that you clearly are not utilising your CD for what they are good at. I’m not saying all casting directors are good at their jobs… but clearly… neither are producers.

  8. Wow I find this so insulting. My staff and i work so hard to find the caliber of talent that my clients are seeking for their films. For all the roles including the leads. This job is demanding and can sometimes be 24/7. When we get hired to cast a film we work as a team with our producers and directors. Its a collaboration. Its established relationships with the agents and managers that moves a project forward so that an actor will read or audition. I could not do it without them so THANK YOU. I could go through every film and tell the story of how we landed with each actor. Its exciting and thrilling to know that you have a great script that merits the talent you cast. Todays producer is busy and they count on us. I love what I do and I am sure that I speak for all the other hardworking CDs out there.

  9. Maybe if the fantastic ‘A list’ producers on this thread treated casting with as much respect as they do their own egos they would be pleasantly surprised with what creative and collaborative human beings they are (for the most part).

    What I have witnessed usually falls into one of two categories: a pissing competition between producers and directors throwing their weight around, not reading emails, vomiting up the biggest stars they can think of saying ‘why haven’t you gotten them yet? Wow you’re useless, I guess I have to cast this myself.” Or people who are actually interested in the collaborative process of making great TV or film and open to great ideas they haven’t thought of and tend to say shocking things like ‘thank you.’ I.E. Steve Buscemi who thanked his talented and dedicated casting director, Meredith Tucker, during his SAG acceptance speech last year.

    Also, who do you think finds the ‘unknowns’ that we all worship once they’re nominated for something? It’s certainly not the A list producer. Usually it’s the people sitting in hours of session who take time to know the actors, find their strengths, and push them for the right roles. Jennifer Lawrence. Case and point. Thank you Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee for championing actors who otherwise may be overlooked and giving them their shot.(This can be said for almost every casting director I’ve worked with.) Oh, and a little movie they did called ‘The Help’ wasn’t too shabby either.

    Do you think huge ensemble productions like Boardwalk Empire, The Wire, Game of Thrones, and countless more would ever have been possible without the crazy hours logged by the casting directors? Who do you think finds all those people?

    And ‘Erin’, everyone in this business can be a snarky little bitch, we’ve chosen a profession that thrives equally on deep insecurity and pride, doesn’t mean they aren’t good at their jobs, or that you weren’t good at yours.

    A common theme I hear from casting directors I’ve met is that they do it because they love actors. They don’t do it because they love babysitting people on the other side of the camera.

    Sure, casting at its worst, can be a taping service, but at it’s best is most certainly Oscar worthy and it saddens me that this is even an argument. There is a category in SAG for best ensemble cast, I mean, come on!

  10. The CSA should adopt the following as its advertising slogan:
    “We’re casting directors….clogging the system since the 1960’s….”

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