Boasting such repeat collaborators as Steven Soderbergh and Ridley Scott, who better to usher in the new generation of visionaries than casting director Carmen Cuba? This is precisely what the Emmy winner has done with Stranger Things, the “little project that could” from creators Matt and Ross Duffer that took the world by storm last year.
Rooted in the Duffer brothers’ nostalgia for ’80s Amblin classics, the genre bender challenged Cuba to find a group of child actors who could hold up a television series, while fitting that period bill. With Emmy nominations in the series’ first run for Millie Bobby Brown and local Atlanta discovery Shannon Purser—who Cuba scouted alongside Tara Feldstein and Chase Paris—the extent of the casting director’s success is clear.
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Watching as the series’ sprawling cast of mostly unknown and inexperienced young actors became household names overnight, Cuba also took pleasure in providing a great television platform for Winona Ryder, one of the latest of the A-list film actresses to transfer over to the small screen.
Speaking with Deadline with a second Emmy nomination under her belt, Cuba discusses the challenges of the local casting process, and the life-changing experience that informed Ryder’s interest in the series.
How did you come to Stranger Things, and what were the aspects about it that excited you?
I had worked with the Duffers on their first studio film. From being put together with them back then, I knew I’d want to be on anything they did from there on out. They’re a really interesting team with big ideas and a great understanding of story, characters and cinema. They’ve worked together making movies since they were little kids and they’re really clear in how they attack things, so that was the first thing.
Over the years since that movie, we’ve kept in touch, and I’ve known about the things they were pursuing. When this one came up, it was initially called Montauk, and as a kid in the ‘80s, I actually spent my summers in Montauk with my grandparents, so there happened to be a lot of nostalgia for me in it.
The script captured so much of what I felt at that time, sort of the mystery life of grownups, the freedom of kids. The fact that it was set in Montauk made it that much more interesting to me. Once [the title] switched, that didn’t matter, but that was a big hook at the beginning.
Ultimately, the scripts were really captivating and the roles had so much meat to them that I knew it’d be really fun to cast, especially with these guys who are so young and enthusiastic about actors.
What were the first pieces that fell into place in casting the series?
Because the Duffers were an unknown entity and it was meant to be a small, little thing—and there weren’t any famous kids that we would attach that would help gain us any visibility—it was clear that Joyce and Hopper were our starting points.
For a million reasons, it didn’t take us long to become ridiculously excited about Winona Ryder as Joyce. Once she was on board, it gave us an opening to be free with where we went with Hopper, because for a show that’s small, you only needed one anchor, really.
David was someone that had been around doing incredible work for years. Once everyone saw his audition, we knew—he was undeniable, especially opposite Winona.
Did Ryder have any particular response to the idea of transitioning into the mother role on a major series?
I don’t remember if there was a specific conversation about her as the mother as much as it was about the material. I think that’s what was exciting for us, was that we hadn’t seen her do this kind of role before.
TV has evolved so much—even two years ago, it was different. For someone like Winona who really hadn’t considered that, this was a big leap.
I didn’t know actually if this would go for or against us, but one of the things I knew about her was that when she was younger, there was a kidnapping of a kid in Petaluma [California], where she’s from.
It was a big deal. She became a spokesperson, trying to lend her voice to solving this mystery. When I read it and we started discussing her, I just thought, Oh my God. She’s either going to really connect to this because of that, because she was so connected as a young person to that, or she’s going to hate it because of that, and not want to have anything to do with it.
I know that once she and the Duffers sat down, part of their conversation actually did revolve around that experience. Obviously it went our way, so we’re happy for that.
What was the process of casting your young leads? How many kids did you see throughout the process?
In the movie we did together, it was basically three people in a bunker—parents and a kid. We’d worked together in auditions with kids, so I knew what kind of kids they responded to, and I also knew how they, as directors, work with kids.
The place that we started was discussing whether or not these could be kids that we found in an open call, who had no experience, or if we thought they should have some experience. We also, by the way, did not have very much time to cast this. Some movies have a six-month search for the one kid who’s the lead; that was not the case.
We opened it up to kids all over the world. We saw nearly 2,000 kids internationally, but we didn’t do any open calls. We agreed that with the time constraints of shooting a TV show—their first show, that they were going to be writing, directing, and showrunning—that probably what we were going to end up with were kids who had at least some experience. That’s sort of where we drew the line.
In the end, a few of them were on Broadway for years at a time, and they each had done at least one significant role. Millie was on a BBC miniseries where she was unbelievable; Finn [Wolfhard] had done an arc on a TV show, so none of them were inexperienced.
Was there an extensive process of chemistry reads, with the casting of your child actors?
Absolutely. For some parts, we only had one actor, which is the Gaten Matarazzo part. He was the only one. For the others, we had at least a couple, and then we just mixed and matched.
It actually was very clear once you got them in a room. The idea was that, in this case, you really were casting a group, as opposed to one at a time. It wouldn’t have worked to cast one at a time.
Did Netflix express any anxiety with this process? Even with your adult leads attached, you had to find child actors who, together, could hold up a series.
We always knew it was ambitious to expect that we would find kids that were going to be able to pull this off. At the same time, remember, it was a tiny show. They are very free—or at least they were at the time—with their tiny shows.
Their expectations were probably much lower than it seems. The scripts were great, the Duffers were exciting, and we had Winona. They trusted the team. Sort of from the very beginning, we were finding kids that we loved, so there was a level of comfort.
With Stranger Things, all of the kids you cast became world famous almost instantly. It must be greatly satisfying to help actors bridge transitions and rise in their careers.
I think that’s exciting for anyone involved in what we do. It ranges from introducing kids who no one has seen on a particular platform before, but also giving [visibility to] David Harbour, someone who most of us would recognize if you said, “Oh, you know. That guy who played the other newscaster on The Newsroom.”
Getting to give someone like that a platform—someone who’s been around, who’s such a brilliant actor who people in the business know, who’s really been toiling and working—is really exciting.
Have you long had a sense of Chris Sullivan’s star potential? You cast him in The Knick and Stranger Things before he broke out with This Is Us.
Absolutely. I’ve loved Chris Sullivan since we found him on The Knick. He did such beautiful work there, so, yeah. Watching the trajectory of any actor is always really exciting. I cast Donald Glover in a small part in The Martian; then, I put him in a small part in the second Magic Mike.
He had already been developing a show, obviously, so to then watch what happens next with him, it’s all very exciting.
What was the thought process in casting the villain role that went to Matthew Modine?
Well, part of it was I don’t think we identified him as a villain—not so directly. I think with him, we did consider again the possibility of using an iconic actor that the audience, or at least maybe the cinephile, would know.
Listen, the Duffers are cinephiles. What’s really interesting about them is that they came up in the ‘80s blockbuster, those kind of movies, so they have a real love for pop culture and that side of it. We did think this would be a good place to put someone like that, and Matthew has such a mysterious quality to his acting that we felt like it could play both ways—that you wouldn’t necessarily know how to feel about him.
Then obviously, more is revealed, and more will continue to be revealed. He works for that. He’s got such a range and potential and history that we’ve seen in his work that lends itself to this in a really good way.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far with this project?
Listen, a lot of what we cast is locals in Atlanta. I oversee all of that. To find actors who are at the same level as all these other people, and that can hold scenes opposite them, is always a challenge with any location. I will say that I think we’ve had great luck in Atlanta—each year, the pool there has gotten stronger and stronger. That’s where we found Shannon [Purser], who plays Barb, and that’s also where we found Joe Keery. Those two people, who were really pivotal characters, we found them there, but we really had to dig. We really just kept on pushing, but that’s to be expected.
I think we really took care with this one to just keep digging. We didn’t settle on any single part, down to the one-year-old in the family that doesn’t speak.
Now that you’ve established the world of Stranger Things with Season 1, how have the challenges of casting shifted?
I’d say an interesting challenge was that when we were casting Season 2, the entire world was obsessed with the show, which meant that we had big name actors who wanted to be on the show. There was, on one hand, the excitement of “Such and such wants to play a role. How do we fit them in?” which we tempered by staying really true to the show. Maybe the challenge there was not getting sucked into the idea of being able to have access to way more people than we did in Season 1, and staying true to the authenticity of what we had already created.
The real challenge, when you got down to it, was finding people who could be as strong and as dynamic as the ones who we cast in Season 1 who everyone fell in love with. It’s kind of crazy: When these kids become so iconic so quickly, it’s tough to imagine any other kids slotting in next to them, but I think we did. I think the people we found are their own force.
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