Reviews of Cary Fukunaga’s "Beasts of No Nation" have largely been glowing, and the real standout is the drama’s bright young star, Abraham Attah. The 14-year-old was just awarded the Marcello Mastroianni’s Best Young Actor Award at the 2015 Venice Film Festival for his performance as Agu, an 11-year-old orphan-turned-child soldier in an unnamed African country.
Indiewire’s Eric Kohn wrote that Attah’s performance "marks one of the most impressive screen debuts in recent memory." The film also stars Idris Elba as a fierce warlord who recruits the young boy to serve in his band of guerrilla soldiers during a bloody civil war.
Casting child actors is hard enough, but it’s even more challenging with such a physically and emotionally demanding role. For "Beasts of No Nation" to work, whoever plays Agu must be fully convincing.
"You need to feel you are with Agu from the very beginning of the film, and he has to be the audience’s guide into this entire experience," said Fukunaga in the press notes. "I knew I needed to find a kid who had an edge to him, someone who had not necessarily led an easy life. He wasn’t going to come from the 2% of Ghana. He was going to come from some level of the streets. And he had to be someone who could embody Agu’s completely different emotional states from the beginning of the film to the end."
To find Agu, casting director Harrison Nesbit arrived in Accra, Ghana two months before filming began, where he circulated fliers throughout the city and visited schools and soccer games on a rented motorbike.
"Every slum has a broken down school that’s just way over packed with kids. And in one of these, where we found Abraham, each classroom would let a certain amount of kids go to speak with me, and I wasn’t really finding anyone that I felt was very interesting, so I took a walk around and there were a bunch of older kids skipping class it looked like, at least," Nesbit recently told Indiewire.
"I saw that among the older kids was this young looking guy, maybe 13 or 14. I asked him if he was interested in auditioning for a film. He said, ‘No, not really.’ I guess he was shy. But later, kids kind of pushed him to do it. And once he got on camera, he just started rapping and there was just this kind of a charm about him, and we invited him to come to a callback session."
Nesbit screened around 1,000 overall or around 100 per day, he estimated. "Cary had an image of what he wanted Agu to look like, so I had that in mind. And for that matter, I was looking for kids who had some sort of charisma," he said.
At the callback session, Attah "requested that he stay for the entire day because he was enjoying it so much," Nesbit said.
As part of the process, Nesbit would show the kids clips of war films and get them to re-enact some of the scenes. Although Attah had no acting experience, he was a natural and even cried during the audition. Though he had never been a child soldier, he had seen enough hardship in his young life that he seemed to naturally understand Agu’s situation.
"He just has such a soulful presence about him and he has an incredible empathy, I think, with how he was acting. That he wasn’t pretending, that it seemed like he was going back to things he had seen or just using his crazy imagination to put himself in these roles or in that position that we were asking," said Nesbit. "We were asking these kids to go to some pretty dark places pretty quickly, and Abraham had the emotional capacity to do that, and it was evident."
For his part, Nesbit learned the casting ropes alongside his mother, veteran casting director Avy Kaufman, who has worked on films such as "Brokeback Mountain," "The Sixth Sense" and "Life of Pi."
Nesbit traveled with his mother to India a couple of times when she was casting "Life of Pi." Although he said "that was completely different because India has a great infrastructure for film," he did note that "it was a similar experience of going to various neighborhoods and auditioning tons of kids."
Ultimately, though, what he learned through the process of casting "Beasts" is "not to overthink things. You should just trust your gut. And Abraham fell into that."
"Beasts of No Nation" will premiere on Netflix and in theaters on October 16.
READ MORE: First Reviews of "Beasts of No Nation"