Casting directors have a strange distinction in the awards world: Their guild has an Academy branch, but it’s the only one without its own Oscar category. Imagine for a moment that they did. What are the best-cast films of 2016?
IndieWire asked 13 of the top casting directors to nominate films worthy of casting recognition this year. There were a few restrictions worth noting. Although casting directors often get early sneak peeks at films, many noted there are some films they still hadn’t seen. In particular, many are anxious to find out what legendary casting director Ellen Lewis has cooked up for Martin Scorsese’s “Silence.” The other restriction, which was imposed as responses came in: They couldn’t all write about “Moonlight.” (We’ll dig further into the casting of that film in another article.)
What follows is another lens through which to see our favorite movies of the year. Many of us, this author included, are quick to highlight expressive cinematography, enveloping production design, visceral editing, a moving score, or an individual standout performance. What we take for granted is the vital role casting directors play in interpreting, and bringing to life, the visions of our favorite directors.
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Nominee: “Hail, Caesar!” (Ellen Chenoweth)
Douglas Aibel (“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Manchester By the Sea”): As there is always a tendency to focus on the great films released in the latter part of the film season, I thought I’d single out the casting achievement on a film seen at the launch of this tumultuous year. Ellen Chenoweth’s work on the Coen Brothers’ film “Hail, Caesar!” was impeccable and beautifully rendered – full of surprise and delight. Casting a comedy, particularly a satirical work set in another era (in this case, Hollywood in the 1950s), provides unique challenges to the casting director and to the company of actors. Actors are required to be both stylized and real, to provide a sly and ironic wink at the past, but not to “play down” to it. In essence, to perform with gusto, style and yet not overdo it.
I think the ensemble assembled by Ms. Chenoweth in support of the vision of her directors, the Messrs. Coen, achieved this brilliantly. Both the established stars in the film (George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Channing Tatum, and Tilda Swinton), talented young rising stars (Alden Ehrenreich) and most especially some marvelously idiosyncratic actors from the New York stage (like Heather Goldenhersh as a hapless studio assistant and Max Baker as a Communist screenwriter) took the plunge, and engaged full force in bringing a very particular world to life with great enthusiasm, wit, spirit, and abandon. A wonderfully dotty mix of new and established artists putting on the clothes and affects of a long-ago era, and breathing new life into it.
Nominee: “Hell Or High Water” (Richard Hicks & Jo Edna Boldin)
Jenny Jue (“Snowpiercer,” “Inglourious Basterds”): I imagine when Richard Hicks and Jo Edna Boldin first read the script, there was an immediate excitement over what could be done with these day-player roles. Dale Dickey is the first actor really shown, which was a sign of what to expect from this film — humor in its authenticity. Katy Mixon is a great choice as the average-sized waitress with too much makeup, trying fruitlessly to hit on Chris Pine. Character actor Buck Taylor, held at gunpoint, delivers a perfect, “You’re damn right I got a gun on me.”
I think sometimes people don’t realize the thought that goes into balancing out an ensemble like this. Albuquerque local William Sterchi is a pudgy bank manager with a gentle, high-pitched voice that is a great contrast in his scene with a towering Jeff Bridges. One scene with Bridges questioning a timid female bank teller, who is barely out of high school, precedes a diner scene in which the cranky smart-ass waitress is so old her skin dangles from her bones (the later shot of her walking across the street with a cane is awesome, too).
Richard and Jo Edna balance each scene’s energy and chemistry, while maintaining a continuity and authenticity throughout. It feels effortless because it’s authentic. You’re not watching actors. You’re seeing people, and that is really special casting.
Nominee: “The Jungle Book” (Sarah Finn)
Bernie Telsey (“Miss Sloane,” “Mary Poppins Returns”): When I saw “The Jungle Book” this spring, one thought ran in the back of my head the whole movie, “How did Sarah find him?” Sarah is Sarah Finn, who cast the film, and “him” is Neel Sethi who plays Mowgli.
As casting directors, we usually know which role will present the biggest challenge as soon as we’re done reading the script. I assume Sarah knew about five pages in, since Mowgli was the only character who was not computer generated. Mowgli had to carry the whole film using all his emotions, physicality, and sense of humor. And he had to do it all as a 12-year-old acting opposite hand puppets and green screens. As an audience member, I loved watching Mowgli’s journey through Neel’s eyes and feeling everything he was feeling right along with him. I could feel what a tremendous discovery this was and how they got it so right.
Nominee: “I, Daniel Blake” (Kahleen Crawford)
Lucy Bevan (“Snowden,” “Ghost in the Shell”): “I, Daniel Blake” is a brilliantly cast film. I believed every actor in every scene. Hayley Squires gives a devastatingly convincing portrait of a woman struggling to bring up her kids; she never tips into sentimentality and remains relatable throughout. Dave Johns is witty, clear and identifiable in his struggles. The supporting cast were spot on; Sharon Percy has the tough job of being unforgiving in the benefits center and Kate Rutter’s compassion shone through in her scenes. The film is set in a specific time and place, and the excellent casting is a huge part of bringing the audience into that world. Many congratulations to Kahleen Crawford on such fine work.
Nominee: “Other People” (Allison Jones)
David Rubin (“Gravity,” “The English Patient”): When a film exists in a kind of hybrid genre and requires a tone that’s a real challenge to get right, the casting process takes on an extra dimension and can have even more crucial importance. Chris Kelly’s remarkable debut film, “Other People,” is a dark comedy about impending death that succeeds in walking the tightrope between comic absurdity and stark reality with aplomb. That is due in no small part to the inspired casting of Allison Jones.
Jones’ inspiration here was to provide actors who can’t help but be funny — skilled, improvisational performers who intrinsically generate laughs — but who she also knows are able to work from a place of simple emotional truth. No pushing for laughs, no behavior that seems outsized for the moment at hand. Just honesty, in this case delivered with the unexpected, neurotic flourishes that come with great character performance.
Surrounding Jesse Plemons, who provides an enormously sympathetic protagonist at the film’s center, are Molly Shannon, Zach Woods, John Early, Matt Walsh, Rose Abdoo, Paul Dooley, Kerri Kenney, Lennon Parham and others, bringing their skilled comedic chops to real-life circumstances with a deft balance that not just any funny person can deliver. They take things right up to the line, but never over it. That’s the great talent of casting director Allison Jones at work. She knows exactly who can be funny in the “real world” and wring laughs from the most awkward and tragic circumstance.
Then, to top it off, Allison introduces into the equation a teenage comedy dynamo, J.J. Totah, as the kid brother of Jesse Plemons’ friend. Unabashedly flamboyant, Totah basically stops the show, but his audacious personality is not a comedic turn. It’s essentially who he is in life, so he provides a welcome dose of outrageousness without for a minute compromising the film’s authenticity.
These choices are not accidents. They’re the judgment calls of a casting director who understands and rises to meet the challenges at hand, and are a tremendous contribution to the success of the film.
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Nominee: “Lion” (Kirsty McGregor & Tess Joseph)
Cathy Sandrich Gelfond (“The Comedian,” “The Normal Heart”): Every once in awhile you see a film that grabs you by the throat and reaches down into your soul. For me this year, that movie is “Lion.” The bravery, grit, and wherewithal of the film’s main character Saroo Brierley is nothing short of remarkable and the power of the story rests primarily in the hands of the two actors portraying him.
Sunny Pawar (young Saroo) is a force of nature, whose truth is etched on his face from start to finish. There is not a false note in the performance of this eight-year-old non-actor who speaks only Hindi, making his performance that much more transcendent. This movie lives and dies on his performance and the film would be would be completely different without him in it. It took incredibly gifted and skilled casting directors, Kirsty McGregor and Tess Joseph, months of searching to find him, and then nurture him through the audition process, enabling him to reveal his best self.
Sunny’s devastatingly brilliant, visceral performance sets the stage for Dev Patel to shine as the older Saroo, and shine he does. In a harrowingly personal performance that calls on him to explore the meaning of family and identity, Dev brings us face to face with our own sense of self.
Much of the magic in this film comes from the supporting actors who are perfectly cast. The rural Indian world personified by his mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose) and brother Guddu (Abishek Bharteh) as the nurturing, loving home base which is ripped from him after a mistaken train ride tosses him into the terror of the materialistic urban sprawl personified by Noor (Tannishha Chatterjee), the seemingly kind and compassionate woman who is actually trying to sell him into slavery. Thankfully, young Saroo finds a warm and loving home with his adoptive parents, the Brierleys (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). Nicole Kidman’s performance is a revelation and mirrors Dev’s in its depth and searing honesty. Rooney Mara, playing Saroo’s girlfriend, provides emotional ballast and a larger world view.
Nominee: “Captain Fantastic” (Jeanne McCarthy)
Yesi Ramirez (“Moonlight”): One of the challenges all casting directors face is when we are presented with material that focuses on children and young adults. Add an ensemble of kids who are related and you’ve doubled the challenge exponentially. The casting in “Captain Fantastic” makes that challenge seem easy.
Casting young adults and kids is a unique skill, different from other kinds of casting. I find it becomes even more important for the audience to believe they inhabit the same world. If it’s an ensemble of kids, you have to believe these kids would share space with one another. The connection between the siblings in the film was tangible. Every single young actor in the film brought the character to life in a very real way. Their performances were subtle when they needed to be, yet they were very much alive.
I had similar challenges casting “Moonlight,” where I had to search for young actors who could handle the heavy and beautifully written material, but who could also awaken the audience’s empathy. There’s a high level of patience and guidance that happens when you are in a room with young adults or kids. In order to extract their best performance an understanding of who they are and what they need as actors is imperative. If this could be achieved during their audition and the understanding continues on set with direction by talented directors such as Matt Ross, or in my case Barry Jenkins, then we’ve succeeded.
Nominee: “Moonlight” (Yesi Ramirez)
Gayle Keller (“Certain Women,” “Louie”): It is very difficult now to cast a film and have it find distribution without a star name attached. Every independent film I have ever worked on needed a name actor to help bring in the financing of the film, even if the director was known. But “Moonlight” manages to defy this equation and present an amazing group of actors, 80 percent of them I have never seen. I was familiar with Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, and Andre Holland, but the rest of the brilliant cast were unknowns to me. And when you are in the business of casting, you do tend to know a lot of actors.
The other aspect of this film that I found exceptional was the casting of the actors playing Chiron and Kevin at different ages. That is always a difficult task in any film, and Yesi Ramirez did a terrific job of finding Alex Hibbert and Jaden Piner to match with Ashton Sanders and Jharrel Jerome, and later Andre Holland and Trevante Rhodes.
Mindy Marin (“They Live By Night,” “Nightcrawler”): “Moonlight” has a beautiful, subtle, and exacting approach to its casting. There is a simplicity to it that is lyrical, emotional. It is painting with humanity, a fade in on a great spirit at three different times in his life, living in a tough landscape.
The casting director, Yesi Ramirez, so clearly helped usher Barry Jenkins’ vision of the film into reality by summoning just the right actors whose iterations of character never hit a false note. It is a delicate dance that illuminates the interior of a soul, taking us on a journey that leaves an imprint in our minds and hearts. This one is a dance without a misstep. The work is mesmerizing, heartbreaking and life affirming. The casting of this movie portrayed the measure of a boy into manhood and the actual measure of his face and spirit as he evolved was seamless, from child to teenager to adulthood.
It is so much work to make casting look easy. It is laying bare all the days of auditions in search of that magic moment when the right actors (or sometimes non-actors) to tell the story come into focus. The choices in “Moonlight” stayed with me and replayed in my consciousness. They continued to define themselves even days later.
Mark Bennett (“20th Century Women,” “Zero Dark Thirty”): I found it noteworthy that, of all the rhapsodic reviews Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” received, more of them don’t make immediate and specific mention of the cast, beyond generally describing it, as an ensemble, as exemplary (which it is). One of the pleasures of cinema is watching a film that immerses you so completely in an environment that you feel like you could be witnessing “real life.” Films like this tend to be most successful in creating such an illusion when their cast feels both unfamiliar – without the jolts that can happen when a Big Movie Star suddenly appears on screen – and specific to that particular environment.
The cast of “Moonlight” is made up in part of relative unknowns (most notably the remarkable Trevante Rhodes), and in part of actors who have bodies of work, but who one wouldn’t quite classify as household names. Even the actors in it that mainstream audiences are most likely to recognize – Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae – have been cast in roles far different from how we’ve seen them in the past (the transformation of the British Harris into a drug-addicted Miami mother, in particular, is stunning).
Each role has been written as a showcase, and the actors manage the trick of pulling off this demanding material while never compromising the film’s immersive realism by drawing attention to their own acting through melodrama or cliché or showy actorly tics. It is easy to allow oneself the fantasy of believing we’re witnessing scenes from the lives of “real people” on the streets of Miami – and yet, the work the actors are doing to help create that illusion is skilled and nuanced in a way that only trained actors could deliver. One is grateful that independent films like “Moonlight” exist, to give actors of this caliber a chance to exercise their talents in a way they wouldn’t often get to in studio films.
The fact that the cast is so excellent, given the film’s low budget, and the fact that for budgetary reasons some of the cast had to be found locally in Florida, makes the accomplishment of casting director Yesi Ramirez that much more impressive. Anyone who’s worked on low-budget films knows the difficulty of assembling an awards-worthy cast when the traditional talent pool is constantly being picked over by films or TV shows offering better money or more guaranteed exposure. Casting kids, especially kids as good as these kids, is that much harder. Kid casting is always labor intensive and requires a lot of footwork, especially when you’re casting kids of minority descent, who are often under-represented in the industry (trust me, if you put out a call looking for cute white kids, agents will send them over by the truckload). But then on top of that, to have to cast three actors to play each of the film’s two leading roles at different ages, and have us believe that we’re witnessing those same characters at three different points in their lives? Forget the CSA’s Artios Award – Yesi should get a Purple Heart.
Nominee: “Loving” (Francine Maisler)
Richard Hicks (“Hell or High Water,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm”): For me, casting at its best is seamless, and uses our craft to keep the focus firmly on the story. While at the same time quality casting can expand a film’s emotional resonance, so that the actor or actress in a particular role feels inevitable; not like the ‘best’ choice so much as the ‘only’ choice.
The casting of Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in “Loving” is an example. Here we have two top-tier actors who not only physically resemble their real-life counterparts, but they also share an ability to speak volumes without saying a word. The harmony they have as actors, and the inner qualities they share with their real-life originals, allow the audience to relax into the film version of this couple; to quickly put their trust in the two of them and in the film, so that as the story unfolds they kind of “walk with us” through Jeff Nichols’ movie.
Patricia DiCerto (“Café Society,” “Blue Jasmine”): The responsibility felt by a casting director when given the task of casting real-life characters — historical or modern — can be overwhelming. You want to give the roles the attention and justice they deserve. A director may give you guidelines to recreate the essence of the person without the burden of having to find an exact physical replica. Though, in some cases, the likeness is of critical importance. Jeff Nichols’ beautifully cast “Loving” is a perfect example of striking gold on both counts.
Photo by James Gourley/REX/Shutterstock
The film, a love story set in segregated Virginia, follows Richard and Mildred Loving, whose interracial marriage was the basis for the historic Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia which made it legal for a mixed racial couple to marry. I was already familiar with the depth of talent of Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga. Both are incredibly skilled actors, and while they bear an uncanny resemblance to the actual Lovings, neither is American. Edgerton is Australian and Negga is Irish Ethiopian. Both are blessed with keen ears for accents, which perhaps weighed heavily in their favor.
Francine Maisler brought Negga to Nichols very early on in the process, and Edgerton had starred as an American in a previous film directed by Nichols. I had the pleasure of screening the film at an AMPAS event in New York, at which the director, producer, and stars spoke afterwards about the production. Nichols explained he never felt burdened to cast an American. “I didn’t set out to cast foreign actors in these very American roles,” he said. “But in hindsight [I] felt quite smart.” He went on to explain, “I could have cast a Southern actor….this [Virginian] accent was more specific. I don’t know if an American actor would have gone through or been as used to those same [speech] mechanics.”
His decision to go the foreign-actor route highlights the trend of having foreign actors play Americans and, more specifically, taking on iconic Americans. This trend has proved fruitful: Anthony Hopkins as Nixon, Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, and David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr.
The challenges involved in casting an authentic period piece extend beyond the leads to the entire ensemble and affect the way you put together your casting puzzle. It takes an incredible amount of patience and stamina. In regards to “Loving,” the local casting directors deserve a great deal of kudos for assembling such a diverse wealth of talent. “Those actors in their supporting roles,” Nichols revealed, “I had imagery of them. I knew what they looked like and I was so influenced by it, I couldn’t dismiss it.”
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Nominee: “The Salesman”
Heidi Levitt (“The Artist,” “JFK”): Casting is that secret hidden ingredient in any successful film. When the casting is right, we are drawn into the story and we let go of any preconceptions about the actor we are watching because the actor becomes the character. Often it is easier for us insiders to do this while watching foreign films as we are less familiar with the talent on screen. But what I love most about watching foreign films is seeing actors who don’t look like they are ready for the red carpet, or a spread in People magazine. I love discovering actors who look more like they could be anyone, complete with imperfections and off the beaten track appearances. And it seems to me that I see those actors more often in films from abroad.
“The Salesman,” directed by Asghar Farhadi, is one of those perfect ensembles. I was familiar with one of the leading actors, Shahab Hosseini, who was in Farhadi’s Oscar-nominated film, “A Separation,” but other than him I was unfamiliar.
The film is a brilliant drama that uses Arthur Miller’s “Death of A Salesman” as a backdrop, but picks up on the life of the actors performing the play and brilliantly weaves together their lives with the little moments of Miller’s play. We see the backstage drama of a couple navigating life looking for a new apartment because their building is unsafe, like the crumbling city they live in. We see the day-to-day life of actors who do not make a living as actors. We come to recognize them as people we recognize in our world. They are no different than struggling actors in Los Angeles or New York.
These actors, from the older landlord to the single mom and her young son to the leading couple, who play both husband and wife and Willy Loman and Linda, were all flawless playing both their roles in the play and artists who must have day jobs, too. I felt as though I was a fly on the wall watching a documentary about actors who work in basement theaters without the glitz of Broadway or Hollywood. The stark neo-realistic performances left me bereft when the emotional world of the characters built to a crescendo and the lead couple’s relationship was torn open. It was a casting director’s dream to see nuanced acting that combined theatrical skill with the intimate moments of auteur filmmaking. Indeed, talent is everywhere and without borders.
Editor’s Note: IndieWire has confirmed that director Asghar Farhadi cast “The Saleman” himself.