Considering the awards attention being lavished on the cast, and for Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris in particular, the uniformity of opinion wasn’t entirely unexpected. However, the peers of “Moonlight” casting director Yesi Ramirez also provided eye-opening insight into the significant obstacles of casting Barry Jenkins’ film.
“Forget the CSA’s Artios Award – Yesi should get a Purple Heart,” remarked casting director Mark Bennett (“20th Century Women”).
It is a challenge to cast children, especially for the emotionally raw material found in the script that Jenkins adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play. It is a challenge to rely on local, non-acting performers. It is a challenge to find three actors to play each of the film’s two leading roles at different ages. It is a challenge to pull these disparate pieces, alongside the demanding showcase roles of Harris and Ali, into an unified film that demands its audience be immersed in a realistic portrayal of Miami’s Liberty Square neighborhood.
To pull this off, and for the film to now be racking up awards, is testament to an amazing piece of casting. To do this working under the restrictions of a low-budget indie is mission impossible.
With voting for SAG nominations coming to a close this week, IndieWire looks at how Ramirez, Jenkins, and the “Moonlight” team created this ensemble.
There is an element of personal storytelling that is key to “Moonlight.” Like their protagonist Chiron, both Jenkins and McCarney grew up in Miami with mothers who suffered from drug addiction. What’s equally important is that Chiron’s world was also familiar to Miami native Ramirez. Before taking a break from law school to tend to her ailing father, Ramirez studied to be a juvenile public defender and worked with at-risk kids in Florida.
“After my father passed and I returned to Los Angeles, my brain just wasn’t in law school, so I took a job in Universal’s legal department and my boss was Joanna Colbert, who was the head of casting,” Ramirez told IndieWire.
Ramirez became fascinated by Colbert’s job, and followed her when Colbert left Universal to launch her own casting agency. Working under Colbert, and later other top casting directors, Ramirez got the chance to cast independent features on her own in 2013.
“‘Meeting Barry and reading ‘Moonlight’ was this amazing thing where my old life had merged with my career as a casting director,” said Ramirez. “I instantly knew these kids in the script.”
Finding young actors who could play them, and helping them succeed once cast, would be a battle.
“Casting kids, especially kids as good as these kids, is that much harder,” said Bennett. “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.”
The legwork was particularly difficult because the budget didn’t afford Ramirez a casting assistant or associate. Jenkins and Ramirez believed the youngest versions of Chiron and Keven should be Miami locals. Ramirez had to stay in Los Angeles to find adult actors, and gave pointers to Jenkins and producer Adele Romanski on posting casting notices as the two searched local schools.
When Ramierez got the audition tapes for Miami locals Alex Hibbert and Jaden Piner, she said it was clear they were right for the roles. However, it’s one thing to find children who display the right instincts for the characters; it’s another to ensure that those instincts reveal themselves in production.
“When we start a project we know what our director is like, and a lot of our job is psychology and being able to distinguish which actors are better with which directors,” said Ramirez. “You need to be able to give a director a heads up, ‘Hey, this child has a tendency to go in this direction,’ almost giving them a map to their acting abilities.”
The other psychological aspect was figuring out how the young actors could find ways into the material. Ramirez believes that knowing what the kids’ home life is like was vital. She also said she can often learn more when they aren’t acting.
“How they talk to you after the cameras turns off, how do they react when the camera turns on,” she said, “that’s often more revealing than then the audition.”
“Moonlight” has been lauded for its authentic portrayal of Liberty Square. Although Ramirez admits casting non-professional actors to fill smaller roles gave “a deep sense of Miami,” she had serious reservations.
“I’ve worked on other productions where directors want ‘the real people’ and it can often go terribly wrong,” said Ramirez. “Most of the time, ‘real people’ freeze in front of the camera.”
Ultimately, it was one of those risks a low-budget film like “Moonlight” had to take. She credits the producers and Jenkins for the extra steps they took in doing community outreach.
“And like all things in the low-budget world, there’s some luck involved,” added Ramirez.
Possibly the film’s biggest challenge was casting Chiron and Kevin for the films three-chapter structure, where the characters go from age 10, to high schoolers, to late 20s. Jenkins never wanted to age an actor to play two or more of the roles; he always wanted three different actors to play the two leads.
Producer Adele Romanski got Ramirez and Jenkins together for breakfast one year before “Moonlight” even had financing in place. The two hit it off. Ramirez was drawn to Jenkins’ emphasis on finding the best actors for the parts and not getting hung up on having the three Chirons and Kevins share a strong physical resemblance.
On IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, Jenkins said his focus lay in creating cause-and-effect connections for the characters. By leaving the Chiron character at a defining moment of heightened emotional distress, it let the audience understand that as a direct result he became a different person years into the future.
“[When we cut], here’s the result of that defining moment,” said Jenkins. “I have to give credit to Yesi Ramirez for understanding that was what we were doing, that it was OK for these guys to be 80% different, but 20% [physically] the same.”
The key, according to Ramirez, was finding the essence of the two characters and finding actors who could embody that.
“For Chiron, the common thread was vulnerability in their eyes that really made these actors stand out,” she said.
Looking past physicality allowed Ramirez and Jenkins to see past Trevante Rhodes’ muscular, fortified exterior, and discover that underneath lay the vulnerable Chiron of the film’s first chapter.
Courtesy of Color Collective and A24
“Trevante came in to read for Kevin, but Barry and I could instantly see it the moment he walked into the room,” said Ramirez. “It was in his eyes.”
Later, they found themselves open to Andre Holland — who they initially considered for Juan, the role played by Mahershala Ali — becoming Kevin. Watching the tape Holland made as Kevin brought tears to Jenkins and Ramirez.
Ramirez says that her biggest role was to be the script’s cheerleader. “Moonlight” could allow African-American actors to showcase their talents in ways other films and television shows didn’t. The key was getting people to actually read the script, because there wasn’t a large payday involved.
“Anyone who’s worked on low-budget films knows the difficulty of assembling an award-worthy cast when the traditional talent pool is constantly being picked over by films or TV shows offering better money or more guaranteed exposure,” said Bennett, while applauding Ramirez’s work.
It was a struggle, but eventually agents started to see the potential of “Moonlight,” while Ramirez and the producers used their connections to bring in actors for auditions.
Photo by David Bornfriend, courtesy of A24
The middle version of Chiron and Kevin proved nearly impossible to cast. Many actors stayed away from the roles that included showing the men in a moment of physical intimacy. (This proved especially true when Ramirez tried to tap into the music community, looking for the next potential crossover star.) The legwork was intense as she scoured audition tapes and headshots from across the country, before they came to see Aston Sanders and Jharrel Jerome as the missing pieces.
Ramirez admits that while they embody the essence of Kevin and Chiron, it was nerve wracking to figure out where the line was in regards to physical likeness.
“We still had be somewhat conscious of appearance,” said Ramirez. “We couldn’t cross that line where it pulled the audience out of the moment.”
Photo by David Bornfriend, courtesy of A24
As the “Moonlight” ensemble poses for pictures at festivals and awards shows, it suggests that everyone was a happy family on set. In reality, while they become friendly promoting the film, the realities of low-budget filmmaking meant no rehearsal time. Ali, who was working on Marvel’s “Luke Cage,” flew in on weekends to shoot his scenes with young Hibbert. Naomie Harris had only three days to shoot her character’s three stages, stretching over close to 20 years as Chiron’s drug-addicted mother.
Ramirez said it was key to connect with the actors well ahead of their shoot days and to make sure they could find ways to research the roles on their own. Ultimately, however, the director must be the unifying force, which is why as a casting director must cast to fit the director as much as the movie.
“It speaks to Barry that he was able to guide them with his direction,” said Ramirez. “I can only prepare them and match up to a certain point. I really don’t know that there are that many directors capable of doing what he did to make this ensemble whole.”