Casting directors remain the only job in the opening titles that doesn’t have its own Oscar category, but there’s reason to believe that will change. Already recognized by the Emmys, casting directors have made tremendous strides since they unionized in 2005 and negotiated their first contract with studios. In 2013, the guild earned its own Academy branch and received three seats at the Academy’s Board of Governors’ table. Last year, Lynn Stalmaster (“The Graduate,” “West Side Story”) received an honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards, becoming the first-ever casting director to receive an Academy Award.
So: Let’s imagine for a moment casting directors had their own Oscar category in 2017: What are the best-cast films of the year?
IndieWire asked 15 of the top casting directors to nominate films worthy of casting recognition this year. We often think of the best films in terms of their expressive cinematography, enveloping production design, visceral editing, moving score, or standout performances. We often take for granted the vital role casting directors play in interpreting a director’s vision and bringing it to life. What follows is a different lens through which to appreciate some of the best movies of 2017.
The nominations appear in alphabetical order by film title.
“The Big Sick,” Casting By Gayle Keller
Photo by Nicole Rivelli
Bernie Telsey (“The Greatest Showman,” “Mary Poppins Returns”): When I began thinking about which movie I wanted to write about, my mind kept coming back to “The Big Sick.” There was something about the whole cast — including Kumail Nanjiani as himself and the magical Zoe Kazan — that captivated me. The performances stayed with me long after I watched the film; everyone felt authentic and real — a testament to Gayle Keller’s work. I especially loved watching Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, whose work I know so well, disappear into their roles. As a parent myself, I found their performances to be so grounded in truth, which made everything even funnier and the connection to the audience even deeper. On another note, as a lifelong New Yorker, I always love seeing our local actors (Vella Lovell, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Jeremy Shamos, Rebecca Naomi Jones, and many more) in big movies like this.
“Darkest Hour,” Casting By Jina Jay
Terri Taylor (“Get Out”): When casting a film based on well-known historic figures, the casting director must consider the impact the characters had on the world as well as the effect they had in their private lives. Not only will family members and society hold the filmmakers accountable for the performances, the audience will be pulled out of the story if they don’t feel the portrayals are authentic. To be mindful of all this while effectively telling the story is one of the most challenging tasks a casting director can face. And yet Jina Jay makes it look effortless with her sophisticated and inspired cast in the “Darkest Hour.” She helped director Joe Wright beautifully deliver his vision to the screen. And with a character as iconic as Winston Churchill, the pressure to do it right must’ve been monumental, but Gary Oldman delivers. He is astoundingly brilliant in the role. Even though there have been many fine portrayals of Churchill over the years, Oldman’s performance is so original it’s as if you’ve never seen it done before.
Undoubtedly Jina’s process involved extensive research to thoughtfully present ideas to Joe Wright. Each name on her casting list, whether it be for Churchill, Halifax, or King George, had to be actors she felt could be authentic while also being colorful enough to deliver performances that weren’t just impressions. Landing on actors such as Ronald Pickup as Neville Chamberlain, and Ben Mendelsohn as King George, had a significant impact on the experience of the film. They brought their own flare to the characters while still remaining true to the roles. The women in the film, led by Lily James as the timid yet resilient Elizabeth Layton, and Kristin Scott Thomas as the fiercely supportive Clementine Churchill, were undeniably additive. The space they occupied was in perfect harmony with the masculine world of the British government in 1940.
Compiling recognizable faces that disappear into the fiber of the storytelling is rarely achievable. It was done exquisitely in “Darkest Hour.”
“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” Casting By Debbie McWilliams
Billy Hopkins (“Mudbound,” “Good Will Hunting”): Debbie McWilliams’ casting of Paul McGuigan’s “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is spot on. Annette Bening plays the faded film star Gloria Grahame near the end of her life. Jamie Bell is the young actor Peter Turner from Liverpool. The pairing of Annette and Jamie on screen creates chemistry that is electric. The audience is fully engaged in their whirlwind romance due to actors living fully in their reality. It takes a strong eye for casting to innately know two actors will be able to deliver that kind of work.
The rest of the ensemble is rounded out by impeccable casting in the roles of the family members. On his side there is Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, Stephen Graham and Leanne Best, whom all readily lend their support in their own way. The characters stay true to an authentic Liverpool family dynamic. One scene between Annette Bening with Vanessa Redgrave as her mother and Frances Barber as her envious sister is enough to show us the complicated family relationship. Debbie has a keen sense for assembling a family around her leads. She pays equally careful attention to her casting of the day players with memorable faces inhabiting the roles. The film leaves a lasting impression.
“The Florida Project,” Casting By Carmen Cuba
Heidi Levitt (“The Artist,” “JFK”): What is an authentic performance? Simple, right — it is a performance that we believe so wholly, we never question who the actor is. We believe them because they become the character.
The quest for the “authentic” took director Sean Baker, his casting director Carmen Cuba, and the local casting team on a journey to discover talent who fit the roles so closely that they needed to scout outside of the regular parameters of trained actors. “The Florida Project” was this kind of casting project: To begin with, the lead was six-year-old Brooklynn Prince. Magnetic, mischievous and marvelous lead, she was cast through a local casting company in Florida. She had experience in commercials as a toddler, but had never played a lead. Some of the other kids cast along with her also had experience, while others were on their first job. In the case of casting young children, casting directors always look at children with experience as well as untrained talent, because let’s face it: Not every six-year-old has a resume. But, Brooklynn is clearly a young star and plays the role of Moonee like an expert snake charmer artfully convincing her peers to follow her and the audience to root for her, no matter what.
“The Florida Project” goes beyond casting first-time kids. Moonee’s mom, Halley, was played by first-timer Bria Vinaite, who was found on Instagram. And Baker also cast Mela Murder, as Gloria, another single mom, after finding her in a short film on which IMDb lists her role as a dancer. Alongside the newcomers were brilliant actors like Willem Dafoe and Caleb Landry Jones. These pros likely helped set the tone on set and ground the new actors in their roles.
It is important to also note that casting “types” does not work on its own. Baker and his associate producer, Samantha Quan, worked with the first-timers to develop their craft and offered a rehearsal process because cuteness, tats, and piercings do not make performances “authentic.“ Hard work, rehearsal, and creating a world for these actors to feel safe to try things is what made this film work for the new and old performers. Watching it, I felt like I had slipped into a heightened documentary of the American dream gone wrong. This ensemble was the perfect mix of talent, both new and old.