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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Sarah Finn (“Black Panther,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”): If a casting director’s job is done well, there’s an imperceptible melding of their choices with the director’s vision for the film. The actors are so perfectly suited, one cannot imagine anyone else in their roles. The whole becomes much greater than its individual parts, with each performance seamlessly integrating and igniting with the others. It’s almost as if the casting director never existed and the actors just magically appeared on screen, perfectly inhabiting and breathing life into their characters.
Thankfully, this is an opportunity to examine what exactly the craft is that goes into the selection of a cast — truly, one of the most essential ingredients of filmmaking. Without the right choices, a film may rise or fall, endure or instantly be forgotten.
Watching a film like “Get Out,” it’s clear that Terri Taylor put a tremendous amount of thought into each role, mirroring the director’s wit and darkly subversive tone with the actors she put forth. Anchored by a searing and inspired performance by Daniel Kaluuya, each actor walks the fine line between naturalism and absurdity. Their grounded performances disarm and create more dissonance as the audience is riveted to the unfolding twists and turns. From the opening scene, Lakieth Stanfield’s understated banter shocks us into a reality where things are not as they seem. Allison Williams’ lighthearted charm and effervescent chemistry with Daniel later makes the turn all the more devastating. The veteran heavyweight Catherine Keener stuns in a revelatory role, the unassuming Bradley Whitford leads us effortlessly, while the dynamic Caleb Landry Jones brings danger and LilRel Howery provides a crucial and comedic link. Each and every actor adds intrigue and heightens the unfolding drama without tipping their hand. And while they have very different backgrounds and styles, on screen the actors effortlessly inhabit the same shifting landscape and display both comedic and dramatic chops.
Nuance, freshness, intelligence, darkness, levity — all these factors had to be carefully weighed and balanced in assembling this cast piece by piece. One misstep could have broken the spell. In service of this brilliant and provocative film, Terri Taylor quietly and expertly wove together a cast worthy of appreciation and celebration.
Gayle Keller (“The Big Sick,” “Certain Women”): I think “Get Out,” Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, was one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year, as well as one of the best-cast films of 2017. I wasn’t going to see it because I am not a horror film fan. I can’t remember what it was that changed my mind, I think just word of mouth. But “Get Out” is so much more than a horror film. It actually reaches across so many genres that it is hard to pinpoint it into one, which is a good thing. It made me feel and think in the way that the best films do. For me, one of the things that has added to its success is this gumbo of casting that Terri Taylor put together, where you seem to throw everything into a pot, not one ingredient dominating the flavor, and what comes out is an expertly played film.
In “Get Out” there isn’t a star at the center, but rather some well known, up-and-coming and unknown actors who help create this unforgettable film. Terri Taylor managed to service the story without calling attention to the fact that all of these actors are at such different points in their careers, yet all meld their talents seamlessly together. Bringing together a young talent from London with veteran TV and film actors and a scene-stealing stand up, just works.
Casting the sublime lead, Daniel Kaluuya, who is a relative unknown, and adding actors who are so subtle and empathetic and casting them against type, like Catherine Keener, Stephen Root, and Bradley Whitford. Having interesting and exciting up-and-comers like Lakaith Stanfield and Caleb Landry Jones playing supporting roles and finally startling unknowns like Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel, you come up with a brilliantly orchestrated ensemble. Terri Taylor brings these actors to the director and everyone trusts each other enough to take these chances. Going from the hysterically funny LilRel Howery to absolute heartbreak with Lakeith and Betty to the hellish horror of Bradley and Allison Williams, without ever breaking the reality of the world — that is what good casting is all about.
Courtesy of Sundance
Lucy Bevan (“Murder on the Orient Express,” “Beauty and the Beast”): Shaheen did an impeccable job of casting this film. The two central performances by Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu are so convincing that you truly believe you are in Yorkshire on the farm with them. The supporting performances from Gemma Jones, Ian Hart, and all the others around them add to the authenticity of the world that Francis Lee has created. I was so moved by this touching, though provoking and ultimately uplifting film; bravo to the casting.
Jenny Jue (“Okja,” “Inglourious Basterds”): In “Good Time,” Rob Pattinson’s Connie struggles to make bail for his brother after they botch a bank robbery, and his desperation introduces him to the full gamut of skeevy characters of New York’s early-morning hours. After noticing many of the actors have few or no credits, I reached out to casting director Jennifer Venditti and discovered many of them were a product of her “street casting,” which is no doubt the reason there is such authenticity and unpredictability in her incredible collaboration with the Safdie brothers.
One of the first faces we meet is Peter Verby, a court-appointed psychiatrist whose white hair and gentle nature suggests a thankless career-long quest to genuinely help people. Eric Paykert is a stout and steady bail bondsman, who feels like the only thing stopping his bald head from exploding with anger at any moment is the yarmulke topping it. (I later found out from Venditti that Eric is, in fact, a real bail bondsman.) Probably the most exciting find of the film is the heartbreakingly authentic Taliah Webster as Crystal, a 17-year old whom Connie encounters and subsequently talks into doing pretty much everything against her best judgement. She’s capable and vulnerable at the same time, and at the point Connie kisses her in order to distract her and keep her incentivized to help him, you’re immediately torn between the giddiness of her getting this unexpected kiss, and wanting her to flee his mayhem immediately.
Although Pattinson, Benny Safdie, and Jennifer Jason Leigh give great performances, I think it’s Jennifer Venditti’s street casting that is the real star here. The dark world of characters she has assembled represents a world I barely knew existed but now feel I’ve met over a weed-and-whiskey-fueled night through the streets of New York.
Ellen Lewis (Casting Director for Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Jim Jarmusch): “Lady Bird” is a stunning cast led by the amazing Saoirse Ronan. Greta Gerwig hit the casting jackpot with Jordan Thaler, Heidi Griffiths, and Allison Jones. Together they assembled a group of actors who made a complicated and eccentric family believable and endearing. Their high school ensemble teetered sensitively between flawed and self-conscious, and adulthood and childhood. From Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts and Lois Smith to Beanie Feldstein, Lucas Hedges, Timothee Chalamet and Jordan Rodrigues, it is a wonderful array of talent that brings a veracity and poignance to this coming-of-age dramedy.
Sixty Six Pictures
Mark Bennett (“20th Century Women,” “It Follows”): It’s exciting to watch a film that stars really good actors that you’ve never seen before. It allows you to immerse yourself in the world of a film, without being aware of all the distracting baggage that celebrities can bring with them — things feel unfamiliar; there are no reference points. But at the same time, there can also be a wonderful sense of discovery: “Who is that actor? How have I not seen them before? Where did they find them?”
William Oldroyd’s “Lady Macbeth” is full of actors like that. All of the film’s British leads — Florence Pugh (a revelation in the titular role), Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie and Christopher Fairbank — were unfamiliar to me. But each felt perfectly fitted to their respective roles, and were working with weighty material that allowed them to shine (which is the reason most actors do independent films to begin with). As such, each actor became riveting to me. So often, “charisma” is less something innate in an actor than it is a matter of seeing a talented, interesting actor placed in the right context — in a memorable role in a great script, filmed by a director with vision. The question is often asked while discussing casting if an actor “can carry a film” — but there are so many actors out there who can do just that, if filmmakers are willing and able to give them those opportunities.
It is all the harder to attract a top-shelf cast when you’re working on a modest budget and with an unfamiliar director, and the process can be laborious. It can be a lot more work to hold a hundred auditions for a role than it is to make one or two offers. That’s what makes the accomplishment of “Lady Macbeth” casting director, Shaheen Baig, all the more noteworthy. A cast like this can’t merely be bought; it must be assembled carefully, with thought, integrity, and a great deal of hard work.
Photo Courtesy of MACRO, photo by Steve Dietl.
Ellen Chenoweth (“Suburbicon,” “No Country for Old Men”): I was knocked out by the work of Billy Hopkins and Ashley Ingram on “Mudbound.” The more-familiar white stars — Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke and Garrett Hedlund —were terrific, but Jason Mitchell really broke my heart. He was great as Eazy-E in “Straight Outta Compton,” but his acting here was on another level. I also loved Rob Morgan as his dad, and mostly Mary J. Blige, who was astonishing as the mom. It’s great to see actors given roles like this and really rising to the occasion. Dee Rees captured the feel of the South so authentically, it had the feel of a Faulkner novel. Great faces and acting from the supporting cast contributed to the atmosphere.
Allison Jones (“Lady Bird,” “Superbad”): The three generations of women cast by Rebecca Dealy and Jessica Kelly in “Patti Cake$” — Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett, and Cathy Moriarty — are breathtaking. We rarely, if ever, are asked to focus on women who are this aggressively independent, outspoken, funny, fascinating, and fearsome. It’s hard to imagine it was easy to picture them on the page, so this is where such solid and imaginative (and no doubt tenacious) casting has created the universe of the movie. Mamoudou Athie and Siddharth Dhananjay are outstanding fresh choices in the supporting roles. Independent movies don’t always need movie stars (in fact, I feel it can work against the believability of the story); they simply need the right people for the roles, and then the movie lives. This is the case with “Patti Cake$.”
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Richard Hicks (“Hell or High Water,” “Zero Dark Thirty”): It’s a rich, satisfying holiday fruitcake of quality actors and actresses, many from New York, with decades of experience on the stage between them. It’s like watching a road race with a fleet of Maseratis and Jaguars on the course. As an audience member, you know you’re in good hands and you can trust these actors to lead you through the complicated story. And in a film about the power of personal character, using whip-smart, verbally dextrous theatre veterans instantly helps to create the Washington Post newsroom and the world of the piece.
Each movie is different, with different priorities and opportunities. This isn’t a movie where a raw, gifted Instagram star is likely to score; the movie is partly about how dogged, well-made craft and integrity can make a difference. It soared because both the director and the casting team could instinctively feel the power that comes from that integrity and harnessed it in the casting. Bringing together the perfect ensemble, to support each director’s particular vision for each particular project, is what we’re here for and why I love to watch quality casting.
Yesi Ramirez (“Moonlight,” “Gemini”): I have long been a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s work. He has an amazing ability to combine fantasy with imagery so stunning that you lose yourself in the world he has carefully crafted. With “The Shape of Water” he, his casting director, and cast have pushed us even further; to a magical, tragic, yet beautiful world.
Sally Hawkins’ subtle performance as a mute woman, who finds love in an unexpected place, is haunting and mesmerizing. We sympathize with her, cheer her on, and ultimately fall in love. It’s an incredible piece of casting. While I’m sure many actresses wanted the opportunity to work with del Toro, and while some may argue Hawkins is the less-expected choice, she elevates the film and gives it the heart it needs. It is easy to forget you are watching a romance between a woman and a creature.
Surrounding her is a fantastic cast that helps carry Del Toro’s vision. Richard Jenkins, who never disappoints, has a tangible vulnerability, an unexplained inner sadness with a joyous lovable exterior. The lengths he is willing to take to protect Hawkins and her romance is beyond paternal. Michael Stuhlbarg’s complicated and layered performance makes you unsure of his intentions. The always brilliant Octavia Spencer grounds the film and brings lightness to difficult times, despite her own household turmoil. Doug Jones brings life to the creature. His subtle movements and vulnerability help us empathize with his struggle. Even the “bad guy,” played wonderfully by Michael Shannon, whom I never tire of, brings such complexity to his character. You still feel for him and realize he also has a story and a path that has lead him to this place.
I’ve read that Del Toro hoped “to create a beautiful, elegant story about hope and redemption as an antidote to the cynicism of our times.” He, his casting director, and his cast have done that and more. They leave us with renewed hope that no matter who we are, where we come from, or what our story is, not only can we all love and be loved, but we can find our voice.
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