One of the most positive aspects of an often-fraught awards season is the light it shines on the craft behind some of the year’s best films. It’s a time to learn more about the contribution of cinematographers, production designers, editors, and many more. Casting directors have a strange distinction in the awards world: It’s a guild with an Academy branch, but without its own Oscar category. Imagine for a moment that there was one. What are the best-cast films of 2019?
IndieWire reached out to a number of the film industry’s top casting directors to ask them to not only nominate one of their colleagues for their work this year, but to help us understand why their work was so skillful and vital to the films they worked on. What follows is not another end-of-the-year list, but insight into the craft of casting by its leading practitioners.
“Booksmart,” Casting by Allison Jones
Lucy Bevan (“Cats,” “The Good Liar”): For me, “Booksmart” is the best cast film of the year. Allison Jones was most definitely the best person for the job. From the moment you are introduced to all the kids in the playground, you are immersed straight back into high school and what all those different groups and dynamics feel like. Aside from Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, the supporting cast of young actors, and adults, is note perfect. Victoria Ruesga skating through the playground is a golden moment, Diana Silvers so good and Noah Galvin so funny at such a young age. I think Allison’s contribution to the success of the film is massive. Any casting director watching the movie can imagine how much hard work and dedication it would take to put all those kids together. Allison has a gift for spotting and supporting young talent; a good example being casting Beanie in “Lady Bird” to this lead performance.
Bernard Telsey (“Mary Poppins Returns,” “The Greatest Showman”): There are few things harder to cast than actors to play teenagers. Usually you’re working around labor laws and union rules so you’re trying to find people who are older but look younger, can capture the energy of a high schooler, all while carrying a movie. That challenge multiplies tenfold when they have to enact a script as hysterically funny and full of heart as “Booksmart.” Of course Allison Jones was up to the task. Nobody can put together an ensemble of funny people the way she can.
The film’s cast is full of the kinds of young, up-and-coming actors that casting directors all long to give a big break to. Not only was it so exciting for audiences to see two, fresh leads of a movie — Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, but to see them surrounded by such a talented ensemble was even better. I can imagine casting directors on both coasts thrilled to see Diana Silvers, Molly Gordon, Billie Lourd, Austin Crute, Noah Galvin, and so many more all in one movie. And in such great roles! I wanted to spend more time with all of them.
“Honey Boy,” Casting by Chelsea Block
Carmen Cuba (“Queen & Slim,” “Just Mercy”): One of the most formidable — and ultimately successful — casting moves of 2019 was the role of Otis in “Honey Boy.” The film, written by Shia LeBeouf, is based on his experience being a child actor and the intensely complicated and codependent relationship he had with his father (who was experiencing his own struggle stemming from his own addictions and personal failures). With Shia himself set to play the character modeled after his father, casting director Chelsea Block and director Alma Har’el had the task of finding just the right young actor who could act opposite him in the role based on Shia as a child.
Besides the ordinary challenges of casting a kid, there were a host of other considerations at play here. First, Shia is a brilliant actor, one of the most intense and interesting of his generation, so the child opposite him would need real craft and an ability to match Shia’s wild dynamism. This would be true when casting against Shia in any father/son relationship, let alone the one in “Honey Boy,” arguably one of the most complex in cinema history.
Second, Otis is a professional child actor, and it is his job that triggers the trauma of the central relationship in the film. So the child actor playing Otis would need to be able to have the specific vitality and self-awareness of a professional child actor. This is further complicated by the fact that Alma, as a filmmaker, has been so successful at making poetry with non-actors. (Alma’s first two features were in the documentary space: “Bombay Beach” and “LoveTrue.”) Alma might be more drawn to an untrained child who would able to access all of the human qualities required by the role of Otis, but would they also be able to own the various demands (technical, financial, emotional) experienced by a professional child actor in the entertainment industry? Conversely, a professional child actor would be able to bring personal experience to the role, but would he able to be directed into a natural version of the craft that this film demanded?
But the most important — and potentially rarest — trait that the kid portraying Otis required was a certain kind of inherent sensitivity to an adult processing pain. Imagine acting in an emotionally charged scene opposite the man you are portraying who is currently inhabiting the role of his own emotionally complex father. Many adept adult actors couldn’t take that on.
The honesty and depth of “Honey Boy” would live or die by the casting of Otis so Chelsea brought in both non-actor and professional actors to read. This was a brilliant move even if just to give Alma an emotional comparison between the options and give her confidence in her ultimate choice. So Noah Jupe comes in and delivers the scenes brilliantly, exudes the confidence of a successful child actor (because he is one), and also connects with Shia in a way that allowed them both a real freedom. It’s impossible to deny when an actor of any age comes in and shows you more about the role than even you imagined. As Otis, Noah is a revelation in “Honey Boy” and allows the audience to engage in a highly unusual journey of emotional catharsis and empathy for both the father and the son and ultimately for themselves.
“Last Black Man in San Francisco,” Casting by Julia Kim
Jessica Daniels (“The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” “Roxanne, Roxanne”): I was swept away by “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” a deliberate and delicate portrayal of third-generation San Franciscan trying to find home in his home city. Part visual poetry and part character study, the film features an ensemble of eccentric characters and performers expertly cast by Julia Kim with location casting by Nina Henninger.
Director Joe Talbot helped write the story conceived by his lead actor Jimmie Fails, who dynamically portrays his namesake. Given the weight of his personal history here, it’s hard to imagine another actor playing this role. That said, Fails is dynamic and vibrant, and more than holds his own opposite industry heavy weights while feeling tethered, along with the other non-actor performances, that add to the film’s authentic landscape.
The majority of the film functions as a two-hander, and cast as Jimmie’s best friend Montgomery, breakout Jonathan Majors is a quietly smoldering tour de force who stuns in the last third of the film.
The duo are surrounded by family members who are physically and energetically matched to Jimmie and Mont. Danny Glover is heartbreaking as Mont’s grandpa Allen; his innate chemistry with Majors subtly triangulates his friendship with Jimmie in a way that’s crucial to the plot. Tichina Arnold has a glorious turn as Jimmie’s Aunt Wanda and the always-wonderful Rob Morgan gives a particularly gut-punching run as Jimmie’s oft-absent dad.
Filling out the ensemble in other roles Mike Epps plays a hilariously gruff neighborhood drifter Bobby, ever-charming Finn Wittrock seethes with entitlement and a smidge of humanity as an amoral realtor, and Thora Birch cameos as a tone-deaf young gentrifier in the final scene of the film.
In addition to familiar faces, local actors and non-actors round out the cast and include several memorable performances including Willie Hen as a soapbox preacher and Jamal Trulove as Kofi, one of the neighborhood boys from Jimmie’s past who plays a pivotal role in his present.
In one of several poignant exchanges between Jimmie and Mont, Mont shares that “people ain’t just one thing.” The ensemble of this film, a true pastiche of actors and non-pros, nuanced performances and unflinching portrayals, follows the same logic.
“Marriage Story,” Casting by Douglas Aibel, Francine Maisler
Shayna Markowitz (“Joker,” “The Best of Enemies”): Francine Maisler and Douglas Aibel assembled an extraordinary cast in “Marriage Story.” While the story centers around two tremendous performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, Francine and Doug have surrounded them with a stellar supporting cast. From the authentic-feeling New York theatre troupe, including beloved NY theatre actors like Matthew Maher and Gideon Glick, to Hollywood character actors Sarah Jones, Kyle Bornheimer, and the delicious Martha Kelly whose dryness was such a brilliant juxtaposition against Adam Driver’s emotional struggle — the scene they share is very uncomfortable and yet, Martha’s delivery almost makes you laugh at the absurdity of the situation; I love when comedic actors are cast in dramatic stories, and here, almost every supporting role was filled by an actor with comedic sensibilities.
The specificity of the actors really helped capture the distinction between New York and LA personalities and underscored the differences in Adam and Scarlett’s characters’ lives. I particularly enjoyed seeing favorite actors of mine, like Merritt Wever (who never feels like she’s acting) as well as the terrific cameo performances from Ray Liotta, Laura Dern, Julie Hagerty, and Alan Alda — all of whom were a delight to see yet felt true to the world.
Though the story centers upon the relationship between Adam and Scarlett’s characters, the entire film hinges upon the casting of their young son — often the most difficult role to cast in a film; I was particularly taken by Azhy Robertson’s performance. Not only does Azhy feel like a genuine combination of his parents, he feels authentically like a kid. With the casting of Azhy, I felt even more deeply entrenched in the heartbreaking dissolve of the marriage and the shared love that both parents feel for their son. Congratulations to Francine Maisler and Doug Aibel for building a magnificent cast from top to bottom.
“Marriage Story” and “Parasite”
Heidi Levitt (“The Artist,” “JFK”): This fall season flush with great performances and Academy Award hopefuls has like every season some standouts, a few discoveries and some wonderful tried and true actors back in the spotlight. But what has struck me as noteworthy is the perfect balance of ensemble family casting found in Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” and Noah Baumbauch’s “Marriage Story.” Both films offer us intimate portraits of families whose emotional lives are complicated and are pitch perfect examples of ensemble casting.
The “Parasite” cast consists of two families with archetypal casts — the wealthy look slick, the lower-middle class family look a little desperate, edgy. And yet, as the film progresses we see that there are no “types,” but rather fully complex characters who show us that mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers and the hired help are each able to step up and out of their archetypes to surprise and challenge our very notions of right and wrong. The poorer family led by Kang-Ho Song (“Snowpiercer”) weave in and out of their subterranean world to the modernist perfection of the wealthy and entitled, with such ease that we can almost imagine them living in this opulence until the climactic party when havoc takes over and all the demons, buried and alive, are let loose.
Thankfully for “Marriage Story,” the depths of horror are never ghoulish and we are left with melancholy; a mix of joy and sorrow in the coupling and unfurling of Charlie and Nicole’s marriage. Charlie is played by the wonderful Adam Driver, the ideal everyman complete with his idiosyncratic charm, humor, shades of darkness and light that make him the perfect leading man — shaggy dog, always authentic and never straight up Hollywood. Scarlett Johansson, who has grown up before us on screen, inhabits this role as mother, actress, and wife, looking inside for her own true self. Her warm earthy voice and ease in her body language lets us into her inner life and we see her completely as the character she plays, accessible and authentic, even though she is drop dead gorgeous and has played “Black Widow” in the Marvel universe.
The supporting cast of “Marriage Story” is crucial to how we experience this beautiful family fall apart. The casting of the hilarious Julia Haggerty as the Grandma, Merrit Weaver as the perfectly un-perfect sister, and Alan Alda as the divorce attorney with a heart makes you fall into the world of LA/NY-privilege, rather than mocking it, the cast helps us lean into it and see that these characters are real people too.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Casting by Victoria Thomas
Sarah Finn (“Avengers: Endgame,” “Captain Marvel”): You could pretty much design a masterclass in casting based on Victoria Thomas’ work in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” One can see and feel the enormity of a casting director’s job simply by looking at this ensemble. Breaking down what might appear to be simple objectives, it quickly becomes clear how complex the assignment is:
1. Know your director. With Quentin Tarantino, you better know your stuff. By all accounts he has an encyclopedic knowledge of films, film history, and actors — from films decades old to a co-star in the latest CSI episode. If you’re not a step ahead, you’re nowhere!
You also have to create a casting process that works for the director. There is no one way to go about casting a film, and I can only venture to guess this collaboration involved countless hours of conversations, debate, research, screenings, meetings, readings, callbacks, tests, and more readings.
2. Know your script. This movie is a period film, a drama, a comedy, a movie-within-a-movie, a story with dark historical figures, and an homage. Any one of those categories could pose a challenge in finding actors who will all mesh consistently and coherently on screen in style and ability. She had to deeply understand the tone of the film, while weaving actors throughout who could embody and enliven the themes.
3. Know your actors. Finding the cast here was a gargantuan task — there are over 200 roles counting the lengthy crawl of uncredited actors. Starting with two of the biggest movie stars in the world in perfectly matched roles is a great beginning, but you then have the unenviable task of surrounding them well. Casting a child actor who could hold her own, and (let’s face it) almost steal the scene from Leo, is just one of her many successes here. Choosing actors to portray well-known historical figures by capturing their essence, and resembling them well enough to evoke a memory but not distract from the story — that’s a whole other feat. Assembling a veritable who’s-who of character actors deserves mention (Scott McNairy, Clifton Collins, Jr.). Placing legendary actors like Bruce Dern and Al Pacino alongside young emerging actors requires care. Other major accomplishments include launching breakout newcomers like Margaret Qualley and Austin Butler and peppering in clever cameo after cameo (Clu Galager! Brenda Vaccaro!). She populated each segment of the film with captivating actors, from wildly different backgrounds, who effortlessly shared the same world on screen.
4. Trust your instincts. Vickie had to draw upon years and years of accumulated knowledge as a casting director to enrich the cast with so many heavyweight actors even in small roles. She also searched widely in order to discover new talent. Those discoveries depend on having a high level of sensitivity, intelligence and discernment. Not to mention patience. Casting also requires intangibles such as empathy, warmth, humor and thoughtfulness – which Vickie has in abundance.
5. Take these first four ingredients and (somehow, magically, and through months and months of painstaking work) create an ensemble that comes together so seamlessly that the audience is enthralled, transported, amazed, and left with the excitement of a great film experience.
6. Make it look easy. Victoria Thomas.
“Pain and Glory,” Casting by Eva Leira, Yolanda Serrano
Douglas Aibel (“Ad Astra,” “Marriage Story”): “Pain and Glory,” Pedro Almodovar’s masterpiece of longing and regret, presented many challenges, I’m sure, in the casting process, and I think that Eva Leira and Yolanda Serrano met them beautifully.
Part lyrical memory story and part threnody of a dissolute director trying to find his way back to life — the film required actors with that rare ability to bring great brio and passion to the screen at one moment, and utter simplicity at others. The multi-generational ensemble that was put together for the film was perfectly suited to the wild ride of this story, and brilliantly navigated the ways in which comedy and tragedy, dark and light alternate — and sometimes intertwine.
It was thrilling to see well known members of the Almodovar creative family like Antonio Banderas, Julieta Serrano, and Penelope Cruz take chances and find so many fresh and amazing colors in their ongoing relationship with him. Just as special were the subtle, deeply felt performances of Asier Etxeandia and Leonardo Sbaraglia as key figures in Salvador’s past, and two newcomers, Asier Flores as young Salvador and Cesar Vicente, as a handyman/artist who unwittingly stirs up new feelings in the child. Flores and Vicente in particular bring such a guileless, innocent spirit to the film, that it’s almost impossible to believe they are acting.
For me, it was truly inspiring to see so many gifted, well-chosen actors deeply in concert with their director, helping him to fill out a giant canvas based, perhaps, on his own life. Well done, all, and bravo to Ms. Leira and Ms. Serrano.
“Uncut Gems,” Casting by Jennifer Venditti, Francine Maisler
Richard Hicks (“Lady and the Tramp,” “Hell or High Water”): When does the lived-in, textured authenticity of a non-professional actor surpass a professional actor’s skills in imagination and recreation? That’s a question I find myself asking whenever I’ve watched a Safdie Brothers film. This year’s “Uncut Gems” is fascinating, particularly from a casting perspective. Set in the Diamond District of Manhattan and the suburbs of New York City, it pulses with a mix of greed, graft, delusion, and desperation, with Adam Sandler doing his best work in years. Casting directors Francine Maisler and Jennifer Venditti weave together an electric mix of pros and non-pros. Those faces! It must have taken a lot of legwork to find all of those great non-actors.
It serves the film by subtly raises the tension level. You’re never sure what camp the next character is going to come from, and what might happen when some guy who’s never acted before goes up against someone you’ve watched for years. There are some great surprises. There are known actors in smaller parts and one of the leads is a young woman who’s never done a film before, and she’s fantastic. A real actress! The casting keeps you on your toes and forces you to look at what you think you know with fresh eyes.
Each movie is different, with different priorities and opportunities. 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.