Francine Maisler doesn’t want to do this interview.
“Chriiiiiis,” Maisler bemoans as she hops on Zoom. “How do I get out of this?”
I’ve been trying to interview her for the better part of two years. Maisler is arguably the most in-demand casting director working today, a hidden force (apparently, by choice) behind so many of contemporary film and television’s best works. The queen of the ensemble, she has taken the most seemingly impossible casting challenges and turned them into finally tuned masterpieces.
Take, for example, Maisler’s casting of “Widows” — with its 14 principals, 81 speaking roles, and miniseries-complicated drama packed into a feature film storyline. Each casting choice is expressive, piercingly efficient, and layered, allowing director Steve McQueen to pivot effortlessly between the various threads. The way the film plays off Liam Neeson’s nobleness-of-purpose persona and into Colin Farrell’s swarmy charm; the way Elizabeth Debecki’s lanky insecurity masks an unbreakable backbone, or how Michelle Rodriquez’s tough girl exterior makes her inability to pull the trigger a surprise; the shot of adrenaline Cynthia Erivo’s raw physicality gives the second half heist, or the slow boil ferocity underneath Daniel Kaluuya’s placid demeanor that lingers as the film’s motivating danger.
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., courtesy of The Everett Collection
Then there’s the Roy family in HBO’s “Succession,” which saw Maisler cast the pilot (for long-time collaborator Adam McKay) by identifying actors who could walk the fine line of creator Jesse Armstrong’s Shakespearean family drama and an Armando Iannucci-like satire of a media empire. The grouping of very different performers, lacking any semblance of the physical traits of blood but who innately feel like they spawned from the same uniquely dysfunctional family, demonstrates a raw casting skill as virtuoso as anything Emmanuel Lubezki ever shot or Thelma Schoonmaker ever edited.
Maisler’s latest ensemble is “The Trial of Chicago 7” — the clear frontrunner for the SAG Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture award — and it presented equally large potential pitfalls. Moving outside even the core group of the seven incompatible defendants — the film’s irony being that the bickering fractions of the anti-war Left stand accused of plotting a conspiracy together — features a parade of supporting roles played by genuine stars, and even a larger sub-group of supporting players played by recognizable character actors.
Sorkin’s fast-talking, timeline-spanning ensembles usually rotate around a larger-than-life figure like Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender), Billy Beane (Brad Pitt in “Moneyball”), a “Newsroom” anchor (Jeff Daniels), or poker maven Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain in “Molly’s Game”). For “Chicago 7,” everyone had to be the star.
“‘Chicago 7′ was constantly playing with a kaleidoscope of this group of actors,” said Sorkin. “It’s a very large ensemble, that’s something you usually don’t see. There’s a number of people in that cast who are used to being the guy, they are used to carrying their own film, their own projects.”
Be sure to check out our exclusive video essays, focusing on Sorkin, Maisler, and their shared body of work, below.
Compare “Chicago 7” to the star-filled ensembles of Otto Preminger, which, like Sorkin’s film, often lack a protagonist at their center. The key difference being how Preminger’s distinctly objective, widescreen observational remove allowed Hollywood stars to blend into the backdrop; whereas Sorkin gives each role, from the biggest to the smallest, scene-chewing dialogue that makes each performer pop off the screen. It’s a combination that could result in an endless parade of scene-stealing, attention-grabbing turns that could easily have spun the intricate film off its delicate axis.
Casting of Sorkin’s films and TV series starts at ground zero. Whereas many writers — especially multi-hyphenate writer/directors and writer/showrunners — write with specific actors and actresses in mind, Sorkin’s process is different.
“I’m playing all the parts,” said Sorkin of how he writes. “I’m talking out loud while I’m writing, I’m acting it out, I’m jumping up and down from my desk, I’m walking around, I’m very animated, so I don’t have an actor in mind while I write. But as soon as I’m done, Francine is usually the first person to know about it. And I’ll tell her I’ve got this thing, and I’ll send her an early draft, and we start talking then.”
Justin Lubin / Warner Bros. Television, courtesy of The Everett Collection
After Maisler cast the 2005 pilot of his “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” Sorkin made clear, “I never worked with anyone else.” It’s a collaboration he’s been fortunate to extend to two feature films (“Moneyball” and “Steve Jobs”) he wrote, but didn’t direct, because Maisler is held in equally high esteem by producer Scott Rudin (“Scott wouldn’t work with anyone else out here,” according to Sorkin).
Like all collaborations, each iteration of the partnership leads the casting director to better understand which actors best fit the filmmaker’s style and approach. With Sorkin, that of course means dialogue, which he has often compared to music.
“Words! Words! Words when spoken out loud for the sake of performance are music,” espoused Martin Sheen playing President Bartlett on Sorkin’s “West Wing.” “They have rhythm and pitch and timbre and volume. These are the properties of music. And music has the ability to find us, and move us, and lift us up in ways that literal meaning can’t.”
Universal, courtesy of The Everett Collection
In talking about his now-15-year collaboration with Maisler, Sorkin extends the music metaphor to the importance of casting in his series and movies. “An actor, you have to remember, is the musician and the instrument that they are playing, so when you talk about an actor’s instrument, you’re talking about speech and movement, you’re talking about their voice and their physicality,” said Sorkin. “Francine is an expert at knowing these actors, their strengths and weaknesses, knowing how important that instrument is, voice and movement, and how important it is to this piece.”
While Maisler herself scoffs at the idea a great actor is somehow better suited for one director versus another, Sorkin is clear the casting director has steered him toward performers whose strengths match his specific needs.
“She’ll be able to say to me, ‘This actor, this actress, they’re very good, but talk yourself through their filmography,’” recalled Sorkin of Maisler’s sage guidance. “‘You’re going to have a hard time with language with this actor, they’re just not going to have a facility for that much language, it’s going to slow you down and frustrate you.’”
What Sorkin marvels at is how Maisler is not only perfectly in sync with the requirements of his projects, but such a wide array of filmmakers. “Adam McKay has some additional requirements that I don’t have. So with McKay, Francine has to know how good an improviser is this actor, are they going to work in that kind of environment,” said Sorkin. “Same with Paul Greengrass. Here’s a director who kind of likes to make movies the way Jackson Pollack makes paintings, but you can’t argue with the results, so Francine knows what kind of actors and these writers are going to need.”
And yet McKay and Greengrass are only two of the directors Sorkin has to share Maisler with, as she has become the go-to casting director for McQueen, Denis Villenueve, Noah Baumbach, Alex Garland, Alejandro Iñárritu, and Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s productions, while also playing a key role in the casting of Terrence Malick’s U.S. productions. At the time of her interview with IndieWire, she and her team were in the middle of casting five major projects that were gearing up to shoot, and she admitted that she cannot say no to people she’s come to enjoy working with over the years.
“For example, I’ll do anything with Seth Rogen because the guys just make me laugh,” said Maisler. “They love having me read dick jokes, and then Seth will say, ‘You know she just read “12 Years a Slave” an hour ago, and now she’s reading the lines of this?’ I’ll do anything, as long as I can laugh with most of these guys.”
Interviewing Maisler, it’s clear she’s a throwback, in the sense she is more of a storyteller in how she talks about her career, rather than someone who is analytical about her work. That’s why an interview with someone who wants to better understand her craft is her worst nightmare. She only agreed to this interview after Sorkin (who was anxious to shed a light on the role she plays in his work) did, and even then she insisted on written questions ahead of time — inquiries she admits convinced her this was an even worse idea than she imagined.
Melinda Sue Gordon/©Columbia Pictures, courtesy of The Everett Collection
“I really work from my gut. I don’t pontificate,” said Maisler. “I’m not into the layers of this and that, and your questions, Oh my God, I was like, ‘Oh, no.’”
How do you build an ensemble? According to Maisler, it’s like anything else, you go “piece by piece.” For “Chicago 7,” Sorkin described a corkboard of headshots, where one casting decision would have a ripple effect on the others.
“What I never want to have is people blending, I want distinctive faces and people and energies,” said Maisler. “So what you don’t want to have is blending, in war movies, you know how sometimes people can blend and you’re not sure who is who? So in any ensemble, you don’t want to have that happen.”
Maisler makes a distinction about how inter-related individual casting decisions can be. In the case of Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, or Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, the choices were guided by the need to capture the essence of real-life historical figures and who is best for the role, not the ensemble.
“Hayden is so distinctive, so Eddie was never going to blend with anybody else, so I think that if we got Hayden right, that was never going to interfere with any of the other casting,” said Maisler. “It was more getting who was right with Abbie [Hoffman, played by Sacha Baron Cohen] and Jerry [Rubin, played by Jeremey Strong], that combination had to be right together. That was a difficult combination, because Aaron and I fought very hard for Jeremy Strong.”
Hoffman and Rubin are this year’s casting equivalent of chocolate and peanut butter, two distinct flavors that make the perfect delicious combination. Bringing America’s favorite political prankster and the fast-rising “Succession” star together to play the two irreverent, but deadly serious Yippies would seem like an obvious draw.
“As much as the powers that be had great respect for [Strong], he wasn’t a name yet. And we fought very, very, very hard to get him,” explained Maisler. “There is always that person that the director wants and that knows the value of what he’s going to become, that he’s going to win the Emmy, that ‘Succession’ is going to be the show everyone’s going to be talking about, that is the actor that everybody’s going to admire and be talking about. [W]e know it and possibly the people financing or the studio doesn’t know it yet. And so there was a process and it was hard, [but] we knew that he and Sacha would be great together.”
Sorkin is quick to point out that one of Maisler’s greatest talents is “an encyclopedic knowledge of the actors” on both coasts who have yet to be discovered. He points to Strong, who Maisler cast in “The Big Short” and “Molly’s Game,” before “Succession,” as a prime example.
“Francine has been a Jeremy Strong fan before any of us knew who Jeremy was, she just saw him coming, and she’s right when she compares him to Dustin Hoffman, that ‘Succession’ is his ‘Graduate,’” said Sorkin. “He’s got that wide a range, he’s that flexible, and he’s that good.”
Maisler does more than identify talent like Strong, she fights hard for it. That fight isn’t simply with the studios, but her directors. “We argue all the time,” admitted Sorkin. “She doesn’t give in, ever, so there’s no point in arguing with her, she’s going to win, but it’s a little bit entertaining, that 10 minutes before I give up.”
Michael Gibson/STX Entertainment, courtesy of The Everett Collection
To listen to Sorkin and Maisler describe their interactions, they sound like Sorkin characters — two intelligent people with clear and differing points of view, arguing back and forth with passion and wit. The difference being that Sorkin gives in, not simply because Maisler won’t, but because she eventually makes him see what she does in a casting decision.
It is not simply about getting the right actor, there is often something ingenious in Maisler’s casting that opens up a story. Sorkin points to the casting of Michael Cera as a conniving Hollywood star/ace poker player in “Molly’s Game” as an example.
“Michael Cera is the sweetest guy in the world. He looks like a piece of apple pie — he honestly is that sweet, it’s not a put on — and generally the scariest things are things that are supposed to comfort us,” explained Sorkin. “That’s why in horror movies it’s always a doll or a babysitter or a nurse, so to have Michael Cera [as] such a sleaze, such a jerk in this film, was perfect and Francine knew that. I think she may remember it different that I do, but I don’t think I needed to be convinced [he was perfect for the role].”
Kristin Callahan, courtesy of The Everett Collection
Sorkin is hesitant to give an example of his and Maisler’s initial disagreements on “Chicago 7,” out of fear an actor will feel the writer/director didn’t want them for a role, but is clear he is “extremely happy” to have lost a number of arguments on his latest film.
“You have to care enough to argue, because it’s easy to give in with all directors,” said Maisler. “And so it’s exhausting to argue because it means you care. And you risk all the time. It’s exhausting, my job.”
Adds Sorkin, “I think what I love about Francine, beyond her skills, [is] you want to work with people that care as much about the project as you do. Who care as much about ‘Chicago 7’ as you do. She understands better than anyone, casting is 90 percent of the battle.” —Chris O’Falt
Aaron Sorkin & Francine Maisler
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