There have been many headlines in the news about the effects of climate change on our planet. Extrapolations (Apple TV+) from writer, director, and executive producer Scott Z. Burns (Contagion) explores the doomsday scenario in the future where Mother Nature has succumbed to the wearing down of the earth’s atmosphere. Life as we know it is challenged to survive.
Eight interwoven stories from across the globe are told, which required the international casting talents of Emmy-award winner Carmen Cuba, who won for Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries in 2013 for Behind the Candelabra and Outstanding Casting for a Drama Series in 2017 for Stranger Things. Other casting credits include a variety of feature films and television series, including Obi-Wan Kenobi, The Informant, The Martian, and The Knick.
Born in New York and raised throughout Lima and La Paz, Bolivia, Cuba tapped into her international contacts to cast a worldwide web to find an eclectic ensemble of climate-conscious actors. The biggest name, Meryl Streep, was already on board when Cuba began her search, so the Oscar winner became the anchor by which all casting decisions were made. Cuba speaks of different tiers and “guest stars” rounding out this ambitious troupe, such as Sienna Miller, Daveed Diggs, Matthew Rhys, Leslie Uggams, Tahar Rahim, Ato Essandoh, and Judd Hirsch, to name a few.
Below the Line spoke with Carmen Cuba via Zoom video from her office in Los Angeles. New to the anthology series, Cuba discusses casting “eight movies,” so to speak, and the importance of the actors’ climate-change beliefs, which were of concern that their views be paralleled with the subject matter.
[Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.]
Below the Line: This is such an eclectic cast. Right off the bat, was Meryl Streep sort of the anchor, and then everyone else was cast around her?
Carmen Cuba: Yes, 100 percent. She was on before I even came on. I assume she must be part of how they sold it, but I can’t speak to that for sure. But yeah, she was the anchor as far as casting goes. We built everything around her, even the sort of deal that we made with her. You know, it was very helpful having her on for various casting reasons: scheduling, deal, level of actor.
BTL: Walk me through after she was established, what was the next step for you?
Cuba: First of all, I’d never done an anthology series before, so it’s the equivalent of eight episodes. I knew conceptually because I’d watched Black Mirror and just been like, “Oh my God, I would never want to do that. That looks insane.” Then I did an even crazier version of it myself. It has eight entirely different casts, so it’s like casting eight movies. At the beginning of it, you’re basically going through outlines for some episodes, so we definitely knew the main characters that we needed to cast. We started with them, and Rebecca (Sienna Miller) was the first one we really dug into, and that took a while.
BTL: Why did it take so long to cast that role?
Cuba:It was a tricky project for multiple reasons. One being that we were still shooting in COVID, which affected travel. It affected Visas. So we had some parameters that we had to work within, and then because they were sort of smaller schedules, it was like 12 to 15 days of shooting, which you would think would be easy to sort of slot in. It’s sort of small enough that people were trying to do it while they were doing other things on each side.
It was just the craziest puzzle trying to find people because everyone wanted to do it and was very excited about the project and very interested, but then what was their actual availability? And then, if we have to get a Visa for them, it usually takes six weeks. But during that time, they were taking so much longer, and it was very unpredictable from whatever country you came from. This show is full of people from all over the world, so it was a crazy juggling act at a crazy time.
BTL: With this caliber of actors, I would imagine auditioning wasn’t necessary. For those who did, who blew you away?
Cuba: Not the first-tier people. There were tiers. It was like Meryl Streep, that tier, and then you got onto sort of what are the equivalents of guest stars? Most of them auditioned, I think. In the first episode (“2037: A Raven Story”), Cara Gee was amazing as Freda. I’ll tell you one that’s really exciting, Neska Rose as Alana Goldblatt in “2047: The Fifth Question” plays the young girl. I thought she was incredible in her audition and a really fresh face who did not feel like anyone we’d seen before. She kills it. She’s a musician, so she wasn’t really on my radar.
With the guest stars, especially because of COVID and budgetary reasons, we needed all of the guest stars to be based in New York so we didn’t have to travel them. It’s good to have parameters in that city because that’s where you have incredible actors.
The other one that I always want to talk about is Gaz Choudhry as Neel in episode “2059 Part II: Nightbirds.” That part was written for someone in a wheelchair, but when you read the script, it’s a full-on action movie. I was like, “What are we doing here? Are we casting a stuntman?” At the forefront for all of us was the hope that it could be someone who was a wheelchair user, who was also an actor, who was also of South Asian descent, and who could also speak Hindi.
BTL: How did you ultimately find Gaz Choudhry?
Cuba: I love research, so it definitely gave me an opportunity to go into, “Where would I find this person?” A lot of casting is dependent on who’s directing the actors, and some directors need actors who have vast experience and who know what a working set is like, whatever the project entails. For this, we had [Director] Richie Mehta, who fortunately has worked with a lot of non-actors, so we were going to have to open it up to all the possibilities. I started doing research and found Gaz, who is a Paralympic basketball player but has never acted before.
The amount of talking that people have to do in that episode, you really have to be articulate with these concepts. Not only do you have to be able to articulate them, but you also have to seem like you understand what you’re saying.
So, Richie was in the Paralympics at the time in Spain. I sort of hired people all over the world to try to help me find this guy. This friend of mine who I’ve worked with in London found him, and when his audition came in, it was amazing. It was so crazy that someone who had never done this before had so much charisma and so much strength. We started his Visa, and it was going to be so close, but then it wasn’t going to happen. A week before or something, we got the final word that we weren’t going to get him, and we didn’t have a backup. You don’t have a backup for someone like that.
We could have put in an able-bodied actor at that point, but we thought that’s what we were doing, and then literally two days before shooting, his Visa came through. That’s never been part of the casting story.
BTL: Speaking of your eclectic cast, what is it about casting Daveed Diggs as a rabbi?
Cuba: Well, what’s great about this show is that we’re looking at the future, right? Even for me, I was rewatching the episodes, and I think Marvel does a great job of sort of showing you this futuristic idea where there are just people from all over, all different backgrounds, just everywhere, and normalizing that as a future. I think we did that in Extrapolations in such a great way. The way things break down in the future was as much a reflection of the world falling apart as the spectrum of humanity playing all these different roles within the episodes.
For the rabbi, we really were just looking for the best person for the part, and all the things that role entailed, even the musical thing, just really fit in for Daveed. He’s such a thinker and a creator, and in many ways, he represents to the Hamilton audience this idea of someone in authority, someone who speaks to the people. It was a beautiful fit.
It wasn’t written specifically for a black rabbi of mixed heritage with two parents from two different cultures. It’s the future, obviously, but it actually feels like the present while at the same time feeling like the future. Like, this exists and just normalizes it by not being at the forefront of the discussion.
BTL: Speaking of interesting casting choices, Rob Lowe as Liberace’s plastic surgeon in Behind The Candelabra was an inspired choice. What did you see in him for that role?
Cuba: Oh my God. Everything about Rob Lowe! It was the combination of who he’s been and what we have seen, especially his later work before Candelabra, is that there’s a joy to him that radiates and a playfulness that you see now on his new show, Unstable, to the extreme. I think that whole movie was a joy to cast because it was basically about people who were playful, starting with Matt (Damon) and Michael (Douglas). They were definitely going to be playful and curious, not serious about it, in a way that would draw an audience in. I mean, Rob Lowe, that was so fun. He’s getting better and better as he gets sort of closer to the ability to express that joy through his work.
BTL: You didn’t have to cast any kids per se in Extrapolations, but you do have a knack for casting them, as in Stranger Things. How do you approach casting kids right for the job?
Cuba: I have always loved kids, and I know that’s kind of a lame thing to say. Even my own kids, I just see them as other people who just happen to be younger. I love people of all ages, but I’m especially attracted to much older people and then kids as they’re coming up and sort of relating to them, not as kids but as people with really interesting ideas and perspectives on the world. That’s always been my approach: to treat them the same as I treat anyone else except for kids in casting.
I think because I’m a mom and because I’ve now done this, obviously, even the Stranger Things cast definitely solidified that I do feel a responsibility toward kids who I’m casting. Casting Vivien Blair as Princess Leia in the TV series Obi-Wan Kenobi, I take great care to get a sense of, besides them being really good at acting, that the acting that kids have to do in my projects is intense, it can be emotional, or there’s a potential, like in the Princess Leia casting, that her life could be affected by fans. I do take that into consideration in how I approach casting them. You know kids are working with their parents to decide if this world is for them or not, but I’ve seen it in full effect, whereas for many of these parents, they haven’t seen it.
BTL: Which actors would you say you’ve given a big break?
Cuba: There are a lot of people that I’ve known for years for whom I’ve been auditioning for years but haven’t found a place. Dominique Fishback, who’s in Swarm, told me that six months before I got the script for Swarm, I just did a general meeting with her and got to know her because I was curious about her. I just wanted to know more about her than just her work. Her work is incredible, but I wondered, what is it that we can highlight that hasn’t been highlighted yet?
So, we talked, and she played some piano for me that she had just been learning. I think she sang a little thing. She was in her apartment, and at the end of it, I was like, “This is great. I’m going to find something for us to work on together.” Six months later, I got the Swarm script, and I was like, “It’s her.” I really can start to understand a person, and then I just have them in the back of my mind, and they pop up when I read something that makes sense. I love that.
BTL: For Stranger Things, was it just clear those kids were right from the start?
Cuba: I guess the Stranger Things kids were real underdogs, you know? Also, that show was an underdog. We had no idea anyone was going to see that show, truly. They were sort of a cast of just funny little kids at the time, and there were lots of different ways to go with that show. There were bright and shiny famous kids from things that were popular at the time that were vying for the parts, even though again, no one knew it was going to be anything.
I think between Duffer’s vision and what we were all attracted to, those kids were clearly the right ones for the part. And probably in every season of that show, there’s a version of that. It’s like Joseph Quinn in the last season; he had been around for a while in the U.K., but he was not a known entity, and now he’s a huge star. You know that idea of finding anyone? It’s more about how you use them.
BTL: Did your own feelings about climate change and being an international person attract you to Extrapolations?
Cuba: I think it always does. For the international part, I’m constantly exploring in my work how to expand all these worlds and help connect us, really. I started out as a journalist, and I have two friends that are really in the sort of climate-change activist world. One of my closest friends’ husbands is very high up in Greenpeace. Another one of my friends, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, wrote the Green New Deal for Elizabeth Warren before this came along. Now I work with Scott Burns a lot, so I would’ve been interested in it anyway, but the fact that I’d actually been in these conversations in the prior five years that I really hadn’t been before was helpful.
A lot of the time, things come to me when they make sense for me personally and when I’m having a dialogue about them. I have a show called Sweet Tooth on Netflix, and the reason why I did that is because my godson at the time only behaved as an animal for like ever. He was full-time in character as an animal, and the script came to me while we were all together in Cuba. I could barely get WIFI, and I wasn’t really looking for anything, and this script comes in, and it’s about a kid who’s a hybrid animal and a person. I was like, “It’s a sign.”
BTL: You seem to be super busy. What’s on your project board?
Cuba: I am in the last season of Stranger Things. I’m finishing a movie for Aziz Ansari. I am very busy, but they’re all in different stages. I have a French film, Emmanuelle, with director Audrey Diwan. I work with a lot of French directors, which is a very good balance for me. I have The Chi in its sixth season. That’s a show I love, with Lena Waithe. I’m partway through this Marvel show, Wonder Man, that I love. It’s my first time working with Marvel, and it’s been fantastic.
I’m lucky that I get to work in a very broad spectrum, like with my French directors with these smaller films that are super artistic and free and avant-garde to Marvel now, which I never would’ve even imagined, just like I didn’t imagine me in the Star Wars world. I do get to have my voice in all of these, and it’s hard to imagine that you can really have a voice across that big of a spectrum, to be honest. But yet I’m doing it, and I am really grateful for it.
Lots of times I don’t know how things come to me, like a meeting with a French director for a Drake music video. My 18-year-old was asking, “How did that come to you?” The good news is that I’ve been doing it so long that I’m mostly surrounded by people who I’ve worked with before, like Scott Burns on Extrapolations. At a certain point, there’s connective tissue.
Extrapolations is now streaming on Apple TV+.