When people enjoy a film they usually give credit to the great acting, an exciting script or a creative director, but behind every great film also resides a great casting director. And they should be acknowledged as such — or so one would think.
Consider the current Academy Award-winner for best picture, Birdman. In addition to deservedly winning this award, every performance in the film was impeccable, from Michael Keaton’s faded movie star striving for a stage career to Edward Norton as Keaton’s acting foible, to Emma Stone as Keaton’s discontented daughter, to even smaller roles like those played by Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough and Zach Galifianakis. Surely, the contributions of co-writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki cannot be overstated in ascribing the success of the film to its key creators. However, the film was perfectly cast from top to bottom by casting director Francine Maisler, which raises the question: why isn’t there an Academy Award for best casting director?
Over the past several decades, films including Fight Club, Magic Mike, The Great Gatsby and Oblivion have all been recognized for their A-list cast, but who selected each of these celebrities to fill those starring roles? You can have a perfectly written, funny, heartfelt, action-packed script, but without carefully chosen actors, no film can fulfill its full potential. In point, casting directors such as Carmen Cuba, Laray Mayfield, Ronna Kress and Marcia Ross have helped actors and the industry itself grow by implementing their genius ability to cast the best actors into ideal roles.
From her start working in news reporting and documentaries, to casting the MTV series The Real World in 1992, to casting major studio movies such as The Butterfly Effect and Magic Mike over the past 20 years, Cuba has done it all in the industry. Throughout her career she has regularly faced some non-traditional struggles. Cuba shared that getting Ashton Kutcher on board for The Butterfly Effect was not the hard part; it was getting the audience to accept him.
“I think it was difficult for people to wrap their minds around him at that point [in his career] being a dramatic actor,” stated Cuba, noting that when casting Magic Mike a different type of struggle took place: “It was harder for us to decide which [actors] we wanted than it was to get the ones we wanted to say yes.”
Having a strong director-actor relationship is always important to a film’s success, but having a strong relationship between director and casting director is really what can make or break a film. This relationship makes the casting process much smoother because the casting director knows exactly what the film director is looking for and is able to choose actors who are able to form this strong connection with the director – which, in turn, makes for a better film. Cuba has worked with Steven Soderbergh for most of her career and considers him a dear friend, though she understands the importance of working with new directors as well. “It’s great to get to work with one director over the course of a career because you get to know each other better, and you can make decisions quicker, and you know and understand the language,” she explained, “It’s also very exciting and creatively challenging to get to work with new people because everyone has a different approach, and even just from project to project you’re exploring new avenues.”
When asked about her duties, Cuba revealed the intricacies of her system. “It is about a director’s process,” she continued, “and so some directors want to see, need to see, a hundred people before they decide, even if they have a good feeling about the first person they saw. Others don’t want to spend the time seeing a hundred people and trust that you’ve seen everyone and are bringing them the best person. Neither way is better for me; they’re just different. That’s what I really like about the job. That it’s a different process with each person you work for and each project you work on.”
Best known for her work on Gone Girl, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and her very first film, Fight Club, Mayfield is another of feature film’s top casting directors. Mayfield’s extensive experience with David Fincher began with a friendship that formed in Los Angeles the first day she entered the business. Because of their close relationship, she and Fincher have a sound casting process. Speaking of her first film, Mayfield is unabashed about the project’s equal amounts of intimidation and excitement. “Fight Club was f***ing scary, but it was also incredibly exhilarating and incredibly fun,” she said, “I mean fun, fun, fun, but it was really scary.”
Picking a lead actor can be one of the toughest aspects of the job, but it’s a difficulty that casting directors must face on a daily basis. When asked how she faces this struggle, Mayfield relayed some of her secrets. “Sometimes you have an idea of one person that you want for a movie, but you know your lead actors are usually pretty specific,” she said. “The most difficult part of casting a lead in a movie is you have so many amazingly talented actors to choose from. How do you pick just one? There are certainly actors that I’d love to work with over and over, but you have to cast actors based on who’s right for the characters.”
Kress has been part of the entertainment field for over 20 years, but she didn’t enter the industry as a casting director. “I started as an actor, and then went into casting for Todd Thaler in New York in extras casting in the early ’90s,” she noted. “A friend said, ‘Oh you might like this,’ and it was just an easy transition from acting into another profession, which I wasn’t really educated about, but clearly found a passion for.”
Since 1996, Kress has worked with Baz Luhrmann on a number of films including William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, Australia and The Great Gatsby. Because so many of the roles in these films were filled by A-list actors, Kress explained what happens when a big enough actor, such as Leonardo DiCaprio, is offered a role like Jay Gatsby. “This was for him to decide whether he was interested in the material or not,” Kress stated, “This wasn’t about an audition process for him at all. This was about him working on the material and working with Baz and deciding if this was a movie he wanted to do.”
To maximize her potential Kress uses a studied approach, but remains flexible throughout the casting process of a project such as Gatsby, which had to bring F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel to life with a large ensemble cast. “It’s a puzzle,” she said, “That’s how we look at it, so obviously Gatsby and Nick, Tobey Maguire’s character, were essential pieces of the puzzle.”
Casting veteran Ross has been in the business for 34 years, but her original intent was to become a stage manager for theater. She got her first job in casting at CBS Television New York as an assistant to the head of casting, and once she got a taste, she was hooked. “The first thing that really made me feel like a casting director was a TV movie called Bitter Harvest directed by Rodger Young and starred in by Ron Howard, Art Carney and G.W. Bailey and some other very good actors including Barry Corbin,” she said.
In her rich career, Ross has cast TV shows and feature films such as The Hot Chick, Oblivion, Parental Guidance and 10 Things I Hate About You. When speaking about acquiring new projects, Ross defined her ongoing role: “Casting directors are freelance independent contractors who hopefully establish good relationships with directors and producers who continue to hire them every time they have a project,” she remarked, “You have to be very flexible and collaborative and figure out how to work with every person and every entity that you encounter along the way.”
For the 2013 film Oblivion, directed by Joseph Kosinski, Ross elaborated on how she cast Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman in the innovative sci-fi project. “Tom was a fan of Joe’s work,” she said, “He loved Tron : Legacy, and he knew about Oblivion, and he really actively pursued it. We started casting this movie when I was at Disney and I left, and ultimately the project just wasn’t the right fit for Disney, but Tom really loved it… Once the project was at Universal, Tom was able to become officially attached. With Morgan, I just think, you read it and we always felt it should be Morgan, but by then it was a process of getting Morgan to say yes.”
According to Ross, if an actor does not like a script or want to work with a director, you cannot make a deal with that actor. If these things are achieved, however, that actor will keep his schedule clear and make the time to make the movie.
In her journey, Ross has “discovered” many talented actors who became stars, including Heath Ledger, Anne Hathaway, Paul Rudd, Jennifer Garner and many others. She believes that taking a chance on such new talent has routinely kept the job fresh. “Whether this has had an impact on my career in terms of getting more work, I have absolutely no idea, and I never will, but, what has driven me to keep casting is the fact that I found all those people,” she said. “I enjoy doing that and I enjoy being the person that helps other people see that.”
Though official recognition by cinema’s highest body mysteriously eludes them, the aforementioned women remain wholly grateful without a trace of bitterness. “I’m really lucky,” said Cuba. “I’ve had very pivotal lucky moments in my career: one of them was the woman suggesting that I do it in the first place, and I think that’s a big part of success — being in the right place at the right time, and people putting their faith in you.”
Special Contribution by Lindsey Newman