Finding a lead actor is the easy part. For these casting directors, the bigger challenge was filling the supporting roles in these cinematic worlds.
Though The Personal History of David Copperfield hit screens in the summer, casting for the project began back in 2016, when the landscape "was quite different to how it is now," says casting director Sarah Crowe, citing a recent growth in diversity and representation reflected in projects like Netflix's Bridgerton. As a result, Dev Patel's leading-man status in a Charles Dickens period piece may have been unexpected, but director Armando Iannucci began the project with the actor in mind given his "amazing likability, warmth and vulnerability," Crowe says. Iannucci also mandated color-blind casting for the entire feature, simply instructing his collaborators to find the best actor for each part. Crowe, who notes that this was the first project she was given permission to cast without thought to race or physical appearance, describes the process as "incredibly creative and very freeing" and opened up her search to a far wider range of actors. The decision to cast color-blindly was inspired by Iannucci's vision to bring the 1850 Victorian-era novel into the present day. Explains Crowe: "He was always very clear that he didn't want to make another traditional period drama. He wanted it to be funny and more modern."
The role of Clara, which eventually went to Clark, required sharing scenes with the character's dog, prompting actresses seeking the role to submit some "imaginative self-tapes," says casting director Sarah Crowe. "I remember laughing when we were looking over the tapes because everyone had managed to find a small barking dog to use as a prop."
As Carey Mulligan was attached to star in Promising Young Woman when casting directors Mary Vernieu and Lindsay Graham-Ahanonu came on board, their main focus was finding the right male actors in a film where "every part was so important," says Vernieu. The film blends dark and light tones to tell the story of a woman seeking vengeance against those involved in a traumatizing event in her past. "Dark comedies, people either get it or they don't — it's a fascinating thing. And you don't really know until you're hearing it out loud and hearing people's cadence and seeing the choices they make," says Graham-Ahanonu. "We went through the same process on I, Tonya, which was an interesting, tricky tone that was really fun to work with, and this had similar layers." First-time director Emerald Fennell also came into the process with "such a specific vision for every single character — which is wonderful and a fantastic thing because she really dove deep into each part and had expectations for each part," adds Graham-Ahanonu, though she notes that challenges sometimes arose in melding those preformed ideas to work as one ensemble.
Writer, comedian and actor Burnham was cast as Cassie's (Carey Mulligan) primary love interest, Ryan, who is "very Prince Charming. He was the one guy that you're like, 'Oh, he's a good guy, for sure,' " casting director Mary Vernieu says. The film's casting directors looked for supporting castmembers with a background in comedy and ability to nail the film's unique tone.
Amid the numerous auditions and meetings, there was one standout: Lowell, who plays Al Monroe, a key character who is mentioned throughout the film in characters' conversations but does not appear onscreen until the film's final act. "Al Monroe was just such a character we kept waiting to meet, and I think that character was challenging," says Vernieu. "I just remember Chris' audition coming in and thinking, 'Oh yeah, he's this guy.' "
With One Night in Miami, centering on a fictionalized 1964 meeting among Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke, casting director Kim Hardin was tasked with finding actors to fully replicate the physicality, dialect and appearance of four iconic men, with the Malcolm X role proving particularly challenging. Just weeks before shooting, the original actor set to play the activist was forced to drop out, sending Hardin on a scramble that led her to bring back Kingsley Ben-Adir, who originally had been considered for the Clay role. "To see that we were able to get Kingsley in the film so last minute and just how brilliant he was — not only through the process of the auditioning [and] what we had to put him through, but just seeing how much he rose to the occasion with his performance — it was just beautiful," Hardin says, adding that Leslie Odom Jr.’s role as Cooke was another late addition after a failed negotiation with another actor. But between his appearance, singing ability and acting skills, "I just knew there was no one else, to my mind." The Amazon Studios film, which marks Regina King’s directorial debut, was the culmination of more than 25 years of friendship between Hardin and King and inspired the casting director to audition as many actors as possible from all over the world "to make [King] feel comfortable with these four gentlemen," Hardin says. "I was trying to bring her the best talent so that she can go and paint her color for the screen. I was just wowed by what she did and what I helped bring to the table for her to be able to make the kind of picture that she did."
With Meryl Streep attached to Let Them All Talk early on — continuing her relationship with director Steven Soderbergh following The Laundromat — casting director Carmen Cuba set out to find the two longtime yet distant friends who would be accompanying her on her transatlantic cruise. "The beauty of this age group is that once we were trying to narrow it down, you realize that there’s a plethora of iconic actresses in this age group who are brilliant," says Cuba, whose search ultimately led to Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest. The three stars play widely contrasting women "with the idea that the people you become friends with in college could have ended up vastly different from who they were in college." Despite the appeal of working with A-listers and shooting over the course of just two weeks spent on an ocean liner, Cuba says, "I could also see how terrifying doing something like this would be," given that the script was largely improvised. But “the notion of elderly friendships and elderly beauty, I feel like it was exciting to all of us and to anyone who heard about it."
Chan, recognizable for her serious turns in the sci-fi series Humans and films like Crazy Rich Asians, has much lighter material to work within Steven Soderbergh’s comedy. Casting director Carmen Cuba was inspired to cast Chan as Streep’s literary agent — who secretly boards the Queen Mary 2 while hiding from her client — after seeing her "be funny and clever in the way this character has to be, but I haven’t necessarily seen that in her work."
Cuba turned to Hedges for a bit of youthful infusion as Streep’s character’s nephew, who attempts to assist her in finishing her latest manuscript while on board the ship. With recent performances in Honey Boy, Boy Erased and Ben Is Back, "I felt like we’ve seen him tortured so much in the past few years and that it would be fun to see him sort of tortured in a different way with all these women," Cuba jokes of Hedges. "And be funny. I felt like we hadn’t gotten to see him be funny in a while."
To play Roberta, the estranged college friend of Streep’s Alice who believes that Alice stole her life story for her popular novel, Cuba knew that suggesting Bergen would pique Soderbergh’s interest. "Mike Nichols is a huge part of Steven’s life and inspiration," she says. "He was a mentor to him, they were very close, and so I brought up Candice thinking that that connection to Mike from Carnal Knowledge was something he would spark to."
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.