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Casting Pros Debate Harassment, Whitewashing and Why the Term “Casting Couch” Is Offensive

Six top casting directors open up about diversity and weigh in on whether they deserve an Oscar category ("Hell yes").

Between them, they’ve worked on hundreds of films and some of the hottest shows on TV. But unlike the directors they work with and the actors they cast, these six top casting directors wouldn’t be recognized if they were walking down the street.

But now they find themselves in the spotlight — and finally getting together to talk about the issues — after casting became a hot-button topic during the past year due to an outcry over whitewashing in such projects as Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange and the Hellboy remake, and an overall demand for more diversity on TV and in film.

Many of the six have worked on blockbusters: Sarah Finn cast Marvel’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and the upcoming Black Panther (she also handled Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), while U.K.-based Lucy Bevan has shepherded a slew of studio projects including Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Fox’s Murder on the Orient Express. Others have longtime relationships with Hollywood’s top auteurs: Ellen Lewis is the go-to casting director for Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, and worked on both of their new films, The Post and The Irishman, respectively. Victoria Thomas has teamed with Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight), Denzel Washington (Fences) and Kathryn Bigelow (Detroit) in the past few years. Margery Simkin cast James Cameron’s Avatar and is currently working on the four sequels, plus her sci-fi expertise came in handy on CBS All Access’ Star Trek: Discovery. U.K.-based Nina Gold also works in both TV and film, casting HBO’s Games of Thrones and working on Disney and Lucasfilm’s new Star Wars films.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about diversity and whitewashing when it comes to casting. Because of the backlash, do you think things are changing?

LUCY BEVAN I don’t think it’s making much business sense for studios to make these wrong decisions because there is, as you said, so much backlash. They need to get it right, because it doesn’t make sense when they’re making these bad decisions.

MARGERY SIMKIN I do think the studios and the networks are much more open. That being said, I had a really interesting experience not too long ago where there were three characters: Two of them were women in positions of power in the story, and there was a third character that was written as a man. I said, “What if that third character was a woman?” The response was, “Well, that would be a lot of women.” (Laughter.) A group of men said this to me. I said, “If it was three men, would you have said the same thing?” And there was this silence. That was really telling.

VICTORIA THOMAS With writers and people at studios and producers who are making these creative decisions, you’re also beholden to their life experience. Say we’re casting schoolteachers — they’ll say, “Well, they look like this to me.” It’s interesting because you have to expand their own personal view of the world. They may need a little help, like, “Why wouldn’t that black character be a computer geek?” So it’s helping them expand their thinking in terms of what certain characters could be.

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Lucy, you worked on Ghost in the Shell. What was your experience with the controversy over Scarlett Johansson playing the lead?

BEVAN I came on it after Scarlett Johansson was already doing it, so I did my best to diversify the rest of the cast as much as possible.

Ed Skrein left the Hellboy reboot because there was an uproar when he was cast to play a character that was Japanese-American in the comics. How do you feel about an actor making that choice?

THOMAS I thought it was great that he did that. It felt like morally, he could not take that role.

SARAH FINN It’s proof that we’ve turned the page. I think that we as casting directors and the industry are acknowledging we have to be more faithful to the work and have more authenticity.

THOMAS But it’s hard. That adds to the challenge of studios trying to hang a movie on someone’s shoulders. And look, I get that that’s a gamble and it’s a lot of money, but maybe you shouldn’t be doing it if you’re not willing to really honor that material.


And what about stories for women? Do you feel there is a demand for more female-led stories at this point?

SIMKIN I do. They always used to say, “Nobody goes to a female movie,” and I think that that’s proven not to be true. There is more appetite in the audience, and people are acknowledging it, and we’re getting to do more diverse things.

BEVAN If you suggest a woman for a leading role that is written as a man, I think that is met with possibility now. The film [Artemis Fowl] that I’m casting at the moment, the leading role was a guy, and I suggested a woman, and now [Judi Dench is] playing it — the role was written for a guy.

When it comes to star power, how does having Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks attached to The Post affect your job when finding everyone else to star alongside them?

ELLEN LEWIS It helps. To come into The Post with Steven Spielberg directing and Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, actors are kind of lining up. It’s challenging as well because there are a lot of real people who all these characters are based on. It’s our job to fulfill the rest of that cast with believable people who don’t look exactly like the people whom they’re portraying, but enough so that you’re getting the flavor of them, the spirit of the person is coming out.

THOMAS One of the hardest things is casting real-life people. You don’t want to just cast a look-alike, but then you don’t want people to completely suspend their belief when you tell them it’s Katharine Graham or whoever the character is. It’s a tricky balance trying to get at the essence and the flavor of someone.

Sexual harassment in Hollywood has been in the news. Were you ever aware of a casting couch situation involving a producer or other man in power?

SIMKIN Honestly, no. For all of us who are professional and responsible, I hate that phrase, and I honestly never sent an actor to a hotel room or anything inappropriate.

FINN That phrase is unfortunate. And it doesn’t really reflect at all what we do in our craft.

BEVAN What we all do is create the safest, most comfortable space for actors who are vulnerable when they’re coming in to audition. You’re trying to make that process as comfortable for them as possible so that they can do their best work. So when the term “casting couch” comes anywhere near what we do, it’s pretty …

NINA GOLD … offensive.

THOMAS I think, for all of us, if we thought something was going wrong or someone was abusing someone, we’d say, “Stop. No. Don’t do that.”

How does it feel to now see a lot of these predators called out who maybe were doing it for years?

SIMKIN Every morning I wake up and read whatever the next thing is, and it’s heartening that people are having the courage to step forward and heartbreaking to hear the stories. And I feel, “Was I naive and was something going on that I didn’t see?” I have found myself reflecting a great deal on my entire career — it’s heartbreaking.


Collaboration is a big part of your job. What do you do when the studio or the director isn’t seeing things your way?

LEWIS The studio plays a part in a decision, but the most exciting aspect of our job is how we will work with a director. In the end, it is definitely the director’s choice about who will play a role. What we love about casting is to try to get into a director’s brain just a little bit so that we can help fulfill that vision. And when we’re in sync with them, there is no greater feeling.

SIMKIN But we also have a point of view. I completely agree with you, but I think the reason people want to work with each of us is because we bring a perspective that, like every other department head, helps enhance what the director’s vision is and, sometimes, keep them on track because they are so overwhelmed. Our job is to keep them on track when decisions are being made because they are getting pressure from the studios and the networks to cast somebody who’s going to be bankable or whatever.

GOLD You’ve got these words on the page and a kind of abstract idea of the character in the director’s mind, and then you’re going to turn those things into an actual, real, flesh-and-blood human being who is bringing their whole self to it.

FINN When you’re working with the actors, sometimes you might see something that is slightly different from what the original principle was, but you feel could actually add another element, which would be really fresh and really exciting. So while you are always trying to fulfill the director’s vision, sometimes you can bring an idea to the table that they may love, that they might not have thought of.

How do you see your profession changing in the coming years?

FINN Our profession has become more global because of technology and the access that we have to actors. There is hardly a corner in the world where we can’t reach someone, and that is very different from the situation 10 years ago.

LEWIS Obviously we now can get auditions from all over the world and actors are able to self-tape, but one of the greatest parts of our job is sitting in a room and actors coming in, in person, and reading for you. And I hope that that’s never replaced.

SIMKIN You can Skype with people, but it’s hard to do that process well. I am concerned for the next generation, because we didn’t have a choice — there was a period of time where you could only cast people if they could get into your office, and so you develop a skill of auditioning with them. I wonder what it’s going to be like moving forward.

LEWIS We’re talking about things changing, but I’m happy to be old-fashioned. I want to get on a phone with agents and have a dialogue with them. With a lot of young people, everything is done through email now. And I always say in my office, “Pick up the phone.” That’s how you develop relationships, that’s how we know people who now run the agencies, because we were all assistants together, talking on the phone.


What is the most intense thing an actor has done to get your attention?

THOMAS An actor pulled a gun in an audition for Con Air. He was reading with my assistant, and we were all there, and then he pulled a real gun — no bullets, though.

GOLD For Game of Thrones auditions, which I do with my colleague Robert Sterne, we auditioned this actress — she did get the part, so I won’t say who — and I was sitting on the sofa behind Robert, who was reading with her. She suddenly straddled Robert and started trying to unbutton his shirt. All I could see was the back of Robert’s head with his ears going more and more bright red. (Laughter.)

LEWIS I had an actor on Goodfellas who, after he was in the room auditioning, told me that he had $3,000 on him, to pay me.

THOMAS To pay you off? (Laughter.) That’s great.

LEWIS His reading was pretty good, so I decided to have him in. He has a small part in the movie — and I didn’t take the money.

SIMKIN I do have to say I am so impressed every day by the guts of these performers to come into a room and put themselves out there and just really go for it.

How do you break it to them, and what advice would you give to actors who maybe feel like they missed out on the role that they thought was really made for them?

FINN I would say it’s our job to remember you. If you come in and you do good work, we will remember you and we will find something for you.

BEVAN It’s so satisfying when you’re auditioning someone who is not right for a role, but in the back of your mind, you’re going, “They would be great for this other thing I’m doing.” I always say to actors, “You are not just coming in to audition for the role that you’re reading for — you are building a relationship.” We are always thinking about what else they could be right for.

GOLD Also, even the most successful and incredible actors in the world have had terrible disappointments along the way. Part of being an actor is having the resilience to pick yourself up and be really good again tomorrow, even if it didn’t work out the way you wanted on a particular thing.

Why do you think there isn’t an Oscar category for casting?

FINN A lot of the reason why there isn’t one yet is that by and large the work we do is private. It’s private between ourselves and the actors, it’s private between our conversations and the director. That privacy supports the process. People are vulnerable, so we do work in secrecy a lot of the time. And so for that reason, I think, industrywide many are not as familiar with the work we actually do and the contribution casting makes to the overall success of a film.

LEWIS Right. And because years ago the casting was done through the studio system. So starting in the ’50s and into the ’60s, when casting directors really started getting established, it just hadn’t been there right from the beginning. But do we deserve an Oscar? Of course we do.

GOLD Hell yes.

This story first appeared in the 2017 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.