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Before the Cameras Even Roll, “A Movie Lives or Dies by Casting”

Francine Maisler, The Hollywood Reporter’s inaugural Casting Director of the Year, reveals how she helped assemble the marquee names in 'Dune,' 'Don't Look Up' and 'Being the Ricardos.'

Francine Maisler tends to shy away from the spotlight.

The casting director favored by some of the industry’s most sought-after directors is a master of assembling unforgettable ensembles of both stars and unknowns, but still feels a bit uncomfortable being named The Hollywood Reporter‘s inaugural Casting Director of the Year. It’s not that she’s ungrateful, she was quick to tell THR recently; rather, “I’m very in-the-moment … I’ve got a job at hand that I need to do right now, that I’m casting, and anything that takes me away from that task doesn’t seem important to me.” (Right now, at least one task is HBO’s Parasite spinoff series, which she’s working on with Bong Joon Ho.)

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But it’s becoming increasingly difficult for Maisler to avoid attention, as collaborators generously heap on praise. Among this year’s releases, the features she’s worked on include Dune, Being the Ricardos and Don’t Look Up, working with directors and frequent collaborators Denis Villeneuve, Aaron Sorkin and Adam McKay, respectively, as well as the upcoming Sandra Bullock-starring drama The Unforgivable. On television, she helped assemble The Underground Railroad‘s call sheet of fresh and familiar faces for Barry Jenkins, who is teaming with her again on his Lion King prequel. McKay calls her “wildly gifted” and says she is one of the “few people in my life that I love and respect so much that it gets boring to hear me praise them over and over.” Adds Sorkin: “She has an eye for talent — especially new talent — like no one I’ve ever met. If she believes in an actor who I’m not responding to, she’ll keep bringing that actor back anyway. She wants the actor to make the best possible case for themself.”

In addition to working on artsy festival favorites with repeat collaborators (a list that also includes Noah Baumbach, Steve McQueen, Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Terrence Malick), Maisler has tackled comedies (Tropic Thunder), superhero and action movies (the original Spider-Man, Bad Boys) and rom-coms (You’ve Got Mail, How Stella Got Her Groove Back). She also played a key role in casting the central Roy family on HBO’s Succession. Still, after all this time, she gets butterflies: Casting is a process “that I torture myself [over],” she says. “Every time I start a movie, I feel like I’ve never done it before.”

During a call from her home in Los Angeles, Maisler discussed the challenges of casting actors to play real people for movies like Being the Ricardos, whether she’s looking for the next big thing on TikTok, and how studio casting mandates have changed over the past two decades: “We’re at a time that’s open to so many things that weren’t [welcomed] before.”

What do you think are the main traits or skills that make a good casting director?

What people need to understand is that we start with a blank slate. Once in a while — sometimes — stars come attached, but the casting director is the first person the director hires after he gets the script. And though it seems like it’s easy to just think of this person or that person, there’s an intense work period that goes into it between the director and casting director. With all of my directors, I think they hire me so that we can have conversations about things we agree and disagree on and so that they have as much information as they can when they make the final decision. With Aaron [Sorkin], we argue back and forth — I like to say with passion and wit, and I do like to have fun when we’re casting. But it really is an intense process. Of course, you can come up with a name, but that name may not be available, and what happens then? Even for the best, A-plus-plus movies.

In terms of qualities that might make a good casting director, would you count traits like creativity, an eye for talent and even the willingness to, as you say, argue with directors?

A great love of cinema and theater is the beginning. Our job is to also not do what’s obvious; our job is to search far and wide, and sometimes it’s stars fitting into the perfect vehicle and sometimes it’s people who haven’t had the opportunity or platform to show their best. Take Leo [DiCaprio]: Leo is not doing what you normally would think of him doing in Don’t Look Up. And I think that’s a brilliant, brilliant turn.

And everywhere I go, I’m always looking at things visually and seeing what I find interesting, so it’s taste. Having the same taste as the director — instincts about dramatic and comedy — is so important. I’m there to help the director put his vision together, suggesting things he might not think of and knowing the talent pool out there. I think it’s also best when it’s something you do that you have a passion for and it’s not just a job. I would normally watch four movies on the weekend — that’s not work to me.

You’ve been a casting director for around 20 years. How have casting wish lists changed over the years, and what do you look for today that you didn’t in earlier years?

I think that [in the past] there was a mandate usually from the studios to have names in a lot of the casts that I was working on. That has changed. Now the mandate is making sure the cast is diverse, which is fantastic. Casting directors always wanted it to be diverse and represent the world we live in, but I don’t know if studios wanted that. After Succession, [HBO and HBO Max chief content officer] Casey Bloys said to me, “Because of Succession, we don’t need names in our pilots.” I’ve been working on a couple of shows for them, and now it’s just, “Give me the best actors, the most interesting.” So I think it’s an exciting time. It’s difficult because it’s COVID, but I think we’re at a time that’s open to so many things that weren’t [welcomed] before.

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From left: Jonah Hill, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence in Don’t Look Up, which Maisler cast for Adam McKay. NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX

In recent years, you’ve worked on projects with some truly sprawling, star-studded ensembles, most recently with Don’t Look Up and Dune. What are the particular challenges of taking on films that gather multiple well-known names?

I can’t say that we started either of those projects looking for stars; we didn’t. It’s just they were such strong scripts and such great directors that everyone wanted to be part of it. Let’s start with Don’t Look Up: Leo and Jennifer [Lawrence] and Meryl Streep wanting to be part of it. The same with Dune, all the actors wanted to work with Denis Villeneuve, and some knew the book and wanted to be part of it. We didn’t have Timothée [Chalamet attached initially]. That was a discussion that took place because in the book he was a little bit younger, but that wouldn’t work for the whole movie, so a discussion took place about Timothée before he was hired. And then you just start to build this ensemble of people. The only way I do it is who is best for the role.

When you have a bunch of actors at that level wanting to be part of a film, do you ever audition major stars or have them come in for chemistry reads, or do you go off intuition in terms of how they might work together?

It’s a creative discussion between myself and the director. These actors certainly didn’t audition; they were offered the role, and we kept our fingers crossed that they’d want to do it. Does the director meet with them or have a discussion with them? Yes. With Adam [McKay] and Leo, they met many times to make sure that it was a fit because they hadn’t worked together before.

And then I also tried to build this ensemble with people whom you wouldn’t normally see. Adam McKay knew Rob Morgan [who also appears in Don’t Look Up] because we cast him in the Lakers show [which is untitled, for HBO], so he had a relationship with him. But then you’re able to add people who maybe Adam hasn’t worked with before, like Ron Perlman, who is known in a certain way, and we just got such a kick out of using Ron Perlman in a movie that you don’t normally see him in. And Himesh Patel and Kid Cudi, and what a dream to have Mark Rylance, whom I obviously knew from Jerusalem and Boeing-Boeing in the theater, so to have my name on something that he’s in, that was amazing.

On the other hand, recent projects like The Underground Railroad and Succession have also seen you shining a new light on some actors who aren’t widely known. When it comes to finding new talent, casting directors have traditionally looked to showcases like theater and indie films. To what extent are you now also paying attention to personalities who are showing up on TikTok, Instagram or other social media platforms?

I have to be honest, I don’t. (Laughs.) I should, but I come from a theater background, and it’s about really having studied and not about somebody who is a TikTok sensation. I try to be aware of it because you never know where great talent comes from, but it’s not something I personally focus on. I’ve tried some TikTok sensations, and I don’t think they compared to real actors. I think the craft of acting is one that needs to be studied, and it’s a thoughtful process and not anyone can do it.

One of the important drivers of a television series’ success is chemistry among the main cast, as on Succession. To what extent can you figure out chemistry during the casting process and to what extent is chemistry a result of luck and/or camaraderie developing over time?

I don’t know if it can be figured out: I think it’s the instincts of the creative people involved and having a great script. In Dune, Zendaya auditioned with Timothée, and other wonderful actresses read, but they had a chemistry, and she was the best that day. So that’s one example of an actor coming in to read and seeing the chemistry in the room.

For Succession, we honestly cast each individual role. It just came together, and it was magic. I can say that when Nicholas Braun came in and read, and we had the producer Kevin Messick read opposite him as the Brian Cox character, there was something hysterical about this idea of this 6-foot-5 actor reading opposite somebody who was 5-foot-11. [In the name of hireability, the 6-foot-7 Braun has said he skimmed inches off his height.] So we knew that would work. But in terms of Matthew Macfadyen and Kieran Culkin, those were both readings they read on tape, and they just nailed their parts. Matthew was somebody I had always loved, and I had seen him as Mr. Darcy [in 2005’s Pride and Prejudice] and had a crush on him from that role, but his agent kept telling me also he did this character work and he was willing to just put himself on tape. We watched that tape, and he was it. So the actor has to be open, too. Because Matthew Macfadyen’s at that level where he did not need to audition, but he wanted to show another side of himself. So did Matthew Macfadyen and Nick Braun read together? No. They read individually, and both auditions were brilliant. And then it just happened that it was magic on set.

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“Each director has their own style of what they need,” says Maisler. “It’s my job to bring the best to those  directors.” Photographed by Sam Taylor-Johnson

You spoke about diversity and the industry actually demanding it now. There has been some controversy surrounding Javier Bardem not being Cuban American but playing Desi Arnaz in Being the Ricardos. Aaron Sorkin recently addressed the controversy and said that he feels comfortable with the choice, and so did a Latina casting consultant on the film. How do think about cultural authenticity in casting, and, in your view, is there such a thing as casting too narrowly for cultural authenticity?

I wouldn’t say there’s casting too narrowly. What I’ll say is Aaron cares deeply about diversity and a soulful, intense process happens for each role and [happened with regard to] where Desi Arnaz was from. But you also have to find the best actor who is available — it was a very difficult task to find the perfect person for this. Javier is Spanish, and we understood the role was Cuban and there were many, many, many conversations about this, but ultimately we felt that he was the best person to play the role. And he played Cuban before in Before Night Falls, he’s Spanish, [and] it was a conversation with him about it, with the studio about it. It wasn’t taken lightly, let me say that. And let me also say that everyone was considered. So I think everybody needs to be considered for the part, and then ultimately it’s who is the best for this specific part.

When it comes to casting people to play real-life figures like in Being the Ricardos, what type of similarities do you look for between the actors and the real people they’re portraying? How much of it is based on how closely they look like the real person?

No director I work with wants an impersonation. I think when you look at Nicole [Kidman], she did a tremendous job. She’s not an identical match, but for the role that Aaron wrote, I can’t imagine anyone being better. [Aaron] gave her specifics that he didn’t want an impersonation but the essence of the pain that Lucy felt during this time, during this story that he was telling. I thought she was magnificent. I think when you talk about William Frawley [played by J.K. Simmons], we didn’t want to cast somebody who physically was 6-foot-5 because Frawley is known for physically being a smaller, shorter man. So, there we took that into consideration, and J.K. doesn’t look exactly like William Frawley, but boy, was he able to convey all the nuances of who that man was — the toughness, the humor, I mean, he just killed it. So yes and no: You take into account who you’re casting, visually what they look like, but you don’t go for an impersonation.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.