Casting Directors Reveal Challenges of Finding Child Stars: "We're Trying to Extract Emotions"

Illustrations by: Hartley Lin

"Kids are either very raw because they haven't done that much or they're very slick because they've done 
too much," says one pro — not to mention the audition-killing powers of a "difficult" mom.

There definitely seem to be more opportunities for kids across the board," says Yesi Ramirez, the casting director on Moonlight. Chalk it up to Peak TV, adds Carmen Cuba: "The percentage of kids being cast has grown parallel to the amount of projects," she says — but that doesn't mean strong young stars are any easier to find. For Stranger Things, Cuba saw 2,000 kids from all over the world. "Performance is pretty black-and-white with kids," she says. "I can usually tell from the first audition if it's going to work."

But most kid castings start with a tape: Finn Wolfhard sent an out-of-focus tape from bed because he was sick, Cuba 
recalls; Brit actress Millie Bobby Brown sent one too, then showed off her American accent via 
a Skype audition. Cuba says that the role they saw the most people for was for Nancy (played by Natalia Dyer). "Maybe it was that she represented such an iconic figure for everyone on the creative team — the big sister everyone has a crush on, the teenager finding her way in love, the rebellious daughter, the good student," she says.

And while kids who land on a hit like Stranger Things will stay for years, casting directors say they don't look ahead 
too far. "I'd love to say that I did consider how the kids would change as they got older," says Cuba, "but I didn't think anything beyond this first season."

Most casting directors agree that it requires a much wider net than when casting grown-ups. "For adult roles, a lot of times it's quality versus quantity," says Ramirez. "But for kids you want to see as much as possible because you want to see what is out there."

It's not just 
the child being auditioned. "[Parents' behavior] can be a deciding factor," says Modern 
Family's Jeff Greenberg. Screen-testing four children for the role of Joe, 
he recalls a member of the wardrobe crew confiding that "one 
of their mothers was being a little difficult. If it got down to it, 
we would sort of consider that."

The starkest difference between adult and child casting, 
Greenberg adds, is a lack of — 
or too much — polish. "Kids are either very raw because they haven't done that much or they're very slick because they've done 
too much," he says. For the role of Manny, he saw more than 
190 boys, but it came down to Rico Rodriguez and one other 
kid "who nailed it, who was really cute. But he felt very Hollywood, and it sort of popped in a way that we didn't want it to pop."

To help kids shed their over-prepped shells, Ramirez asks an unexpected, tough question (for Fox Searchlight's upcoming supernatural pic Antlers, it was whether they'd ever lost someone they love). "We're just trying to extract the emotions," she says. "Sometimes without saying anything, they're saying so much. It's really moving."

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.