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The Academy may be under pressure to shorten the length of the Oscars ceremony, but across the pond things appear to be going in the opposite direction. This year will actually see the BAFTAs extend its show with the addition of a new award: best casting, the first new film honor introduced in 21 years by the British Academy.
Up for the inaugural honor are Joker, Marriage Story, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Two Popes and — offering a distinctly British addition to the mix — Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield.
The move, which was widely applauded across the industry when it was first revealed in the summer of 2019 (Richard E. Grant was among the actors to hail the announcement), sees the British Academy, once considered a rather stuffy, old-fashioned institution, mark itself as something of a maverick.
In 2017, the British Independent Film Awards (BIFAs) introduced a new casting category (won by Sarah Crowe for Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin), followed by the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards in 2018 (Allison Meadows for Riot). So while BAFTA may not quite be breaking new ground, it’s now certainly the most high-profile global film awards to acknowledge the work of casting directors. “It’s a milestone for our community,” says Russell Boast, president of the Casting Society of America.
But it wasn’t a straightforward decision, with BAFTA having discussed, reviewed and consulted with the industry over several years before announcing its edict. “We have to make sure that it’s right. We don’t just want to introduce a category one year and then it doesn’t come in the next,” says BAFTA’s director of awards, Emma Baehr. And it came about after a great deal of lobbying from casting directors, agents and others in the industry.
“It didn’t just happen out of the blue,” says Nina Gold, the British casting director on The Crown, Game of Thrones and Star Wars, and now a BAFTA nominee for The Two Popes. “There have been campaigns and conversations, and we had a huge amount of support from directors, actors and really prominent people in the business who have helped put the case for casting directors.”
Shaheen Baig, whose work includes Black Mirror, Peaky Blinders and Lady Macbeth (which gave newly anointed Oscar nominee Florence Pugh her breakout), suggests that the move by the BIFAs, plus the U.K.’s Casting Directors Guild creating its own awards — “born out of frustration and lack of recognition” — may have also put pressure on the British Academy. “But it’s wonderful, and hopefully will create a much deeper understanding within and outside of the industry on the art of casting, and the craft and skill that goes into the job,” Baig adds.
It’s this lack of understanding — and how casting can actually be judged — that many suggest is the reason why the profession, not exactly new, has taken so long to be formally recognized.
“The role in itself is a difficult thing to quantify,” says Lucy Bevan (An Education, Ready Player One, Cats). “But it’s as important and as much of a contribution [as other aspects of filmmaking].”
Gold suggests that one issue could be that casting is an “incredibly collaborative” part of the process. “I’m not the one saying, for example, ‘We’re casting Jonathan Pryce, and that’s that.’ Every single part of filmmaking is collaborative,” she says. “I just guess the fact that casting is such a collaborative joint enterprise is more obvious than in other parts of filmmaking.”
And when it comes to actually analyzing films (BAFTA’s casting nominees were selected by an 11-member jury made up of 60 percent casting agents, plus actors, producers and agents), it’s not merely the choice of leads and supporting actors that should be assessed. “It’s when every single role in the film contributes to the storytelling,” says Bevan. “It’s the whole ensemble.”
The struggle for casting recognition is one that’s born out of the traditional studio system, claims Boast, who says that before casting directors went independent in the 1950s, they were seen more as “in-house talent scouts” trying to find their bosses the next star.
“A misconception emerged that we were list-makers and administrators,” he says, adding that a casting director’s job is often to present actors and then make “everyone else in the room think it was their idea” in order to get the deals to close.
“We become very good at standing in the background,” notes Boast. “We’re there from day one, but once the first day of the shoot starts, the ship sails and we’re left on the shore having introduced everyone to one another.”
BAFTA’s efforts to bring casting directors into the spotlight will no doubt put pressure on the Academy to do the same, especially considering the recent arrival of David Rubin as president (Rubin is the first casting director to ascend to the presidency). “I don’t think they’ll be far behind,” says Baehr.
But the Casting Society of America’s Boast isn’t confident that having a casting director in the top position will create a change overnight in the U.S.
“There’s a good chance in the future that we may see ourselves at the Academy Awards, but I’m very mindful of the fact that there are a lot of bristles on this paintbrush that creates these pictures,” he says. “And a lot of those bristles also deserve recognition.”
BAFTA Honors Kathleen Kennedy
The British Academy’s highest honor, the BAFTA Fellowship, will be awards to Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy. Kennedy’s nearly four-decade history of working in Britain began with Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1980 and recently included Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
U.K.’s NEXT-GEN ACTORS
The British public will decide which of these up-and-comers will win BAFTA’s rising-star award.
Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Fighting With My Family
This story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.