How 'Port Authority,' the First Cannes Fest Film Featuring a Black Trans Woman, Was Cast

Courtesy of Lilian Rose

The casting team for the movie directed by Danielle Lessovitz and produced by Martin Scorsese, shares their process.

Casting directors looking for new, diverse talent increasingly turn to social media. And what counts online is conveying who you are in real life. That was the message at the We Audition event in Cannes, devoted to the future of casting.

Rather than looking for actors who can play any role, casting directors want people who fit the character in real life. To cut costs, some also prefer to hire nonprofessionals with a niche skill (stunts, legal, etc.) instead of training talent pre-shoot.

The importance of social media and the rise of street casting coincides with a greater demand for diversity, and authenticity, onscreen. Port Authority, which premiered in Un Certain Regard, is a case in point: Danielle Lessovitz wanted to find actual trans dancers for her New York interracial love story between a small-town troubled young man and a Harlem-based African-American trans ballroom beauty.

Lessovitz’s mission was hard, at least until Damian Bao and Kate Antognini came on board. He comes from commercial casting, but his credits include the indie movies American Honey (2016 Cannes Jury Prize) by Andrea Arnold and Goldie (2019 Berlin Film Festival) by Sam de Jong. 

Bao, an approachable Asian American, whose website describes him as “raised by refugee parents in an ethnically diverse trailer park community in New Orleans,” has a passion for finding diverse, often marginalized talent. Bao was inspired by the LGBTQ theme of Lessovitz’s film, and wanted to be part of a movie helmed by a woman director.

Casting for Port Authority took Bao, co-casting director Kate Antognini and their team 12 months — four times as long as he normally takes. "We needed to be very careful," Bao tells The Hollywood Reporter. "A lot of trans support groups are private. Many trans people come out online but not in real life. It is sometimes dangerous, so we needed to respect everyone’s boundaries. We looked for videos on YouTube of trans dancers voguing. People in the community sent us screen shots and we shared them with the contacts in the ballroom community, who helped us identify and contact the dancers. We also used hashtags and looked at Instagram and Facebook accounts. We scouted bars and went to late-night ballroom events. And we messaged LGBTQ community centers and groups across the country."

For Paul, the male love interest, Bao and Antognini considered professional actors and did an open call, but they also drove across 13 states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Alabama, visiting small-town high schools and talking to drama teachers. "The film is partly about white masculinity, and it was hard, because in many places we visited dancing isn’t seen as masculine," Bao says. 

In the end, the street-casting approach didn’t yield strong talent. "Men have a hard time being vulnerable in front of the camera, so this was hard for nonprofessionals," Bao says. "And we were going to very conservative places, so we couldn’t announce that we were casting a movie about a trans woman." They found Paul instead through a traditional channel: the British actor Fionn Whitehead (of Dunkirk) sent in a self-tape.

But the most crucial find was trans actress Leyna Bloom, who plays Wye. Bao knew that this part of the search would be a challenge, because so few trans actresses have agents. "We looked at hundreds of photos first. I knew Leyna from fashion for years, but didn’t realize she was involved in the ballroom scene," Bao says. "She actually has a number of titles and is known as the ‘Polynesian Princess.'” So it was ultimately Bloom’s real connection to the voguing scene as well as her charisma that helped to seal the deal.

Some of Bao’s street casting is more guerrilla-style: He says he will chase people down the street, if he thinks they look distinct. "I grew up in mother’s black nail salon, in an Asian and black community, so when I was growing up it was really disappointing not to see people of color represented in the movies," he recalls." Now I really believe this is changing. We are bored of seeing the same aesthetic."