Casting Directors: When Will Oscars Recognize the Impact We Have on Films?

Five top casting directors — including several whose films hit paydirt with Academy Award nominations — sound off on an underappreciated art. Oscar, anyone?

Oscar nominations are out, the Golden Globes are done. But long before the cameras roll, some of the most important work — that isn't eligible for awards — is done.

TheWrap gathered the casting directors on some of the season’s leading films to talk about their work, why it can be emotionally draining and whether it ought to be recognized with its own Oscar.

Gathered around a table at the Montage hotel recently were, from left above: Terri Taylor ("Hitchcock"), Vicki Thomas ("Django Unchained"), John Papsidera ("The Dark Knight Rises"), Mary Vernieu ("Silver Linings Playbook") and Lora Kennedy ("Argo," "Cloud Atlas").

Also read: The Complete List of Oscar Nominations

The work of this group was well represented in Oscar nominations Thursday morning: Christoph Waltz got a nod for "Django," Alan Arkin for "Argo," and "Silver Linings Playbook" boasted four — one in each acting category: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver.

Are casting directors ignored?
Taylor: I don’t think we are ignored. But a lot of people don’t know what we do and the impact that we have on films. I think it’s important that we start talking more so that people can understand the role that we play in getting a movie to the screen. 

Thomas: I don’t feel underappreciated by the directors.

James Acomb

Who do you feel underappreciated by?
Papsidera: I think it’s a tough thing to answer. I don't typically watch the DVD extras on the films I work on, but on one project I happened to, and the director and the producers sat around and said "Oh, I knew it was that actor the moment they walked in." It was Carnivale, the series for HBO. But they wouldn’t have even known of that actor unless I had brought them in the room. And I think that happens a lot. I do think there is that pervasive attitude. A director and a producer want to own it. Ultimately it is their decision in collaboration with everybody else, but by-and-large that director and producer would never know the talent unless a casting director brought them in the room and knew who they were and were familiar with their body of work. So it’s an integral part of the creative process in making a movie. 

Kennedy: They can’t know the right people if you don’t show them the right people. And how they all go together, too. It’s not just each person. It’s how they all balance as one. 

Papsidera: Everybody asks what the purpose of a casting director is. My in-laws in Wisconsin are like, "Why do you exist?" And they say, "Oh, you know who should have played that role?" So we deal with that from every assistant on a movie to agents to producers to laymen….

Kennedy: It’s also about knowing how people work. Certain actors aren’t going to work well with other actors, and that’s what we know.

Papsidera: Especially in the advent of videotaping. And so many more directors are relying on auditions on videotape. You’re seeing a snapshot of a person instead of knowing what an actor is capable of. 

Kennedy: Sometimes being in a room is different than when you actually sit back and review it. It's changed. In the room you get one feeling and then you sit back and look at it and it’s a completely different feeling. And we bring the knowledge of what it was like in the room. We spend so much time putting people on tape but we are the ones in the room. 

Papsidera: And you can get a whole different feeling on tape. Someone can blow you away in the room and then you look at it on tape and they’re just not very filmic. That kind of knowledge of an actor’s body of work, as opposed to one audition, is integral to the process.

Kennedy: Especially if somebody screws up. We can go, "Well they didn’t bring it today, but we know they are much better than this." And a good audition might be the greatest thing, but that’s all you’re ever going to get.

Thomas: They can come in and audition and I think what you get in that audition and video tape is the best you’re going to get. There’s not going to be any growth. You’re not going to get any surprises.

How do you know that?
Taylor: From knowing the actor. From doing what we do. From doing it over and over and over.

Kennedy: And from comparison with every single other person who auditions and what they bring.

Taylor: I think what Lora is talking about is that the harder side is to convince a director that an actor who didn’t score in their audition has more to offer. And it’s your job to educate the director on how and why you know that. And hopefully to have them give the actor another chance.

Have you ever been wrong?
Kennedy: Yeah. And everybody points it out.

Papsidera: I think the analogy is if you compare it to other departments, you wouldn’t give a writer one pass at a script. And yet you’re giving an actor one pass at a script, and people are judging that. And I think this is where we get short changed a lot, where people say we’re just auditioners and we funnel people through. It starts before that in the creative process. You read the script and you match actors’ souls to something that is two dimensional on a page. And that is absolute creativity and artistry brought to the profession, because how we each interpret a role is all very different. So your insight into those roles is really more as a dramaturge than it is somebody who just releases a breakdown and brings people in and the director makes the choice.

Do you feel that what you do deserves recognition by the Academy?
Papsidera: Absolutely. People get Oscars for doing a hairdo. Everybody goes, "Well,  I don’t know how they get that hair that way, so they deserve an award." But there would be no actor to put that hairdo on or go shopping for if it weren’t for casting directors. And when Laura talks about independent films, there wouldn’t be independent films in large part if it weren’t for casting directors.  Attaching people, finding who that person is. And even on that level of "Batman Begins," you know? There was no Batman before I started. So somebody has to process that and facilitate finding the right person for those jobs.

What is that process?
Papsidera: You start with a list of ideas. You talk about the different qualities of the director and you try to talk about what’s right about those actors and how they apply to those characters. What an actor can reveal about that character. And that’s why I feel like it's matching peoples souls to what they do. You’re really talking about knowing a person.  Knowing somebody’s humor, knowing somebody’s pathos. Knowing a lot of things a lot of things about an actor. And it can go to the ridiculousness of me knowing where they spent vacations because you get that information as being a casting director. Their lives, their pains, their accomplishments. 

James Acomb

Kennedy: We screen-tested five actors for that role (of Batman) and I was very involved.  And the same thing with Superman. I saw 1,000 people in person for that and probably looked at 2,000 on tape. 

Papsidera: Again, it’s a collaborative process. We all had a feeling going in to the screenings for those five and after the fact the studio actually talked about how the script informed one of those actors more than the others. And the structure of the script really dictated who we could go to. He had to be at a certain place in his life, so the younger candidates sort of fell by the wayside and it really came that Christian (Bale) was the right fit for that character. 

Vicki, how was "Django" different as a casting challenge?
Thomas: Well, Jamie (Foxx) and Christoph (Waltz) were already attached. 

What about casting the female slave, Kerry Washington?
Thomas: We had so many people read for that role, and a lot of them didn’t want to do it. Some actors passed on it because they didn’t like the violence. Kerry was one of the last people we auditioned. We saw people in New York and LA.

It’s a very ugly and violent picture of slavery
Thomas: It’s appalling, but at the same time you are laughing. Not to make light of slavery but it’s just an odd juxtaposition of comedy and violence and commentary. That’s all mixed in there.

Did people not want to play those roles because they didn’t want to reinforce stereotypes?
Thomas: There were some actors who passed on the violence or the use of the N word.  Or about what they actually had to do or be subjected to over the course of the film. I wouldn’t try to convince them.  It wasn’t their cup of tea so we just moved on. I got a lot of apologies from white actors who would come in and read with me. Before Quentin even came into the room, I was in there with these actors going through these things and getting used to getting called these things. By the time he came in, I knew not to take it personally and we just went to work. But I don’t think Quentin was ready for that, for those words coming at him. He actually said that I was more prepared for those words than he was.

James AcombIs there a feeling that you are contributing to a project that is going to help people see what slavery was really like?
Thomas: Everyone who wanted to do this thought it had some redeeming value.  And I had to trust him. When I first met him I had a lot of questions, and we talked for about two hours.

Let’s talk about "Hitchcock."
Taylor: "Hitchcock" was the opposite experience.  It was so revered and the actors loved it and wanted to be a part of the film. So we didn’t have to deal with actors saying, "No thank you," or "The subject matter isn’t for me." But it was tough because people know the characters I’m trying to cast, and there was that association that you want to get right.  You had big names playing big names and you had to get that right. They were stars and we had to pay attention to that while casting. Physically people in that decade held themselves differently and spoke differently. They had a different cadence.

How did you come up with that incredible casting of James D’Arcy as Tony Perkins?
Taylor: That was an amazing light-bulb crazy experience, and we almost didn’t have him in (to test) because Tony Perkins was in his mid-to-late 20s at the time Psycho was made,  and James D’Arcy is not in his mid-to-late 20s anymore. But the physicality was spot on and we all liked him as an actor.

But how did you think of him?
Taylor: When Sacha writes a script he assembles actors at his home and they read through to help him hear his script. So he knew James,and I knew James, so we said, ‘Let’s ignore the fact that he’s not in his late 20s anymore." I had Tony (Hopkins) in most of my auditions from day one. From the moment James D’Arcy sat down in his chair and opened his mouth, it was clear that it was his job, but Tony actually laughed out loud, he went "Oh my God, Oh my God I’m so sorry, it’s just uncanny."  And then he said, “Right, let’s actually do your audition.”

So can we talk about Silver Linings?
Vernieu: De Niro was attached, and then Jennifer (Lawrence) auditioned via Skype. One of the main challenges was Jacki Weaver who plays the mom, because (director) David O. Russell really wanted to have someone who was authentic, so I was looking at someone who had married a mobster, someone we had never seen before. But I was obsessed with Jacki Weaver and she was doing Uncle Vanya in Washington with Cate Blanchett and so I had her drive up there to meet David. It took a minute but she finally got it.

And Bradley Cooper was not originally slated to do the lead…
Vernieu: No, but that changed pretty fast. It was originally Mark Wahlberg and then suddenly it was Bradley Cooper. Literally, in 48 hours somehow that changed. I think it was something between David and Mark. David really knows his material. He’s one of those directors that whenever he works with an actor they’re usually at their best. He’s the one that gets the best performances out of Mark.

"Cloud Atlas" looks like an unbelievably intimidating casting task.
Kennedy: The book was overwhelming. The Wachowskis had given me the book about six years ago, I read it and I was like, "Are you kidding?" But they cracked it. And we kind of set it just one role at a time. It was kind of, "Who’s the person who could get us the financing but who also who can play the worst of us to the best of us?" And it was Tom (Hanks). So after we got Tom, we set our sights on Halle (Berry), and then after Halle we went to Jim (Broadbent) next. We knew that Tom was going to play all those roles, but we hadn’t yet come upon this idea of multiple actors playing multiple roles. So when the characters were cast we made a huge patchwork grid with lines, my office looked like that scene in "A Beautiful Mind." Casting was a way for us to help the audience follow the story so it became clear that if we kept drawing these roles and characters together it would help everybody understand the film more. It was completely wild and crazy, and I’ve never done anything like that.

In Argo, the characters feel very organic, there’s a very docu-style to it. But did the pages scream Alan Arkin?                                             
Kennedy: The page did.  We talked about bigger names maybe, movie star names, but then because it’s a real film, Ben rightly said when they show them the house, and they can’t go to Warren Beatty’s house, so we couldn’t have somebody too famous, because they were famous in the '70s. And everybody loves John Goodman. When you see John Goodman come on screen you automatically have a big smile on your face. Those were the more well-known actors in the movies, so we’re trying to change the tempo a little bit.

Vernieu: When I saw the movie I really loved the fact that you could tell you were allowed to cast the person who read the best for the particular part. You didn’t have to stunt cast, you didn’t have to fulfill financing. I think that really was apparent. You actually got to cast the movie, it fit together.