PAINTING WITH HUMANITY
Casting a Light on the Role of the Casting Director with MINDY MARIN
By Tyler Malone
Film is a collaborative medium. There are so many moving parts that go into the making of a movie that it can be hard to keep track of them all. When a film succeeds, we often attribute it to the director, or maybe sometimes to the producers or writers. If the performances carry the film, we know to praise the actors. They”re the people we see, the faces of the film, the ambassadors to the public. Maybe if we”re a little more versed in the language of cinema, we may compliment the editor, the cinematographer, the composer, or the costume designer. These jobs are at least on our radar because we see these people win awards every award season. Of course, the average person may not understand what goes into production design, but at least they see a production designer thank a list of people every Oscar night. So they must be important, right?
The truth is that all of these jobs are important, those that are more visible and those that go unnoticed. A film couldn”t come together without each cog in the wheel. One of the crucial cogs that often goes unrecognized–especially when done well–is the work of the casting director. Every film has one, but we never see them on the Oscar stage. When a film has great performances, we usually extoll the virtues of the actors that gave those performances, but rarely do we stop to think about who actually decided to put their faith in that actor to give that performance. Because I thought Nightcrawler had one of the best casts of any 2014 film, I decided to speak with the film’s casting director, Mindy Marin, to cast some light on the role of these unsung heroes of the film industry.
Tyler Malone: I wanted to start off by discussing in general what it is that a casting director does. Obviously, most people know what “casting” is, but they don”t understand what all goes into to being a casting director. Can you describe what the job entails?
Mindy Marin: A casting director is a person that orchestrates the focus of bringing life to a script through actors. And by that, I mean we paint with humanity. We are out on the front lines, working very hard to summon the right acting spirits to the table. Most people who aren”t involved in filmmaking don”t really understand the tremendous hard work that goes in to what we do. It is a very challenging job, as there are often so many different directions one can take for each role. It”s a job that requires patience and the courage of one”s convictions–as to why one person might be absolutely more right than another. It”s a job that demands long hours, infinite possibilities at times, and at other times finite possibilities, and the ability to narrow the margins. It can be a long and demanding process to pre-screen sometimes hundreds of candidates for each role in a given film, and then be able to present the exact right candidate or candidates. It is a vocation that can be somewhat amorphous to define. Casting directors must be fluent, or at least well-informed, in all forms of media–movies, TV, theater, music, art, media performance in general, to be able to pull from the landscape of mediums. We must be constantly studying our craft, informing our palettes from which to draw–we hope–the exact right person. It is so satisfying when one has the chance to hear a wonderful compliment about a cast, from someone who sees a film and can”t imagine anyone else in it. It”s a personal best when one has the
chance to hear that.
TM: What is the best part of the job? And what is the worst part of the job?
The best part of the job for me–and there is more than just one–is to see someone truly deserving win the day, and know that because of it, their life will change. It is thrilling being out front and witnessing the art of acting connecting with the spirit of a committed actor. Seeing the dream come to fruition and watching how a career takes hold. Brings tears to my eyes, it really does. The chance to contribute to that kind of authenticity is what has kept me engaged for so long. The worst part of the job is knowing that while so many artists are so deeply deeply talented, only one person gets each specific role and that so many hearts break in the process. Including mine. It pains me to imagine how actors have to assimilate the rejection and move on. We all do, really, in our business. I have such respect for the people who take the time to come into my office–having read a script, having worked hard to prepare for an audition, driven across town, sweated it out in the hopes of a job–to be let down. Ugh. The pleasure of telling someone they got the role equals the pain of telling someone they didn”t. I always want people to feel that–no matter what–it is all just a part of the grand plan to evolve as artists and humans.
TM: I think casting directors are the unsung heroes of the film industry. When a director does his or her job well, it is usually pretty obvious, and the same goes for actors, but when a casting director does their job well, a viewer rarely thinks about it. We think “that actor did an amazing job” or maybe “that actor was perfect for that role,” but we rarely think about the behind-the-scenes of how they got that role and who was in charge of securing that actor and allowing them to give that performance. Do you like that the job is sort of underappreciated by the public or do you wish casting directors received more recognition?
MM: Of course I think casting directors deserve more recognition. It amazes me how every other department on a film is recognized and ours sometimes feels like a stepchild. I think that through the many efforts of our membership in this vocation, we have certainly seen a changing tide as recognition goes, but we still have more mountains to climb. In the last year we gained our own category in The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences–so that was a giant step in the right direction. But if my job as a casting director is underappreciated by virtue of a movie being so well cast that it is seamless, then so be it. I do hope that there is more awareness in the future as far as the contribution we casting people make to the process. While it may seem like a job anyone can do, it most certainly isn”t. It requires focus, balance, subtlety, commitment, depth of knowledge about an ever-changing and endless horizon from which to pull from, long hours, hard work, great negotiating skills down to every detail of a contract, appreciation and knowledge of all forms of art, an open mind, belief in your own instinct, the ability to be respectful of those who come in and share their souls with you, communication skills, organizational skills, hosting skills, political skills, finesse–and did I say long hours?
TM: Keeping on that topic of recognition, there are lots of film industry jobs that don”t have Academy Award categories. Stuntmen (and stuntwomen) have been vocal about wanting a category. Others have mentioned that there should be a category for title sequences or one for voice-over/motion-capture acting performances. I have often said there should be one for Best Casting. Do you think there should be an Academy Award that recognizes the work of casting directors?
MM: YES in all caps and in neon.
TM: Most film industry jobs are dominated by men. Casting directors are one of the only jobs in the industry that has more women than men. Why do you think that is?
MM: Perhaps one answer is that in the equation “hunters and gatherers”–historically women have been gatherers. In casting you kind of have to be both and fold in a lot of nurturing. We women are gatherers and nurturers by nature, I think. We are also, for the most part, very instinctual.
TM: This year, you worked with first time director Dan Gilroy on Nightcrawler. How did you get involved with that production?
MM: We casting people are just like actors. I always encourage actors to truly understand that. I basically auditioned for the role of the casting director and met Dan Gilroy and his producer, Jennifer Fox, and thankfully convinced them why it should be me. And why it should have been me is that I recognized in Dan Gilroy”s script a very unique voice and a very unique subject matter which, while dark, was captivating to me. I wanted to be a part of it for that reason. I felt the depth of the subject, the inherent humor in all of its darkness, and that it was an extremely well-executed script about an important subject, namely: media in our daily lives and how it impacts us. It”s a powerful subject and Dan dealt with it in a brilliant way. I wanted to be involved in communicating this piece and am thrilled to have had the chance.
TM: Many wouldn”t have expected Jake Gyllenhaal to be able to give this kind of a creepy performance, which sort of goes against type for him (and which reminds me of a young Nic Cage in its intensity and absurdity). How did you know he was right for the role?
MM: I want to be clear that Jake was attached before I came on. I think he is just beginning to show what he is capable of. He is an orchestra. I was moved to be able to see Jake peel back the layers of his character and share his commitment in the process of uncovering the supporting cast. He was a revelation to me–not only as a true actor but as an actor who has the heart and depth of understanding of a director. He turned his role inside out, bringing to the table laser sharp focus, the ability to communicate his choices, and a willingness to turn everything on its head. I was truly astonished listening to how utterly well-spoken he was in the discovery of who he saw Lou as. It was like a parallax view into how an actor prepares. I have a sneaking suspicion that we may be hearing from Jake in the near future as the actor/director I believe him to be.
TM: Many of the great casting decisions, I”ve noticed, work in that way: you never realized an actor could do a certain thing until they do it. So is being a casting director working a lot on faith? Seeing a spark in an actor and hoping they (and the director) can stoke that into a fire? The hope that they can pull off some magic?
MM: Isn”t everything about having a little faith? One of my mantras in my line of work is to constantly remind myself to be open to surprise. It is easy to pigeonhole people into what you think they can do or cannot do. The harder road is the right one–and that is to be open to surprise. We must all stay open to evolution and spiritual growth–and that translates into growth for actors. It is incumbent upon me and upon all of us in a creative business to stay creative and not drop anchor on our absolutes. Be willing to be surprised that someone you never expected to have a certain performance in them might just have it in them. On the same note, be willing to stand your ground when you absolutely know someone does have it in them. It is your job to convince those who have hired you to steer the casting ship that someone is that person, even when no one thinks they are. Take the challenge on and convince them. That is what keeps me so engaged in this. The chance to change a perspective, an opinion–to prove that an artist has what it takes to knock a particular role out of the park. It”s the most satisfying part of my job, our jobs as casting people, to usher in the air that can help to define or redefine an artist.
TM: One film you helped to cast a couple years ago, which stood out to me as very well cast, was Jack Reacher. Werner Herzog is one of my favorite directors, and I”m always pleasantly surprised when he shows up as an actor in the few movies he has. How did you get Herzog in that role? He struck me as the perfect villain.
MM: Christopher McQuarrie and I spoke about the kind of villain he was looking for and loved the idea of Werner. It was a split second “yes” for McQ. Getting Werner was another story. I think I lobbed about two hundred calls into Werner”s camp about the role. I wasn”t going to take no for an answer, but it wasn”t as though Werner was just sitting around waiting for his close-up either. Werner is a very busy man who has a myriad of projects he is involved in. I think we wore him down. After he came on board the film I remember sitting in a van heading to production one day when Werner asked me, “Is this your fault that I am here?” It was pretty funny. What a colorful and fascinating man he is. It”s so much fun having the chance to utilize a surprise such as Werner Herzog. Kudos to McQ for always being the kind of director that is open to surprise and that challenges me to deliver that to him.
TM: Who are some actors you admire that you haven”t been able to work with yet?
MM: Too numerous to mention. Daniel Day Lewis. Meryl Streep. Cate Blanchett.
TM: What projects do you have upcoming?
MM: We have just completed the new Mission: Impossible for Paramount and Skydance. Also, we have a film based on a true story for Disney called The Finest Hours. I am also working on my memoirs. (Insert laugh here.)
Mindy Marin is a casting director and film producer. Mindy founded Bluewater Ranch and Casting Artists, Inc. in 1991. She makes her home in both Santa Monica, California, and at Bluewater Ranch North in Marin County, California.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography by Steve Monarque & Courtesy of Mindy Marin
Design by Mina Darius
Photography Courtesy of Mindy Marin