Kayleigh Donaldson of the entertainment and gaming website IGN recently took a deep-dive into the mysterious lack of an Academy Award for casting directors, the only department heads credited in the main titles of a film who remain excluded from the festivities. Her article features quotes from ICDN Honorary Member Debbie McWilliams and Executive Board Member Lana Veenker, among others.
When Hollywood gets together, either in person or via Zoom, for the 93rd Academy Awards, it will be a moment for the film industry to celebrate the work they’ve done over the past year and beyond during a period of immense strife. Champagne will be drunk, teary speeches will be given, and the various aspects of filmmaking, including many oft-overlooked departments, will receive some much-earned recognition. That is, except for some notable omissions. Actors will win awards, but the people who put them on screen in the first place won’t.
For decades, the job of casting has been one of the most overlooked and easily misunderstood aspects of entertainment, from film to TV to theater to video games and beyond. Yet none of those things work without it. Every time you see a person on stage or screen (or hear them in a radio drama or play them in a game), someone had to cast them. From the central ensemble to the background extras to the voices on the phone, all of those actors were hand-picked by a casting team, and that process is one of the toughest and most widely dismissed parts of the industry.
It’s hard to look at the face of modern entertainment in all its forms and not consider the indelible role that casting plays in shaping that. Consider the work of Sarah Halley Finn, the woman who is largely responsible for filling out the cast of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, thus helping to define the blockbuster of the 21st century, or Nina Gold, the woman behind the multi-award-winning ensembles of beloved shows like Game of Thrones, The Crown, and Chernobyl, not to forget the most recent Star Wars trilogy and no fewer than six Oscar-winning films.
Finn told the Washington Post that she’s cast more than a thousand roles overall for Marvel, from Avengers to background dancers to voices in Tony Stark’s ear. Consider the risks made by Finn and her team in casting Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man at a time when he was considered unemployable by much of Hollywood, or in hiring an unknown Australian soap star as Thor. Not only did Finn have to anticipate whether these actors would be right for a role that could unfold over several movies, but she had to consider harmony between individuals who would not necessarily appear on screen together for years, interactions that fans were clamoring for thanks to their vast knowledge of the characters’ lore. How different would the MCU Spider-Man movies be if Finn and her team hadn’t anticipated that crackling chemistry between Downey Jr. and Tom Holland, putting the young Brit forward for consideration by the filmmaking team as the latest Peter Parker. For many fans of George R.R. Martin’s expansive saga, casting appropriate actors seemed like an impossible task, yet previously unknown players like Gwendoline Christie, Sophie Turner, and Jack Gleeson, to name but three, ended up being perfect choices. Our entire concept of a pop-culture hero has been remolded for a new generation by the behind-the-scenes work of people like Finn and Gold.
Of course, the director and producer are also part of the casting process, particularly on huge projects like the MCU or the like. And that only feeds into the problem for casting in that it’s something of an invisible art. As Debbie McWilliams, who cast the recent Bond films, told the Guardian last year, “If you notice the casting of a film, we haven’t done a good job.” But what goes into the art of casting?
“In the same way that production designers and costume designers use their skills, creativity and discernment to bring a selection of options to the director—who then signs off on the final choices—casting directors amass a library of talent through the thousands of hours of auditions they direct, plays and showcases they attend, and films and TV shows they watch,” Lana Veenker tells IGN. She’s the Executive Board Member of the International Casting Directors Network and founder of Cast Iron Studios, which has worked on the casting of projects like American Vandal, Grimm, and Twilight. “The tremendous amount of labor this entails results in a keen eye that allows them to hone in on exactly the right actors for the part, elicit powerful performances in the audition room, and present a tight selection of the most compelling choices to the final decision-makers. When it comes to the cast, they are a production’s best resource, advocates, and guardian angels.”
Much appreciation to Kayleigh Donaldson and IGN for drawing attention to our profession!