Fall 2019


Casting for Gems

According to directors interviewed for the DGA's Visual History program, landing the right actor is key to getting the best performance.

By Quintin Lundy

Directors Milos Forman, Mira Nair and Jim Sheridan. (Photos: (L-R) Patrick Harbron; Jessica Antola; Everett)

A wellspring consisting of more than 200 interviews of directors and their team members dating back to the year 2000, the DGA's Visual History program is an invaluable source for those curious about the craft. The database is fully searchable by topic, and featured here are a few excerpts dealing with one of the most critical aspects of the director's job: casting.

(Photos: (L-R) Patrick Harbron; Photofest)

Mira Nair on Queen of Katwe

I actually have always wanted to approach Ugandan society from within, and not just from within but with the love and irreverence that comes from calling it home. So when Tendo Nagenda from Disney came to offer me this amazing true story of Phiona [Mutesi], this girl who lived 15 minutes from my house who became a chess prodigy from the worst slum, it intrigued me completely, because [it's] the story of the outsider who used her mettle to understand what she's capable of. I always conceived of Harriet, the mother of Phiona's role, for Lupita [Nyong'o] to play, because I saw in her that same courage and strength and formidability of the very young mother that Harriet was. And then Robert Katende (Phiona's chess coach) [has] this uncanny resemblance to David Oyelowo, whom I carried a torch for for several years, because everything David does he disappears into, and he's so strong and so powerful and African. Both of them are from the continent, which is a very different quality that I looked for, because I am from there, you know?

(Photos: (L-R) Jessica Antola; Photofest)

Milos Forman on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

[Casting is] absolutely crucial because you can have a brilliant script, a wonderful director, great cinematographer, wonderful music. But if the audience doesn't believe the people on the screen, all your work is in vain. For Cuckoo's Nest, I knew I wanted Jack Nicholson because that whole story is about a man from the world known to us stepping into the world unknown to us—a mental institution. So I wanted the main character to be somebody we could identify with. But I wanted everybody in that mental institution to be an unknown face—the world unknown to us. So I interviewed over a thousand people for everybody because [casting the] small parts is, in my opinion, as important as casting the main characters. Sometimes even more so because the main character has the space of two hours to present himself but the bit parts appear for 30 seconds to two minutes here and there, so they have to be right on.

(Photos: (L-R) Everett; Photofest)

Jim Sheridan on My Left Foot

In My Left Foot, [Daniel Day-Lewis] was supreme. And because I knew he was dead-on and I had written it and imagined how it was going to be performed [by him], I wasn't bothering with direction. And in a way, that's the best direction—to know when something's right as opposed to playing the game of getting it right. And I think an awful lot of young actors, and young directors especially, [play] this game of having to say things and get things right where it's already right. Casting is 99 percent. And sometimes an actor can go to his truth, which may not be your truth, and they can't go further than that. And you can't make them because once they're not being themselves, they're gonna look worse than if they're just themselves.


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

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