Casting Directors on How They Cast Actors to Portray Real-Life Individuals

While it seems like casting an actor to play a familiar face might be easy, casting directors say the process comes with its own challenges

Casting Directors Casting Real Life People

“It’s a fine line, trying to make somebody who exists, who’s already larger-than-life, your own and not seeming like a caricature.” – Casting Director Carmen Cuba

Daniel Kaluuya, Renée Zellweger, Rami Malek, Mahershala Ali, Olivia Colman, Gary Oldman, Alicia Vikander, Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne, Matthew McConaughey, and Daniel Day-Lewis are all actors, but they have another important distinction in common — each has won an Oscar in the last decade for portraying a real-life individual in a film. While it sometimes seems like casting a well-known actor to play a familiar face might be easy (was there any doubt Day-Lewis would make an excellent Abe Lincoln?), as a quartet of casting directors tell Variety, the process comes with its own challenges.

Carmen CubaMrs. America

Emmy Award-winning Casting Director Carmen Cuba was responsible for the cast of the Hulu series about the proposal of the Equal Rights Amendment, Mrs. America. While many actors have won awards for portraying familiar real-life individuals, Cuba notes that it’s important to cast actors who won’t veer into mimicry. She explains, “To play a specific person, it’s not going to be something you find in their body of work, really, because you certainly don’t want an impersonation. It’s a fine line, trying to make somebody who exists, who’s already larger-than-life, your own and not seeming like a caricature.”

In fact, Cuba argues that it’s less important for an actor to have the same physical build as the real-life person they are portraying than it is for them to have the same energy. Cuba says, “Each part was its own in-depth exploration into how we thought about them and what we were trying to accomplish with the audience and the tone. There are ages that don’t reflect the actual ages of the characters at that time. We wanted it to feel like the truth, but it didn’t have to be the truth; we didn’t box ourselves in.”

Alexa FogelJudas and the Black Messiah

Emmy Award-winning Casting Director Alexa L. Fogel, who worked on the Oscar-winning film Judas and the Black Messiah about the FBI infiltration of the Black Panther Party and its leader, Fred Hampton, is of similar mind about avoiding actors who can imitate their subjects. She explains, “I was not looking for people to imitate in any way. We paid attention to age and were inspired by looks, but not a prisoner to that. The idea is always to tell the most truthful version of what is written and cast actors who can honestly portray these real people while serving the overall story.”

Kim ColemanThe Good Lord Bird

Regarding The Good Lord Bird, the Showtime miniseries about abolitionist John Brown, Emmy-nominated Casting Director Kim Coleman weighs in on the particular tone of the series and how versatile actors were required, saying, “We needed actors with the skill level to play both the drama and the comedy. It could be a look across the room or a stare and you’re not laughing hysterically but it’s there, it lightens up the mood.”

Kimberly HardinOne Night in Miami…

Speaking of casting actors to portray real-life individuals, Casting Society of America Award-winning Casting Director Kimberly Hardin had her work cut out for her trying to cast actors to play Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke in the film One Night in Miami…

On facing that challenge, she says, “I look for talent to bring their interpretation to roles. That is our part of our job — to find people who can ‘favor’ the real person.” From there, it’s up to the actor to do the rest of the work. She adds, “Each guy had to tap into that in developing their own interpretation. They use the real person as their inspiration.”

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