By Mellini Kantayya
After Moonlight won the Oscar for best picture, casting director and NYWIFT member Angela Mickey had some insights on what independent filmmakers and can learn from its casting.
Mahershala Ali certainly is well-known for his roles on House of Cards and Luke Cage, but he wasn’t exactly a People-magazine-household-name type star and neither was the rest of the cast. You said this was one of your favorite aspects of Moonlight. Why?
Angela Mickey: I love the casting process and I think it is such a fundamental aspect of truly great film and TV. Writers put such diligent work in creating these wonderfully full-blown characters and stories, and directors in deliberating how they are going to enact these visions. It only makes sense to search as diligently for the correct actor to complete the puzzle.
There are so many wonderful actors out there that do not get the opportunity to throw their hat in the ring because everyone wants someone who is recognizable. And the funny thing is that many times we find that it is more about name recognition than whether the name in question is really the best person for the role. When you are talking about truly high profile names, usually they aren’t reading for an independent — it is offer only. So this guess as to whether they would be good is solely based on the work they’ve done in another project, playing another character. I think it feeds our art even more to truly explore and not just rely on the big household name. And in the end, it allows the story to be what is the selling point, and the actors are one more vehicle to help in the telling of that story — they don’t eclipse it. I love any project that is willing to take that gamble, and the cherry on top is when they succeed.
Mahershala Ali (via GQ.com)
Do you think that a star personae can take interfere with an audience’s experience and level of immersion in a story?
Definitely. I have always been a huge fan of film, but particularly independent and foreign, where the actors involved were not necessarily known to me. I am also a big fan of literature. So to me, my primary objective as a consumer of entertainment is to get lost in the world of the story. And I find that is often more successful for me when I’m not thinking “oh, this is another insert-celeb-name-here vehicle.”
This is not to say there aren’t wonderfully talented stars out there. There are. But when I get to the point that I’m seeing an actor more than the character — that is a problem. I think we all know of star names who seem like they are always playing the same character, no matter which project it is. You can literally cut and paste them project to project.
Many independent filmmakers feel pressure to get a star attached to their project as it helps in getting investors, but do you feel it has value beyond that?
I totally understand that many think that it will increase distribution opportunities, and that financiers demand it because they feel that it will give them some sort of assurance on a return on their investment. What is unfortunate is, that to my mind, this is a false premise to some extent.
When I speak to your average viewer, and ask which star name’s involvement would insure that they would watch a project, usually the list is incredibly small, and usually has more to do with liking a specific genre associated with that actor. And the list varies widely person to person. The overriding attraction is the story, not the actor involved. And yet it is such a catch 22 in that most star names won’t attach until financing is fully in place anyway. So all of these struggles to get name attachment, while trying to get financing, is the ultimate chicken-and-egg scenario which can delay the production process for years — and again, delaying production for years based on a faulty premise.
Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes as child, teen and adult Chiron respectively.
What other lessons do you think Moonlight’s casting has for independent filmmakers and content creators?
I love that it was creative, and seemed to really search for the very best talent to play these differently aged versions of the central character, Chiron. When you really look at them side by side, they don’t really resemble each other all of that much, but the soul of the character was the same. To me, this is a much smarter way to go than to cast for appearance and then hope the deeper aspects will carry over — we’ve seen that so many times before, and it is rarely successful.
The other thing that I loved, and this is more from a creative standpoint than casting, is that they didn’t short-change the younger roles. The number of truly talented young actors is mind boggling, and yet so many filmmakers and creators seem intimidated by them. So they don’t give them their full weight or focus, and don’t hold a high standard in the casting of those roles.
About Angela Mickey, CSA: Angela Mickey is the most long-term member of the Liz Lewis Casting Partners. As Managing Director of Casting, Angela works across the board on commercial, voice over, film, TV and theater projects, supporting and guiding the staff to dig deeper and find fresh talent. She enjoys working with veteran and up-and-coming creatives, helping to provide an individual plan to each casting process, as well as assistance with union regulations and talent payment guidelines. In addition to numerous commercial projects, her recent film projects include A Year and Change, 23 Blast, and All Wifed Out. Always looking for the new, undiscovered talent, Angela can be found conducting workshops with actors nationwide.