With our Stars to Watch theme week, I found myself wondering how a star is born, or rather, discovered. To launch an acting career, it's not just about the team of people already behind them, managers and agents and the like, but also the people who put them in their first big role.
To find out, I spoke with Hollywood casting director Carmen Cuba. Audiences have Carmen to thank for the white-hot charisma of the Magic Mike films, and for the powerhouse cast of Ridley Scott’s upcoming The Martian. In 2013, the Academy recognized Carmen with an Emmy for her stellar work in assembling the players for Steven Soderbergh’s daring Behind the Candelabra.
In the last few years, Carmen has expanded to include casting for television as long-time filmmakers have made the jump to the small screen; most recent is the Wachowskis’ first venture into episodic storytelling with Sense8. When I caught up with her, she was preparing to jet cross-country from here in LA to New York to wrap up the second season of Soderberg’s excellent Cinemax series The Knick, as well as hold auditions for Amazon’s upcoming Red Oaks and Montauk for Netflix. A busy week, indeed. Still, she was kind enough to give me her time and answer my questions.
Sometimes, when looking at an actor or actress, you just know they have the potential to be the next big thing. Is there a common factor that these brighter suns all share, or is it something intangible?
"The thing I love about my job is getting to watch someone who has a spark in that first moment you see them, watching them grow into the stronger and more layered actor that helps them become the next big thing. But the idea of the next big thing never really represents the work that most of these actors have had to do before that moment that the outside world puts that label on them."
Are there specific qualities or character traits that you always tend to look for when you're casting a role?
"It totally depends on the role but I guess if I was to answer that generally it’s just a special connection to the material that brings it to life in either the way I saw it in my head or in an entirely new way I hadn’t imagined."
And are there particular character traits or habits that indicate early on in a young actor or actress' career that they might truly have some career longevity?
"Perseverance and the ability to walk into a room and give it everything they have and then walk away knowing it’s out of their hands. Also being someone that people want to be around for an extended period of time, someone who brings a spark to the group beyond just their talent."
Do you have any standout moments that you've experienced during your casting career?
"I won't name names but I was slapped with a leather glove once during an audition. I didn't enjoy that at all. But I was really young (it was my second film on my own) and I thought at the time that I should do everything to let the actor have his moment during an audition. I know much better now how to do that while still maintaining my own boundaries."
On the flip side of that, have you run into any nightmare scenarios with a young actor or actress?
"I've had young actors leave auditions and later be told that they were very upset. Being a mom I am extra sensitive to kids--it's a very hard thing to do, to go into a room and really be tested on hard material--but other people in the room aren't always in tune with the fact that these kids are really putting it on the line for them and that it's hard emotionally. But it's a business, unfortunately, and kid actors are a tricky thing on lots of levels."
What do you love most about what you do?
"I love the feeling when the clouds part and a role is made clear to me by the actor in the room who brings something I wasn't even thinking about or looking for in the role. I also love starting with an empty slate and knowing that by the end of it, every single role on paper will have a person to speak those lines. It's a process with a real beginning and a real end and then you're on to the next new world to fill."
Last question, but one that I'm sure a lot of aspiring stars wonder: what's a piece of advice you'd give an actor or actress preparing for his or her first big audition?
"I would say to find a way to keep your personality in the piece and to be ready to be flexible in the room. Not being married to the way you practiced it is really important since in an audition they will often ask you to try different things that go against what your first instincts were. Having them see that you can take direction while still maintaining your own special thing is key, but also very difficult to accomplish."