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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Award-winning casting director Cindy Tolan gives seminar at Amherst Cinema

Tolan spoke about her work on “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Straight Outta Compton” and more before a screening of Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story”
Photo courtesy of the “West Side Story” IMDb page.

Film fans flocked to Amherst Cinema on April 20 to attend “From Beale Street to Batman: Casting a Major Motion Picture,” a seminar featuring Emmy and BAFTA-winning casting director Cindy Tolan. In a talk with Amherst Cinema programmer George Myers, Tolan offered a candid look back at her experiences casting films like “Straight Outta Compton,” “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “West Side Story,” the last of which was screened after the seminar.

Tolan’s resume is long and storied, and the introduction from Myers proved it. Along with her work in film, Tolan was the casting director for Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and the Broadway productions of “Company” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” She was also a producer on the 2022 Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman,” among others.

Tolan kicked off the seminar by describing the work of a casting director, calling the process a part of visual storytelling in service of the director’s vision. “I feel like we’re akin to design, you know,” she said. “We just do it with people.”

Myers recounted a charming anecdote: “When we were on the Zoom call preparing for this, at the end, you said to me, ‘Wait, you finally smiled,’ and I was really self-conscious,” Myers said. “You were really reading me in a very informal setting.” Tolan simply laughed, quickly replying, “Oh, totally.” It was a throwaway exchange that perfectly exemplified Tolan’s natural ability, even beyond her workplace.

Tolan detailed the beginning of her career, where she worked a series of theater jobs that struck her as being part of a “dying profession.” Ready to make the jump to film, she connected with then-actor Rebecca Miller, who was preparing to direct her first film, “Angela,” released in 1995. After casting “Angela,” Tolan worked on nearly every Miller-directed film that followed, including one released just last year.

Surely thanks to the associated screening, much time was devoted to the extensive casting process of Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story.” A slide show showed the casting call flyer, made by Tolan’s graphic designer sister, to begin casting as soon as possible. She mentioned that even Spielberg was “terrified” at the prospect of making the film, a remake of the beloved 1961 Best Picture winner. “I just looked at my staff and said, we are not going to be the reason that this film does not get made, so let’s go.”

Tolan brought an exclusive look at Rachel Zegler’s audition tape for the film, where she introduced herself and sang snippets from the balcony scene and “Me Siento Hermosa,” the Spanish language version of “I Feel Pretty.” Tolan said, “When I look at this, I see somebody who the camera loves, who has this innocence, who’s beautiful, who can sing, who has pitch.”

Tolan reported fielding a whopping 30,000 auditions for “West Side Story.” She also showed the dance segment of David Alvarez’s audition tape, who plays Bernardo in the film. Spielberg had a certain kind of actor in mind for the role, but Tolan was certain she had found him. With help from Spielberg’s team, she got him cast.

Transitioning to 2018’s “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Tolan cited that her prior knowledge of writer James Baldwin’s life impressed the filmmakers enough to give her the job. She had her eye on actress Denée Benton from HBO’s “The Gilded Age” for the film’s leading role of Tish. She pulled no punches on her preference: “I’m just going to say here that [Benton] is a better actor. And she didn’t like the part because the camera liked Kiki Layne better. Kiki Layne’s performance is very good, and that’s also because the editor was really good.”

Another candid moment came from Tolan’s recounting of working on F. Gary Gray’s “Straight Outta Compton.” She felt pressure to cast it particularly well due to N.W.A.’s massive fan base, who will take notice if the casting is off. Eazy-E was the most difficult to cast, but an audition tape from Jason Mitchell, then a line cook, solved the problem.

Following Gray’s original plan of hiring more non-actors than actors, Tolan talked about bringing forward a series of candidates from this pool that the studio never approved. After a six-month period, during which she said to have been “hazed” by Gray, she suggested that Vicki Thomas, best known for her collaborations with Quentin Tarantino, come on to the project. It was only then that the final cast came together.

The final segment of the seminar circled back to “West Side Story.” Of all the directors Tolan has worked with, Spielberg is her favorite. “He really is a genius,” she said. But it was playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner who brought her into the production. The two have a mutual background in the 90s theater scene: “I went to my first gay pride with him,” she laughed.

Tolan recounted one moment in the rehearsal process at Lincoln Center where she tipped Spielberg’s hand. After Zegler performed a scene, Spielberg had worries that she was overacting. Tolan slyly caught Zegler to suggest that she do less for the next take, and on the next go, Spielberg’s worries vanished.

Myers closed out the seminar with a video of Tolan winning a BAFTA for her work on “West Side Story.” After it ended Tolan smiled and said, “My wife helped me write that speech.”

The seminar is best summed up by an offhanded moment that happened about halfway through the talk. Myers, flipping through slides to find the appropriate one, half-jokingly said, “You’ve done too much.” Tolan quickly responded, “Never enough.” The screening that followed was a perfect cap to the seminar, showing in real time what great casting can do to make a film truly great.

 Thomas Machacz can be reached at [email protected].

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