Casting Director Francine Maisler on Why Actors Need Someone Like Her on Their Side

Francine Maisler, longtime collaborator with Aaron Sorkin and Steven Soderbergh and casting director for “The Revenant,” “The Big Short,” “Little Women,” “Dune” and “The Bikeriders,” says she’s always been obsessed with performance.

“I’m always looking and seeing and my eye is taken with things,” she says.

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“I love the theater,” she told an audience at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival this week, recalling being “mesmerized” by actors onstage long before she had the inkling to follow her career path.

Sorkin has said, “Francine has an eye for talent like no one I’ve ever met,” to which Maisler jokes, “We fight all the time.”

The longtime New Yorker started her career working for the Actors Equity union before moving into casting and professes she’s neither competitive nor did she ever dream of going bigtime. But after a few films in which “I just kind of kept my head down and did the best possible job I could do,” she founded a casting agency and at some point was hired to find the talent for the brilliant crime ensemble piece “The Usual Suspects.”

And at that point, Maisler says, she began to get major name director and studio projects.

“Somehow the work just started coming.”

She recalls thinking she’d certainly never get the chance to work with directors like Michael Mann and James L. Brooks, both of whom she now teams with regularly.

“When I did ‘Reality Bites,’ that’s when people took notice, maybe, of my work.” The Ben Stiller-directed Gen-X chronicle starring Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder drew attention to Maisler’s gift for not just scouting but for finding alchemy.

Yet the casting process is still little understood by many, says Maisler, adding that “the time has come” for the soon-to-be Oscar category for her profession. With many still saying 90% of filmmaking is in the casting, she adds, it’s time to honor that 90%.

One gift Maisler’s become famous for is her ability to find remarkable talents before they’ve become hot tickets – “Succession” stars Jeremy Strong and Sarah Snook are two examples often cited. But she says her process is straightforward.

Actors’ agents are “the first step for actors most of the time,” having scouted talent “in a little play” or in a one-line part onscreen.

When productions put out a breakdown, saying what they’re looking for, then “all agents submit their clients. And then we go through that.”

But Maisler and her team always “do our own homework,” she says, recently having gone through talent agents in India, often scouring not just film roles but online interviews. And social media? “Up until recently, I would say no,” says Maisler.

But these days she’s come around to the value of spotting “younger people that may not always have the chance to have the agent.”

The main job, she says, “is to find director’s vision” for a character.

“It may not be with the talent agent. It may be somewhere else that we find this person.”

Maisler cites the hunt for authentic Somali pirates for the 2013 Tom Hanks ship takeover drama “Captain Phillips,” for which she put out the word “everywhere.” Then, at open call in Minnesota, “those gentlemen you see on screen just happened to come to the open call. And they were dynamic. They were able to be themselves while doing the dialogue.”

Maisler rejects the common notion that a good casting director will say “I fought for this person,” she adds. Rather, as she puts it, “I make sure the director sees every bit of information available.” She tries to open their eyes to new ways to look at an actor – “normally if they’ve done drama but they can be funny.”

Directors are generally open to the idea but they require proof – which may just be found “in a YouTube interview,” she says. “De Niro could do ‘Meet the Fockers.’ We have to know that actors are very versatile if you give them the chance and they have the material to work with.”

But often, says Maisler, the first step in gauging if an actor might be right for a new challenge is doing a “generals” in which she just meets an actor to get a sense of their personality without having them read for a particular part – or even mentioning a project to them.

Austin Butler had wowed with “Elvis,” she notes, and “obviously he was terrific doing that very specific part.” But Maisler wanted to meet him to get a feel for whether he could work in “Dune: Part Two.”

“He did a play in New York so that’s what we talked about,” Maisler says. “And from that interview that I did with him, I said to Denis (Villeneuve) that I think this kid’s the real deal – and that he should meet him. And that’s how it started.”

Another win for last year’s Jeff Nichols road movie “The Bikeriders” grew out of a face-to-face meeting with British actor Jodie Comer, who was known for “Killing Eve” but, says Maisler, was “really classically beautiful” and hardly anyone’s first thought for the role of a fundamentally “simple woman.” But her agent kept pushing Maisler to meet her “and I met her and just loved her.”

Nichols saw that “she’s remarkable” before casting her doing a full-on Midwestern U.S. patois that would hold up in any Chicago biker bar.

Maisler recalls another winning bet she made on Lupita Nyong’o when she was still a Yale drama student. While casting Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” Maisler saw the actor’s self tape, sent it on but got no response. “I said ‘Get her in here.’ I decided I’m gonna beat the shit out of her – not physically – but play opposite her in a scene and really treated her in a scene the way a slaveowner would. She broke down and cried.”

And got the part. “So that’s how important a casting director can be – and be on your side.”

At another point working with McQueen, Maisler recalls wading through a mountain of self tapes in which it seemed no actors were standing out – likely because they were playing things down the middle, not betting on strong choices.

“I said to Steve, ‘What can I do to help them? Do something?’ And he said, ‘Tell them to surprise me.’ Which is the simplest. And then we found the person.”

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