Re-creating a real-life disaster for film is a tricky undertaking. Lean too hard in one direction, and the humanity is lost. Lean to the other, and the results can seem manipulative—especially when it comes to casting young actors. For “The Impossible,” director Juan Antonio Bayona’s film based on the experiences of a real family caught in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, casting director Shaheen Baig was careful to err on the side of naturalism when looking at actors, but particularly when it came to the pivotal role of young Lucas.
In the film, Lucas and his mother, Maria (Naomi Watts), are separated from his two brothers and father by the tsunami and struggle for survival. “It’s very difficult to ask young children to display the kind of emotions you see in the film in an audition situation,” Baig says. So it became important for the creative team to maintain an element of fun during the proceedings, because “otherwise what child is going to want to spend months away from home on a miserable film set.” Baig says, “We worked hard to find a balance between the seriousness of the subject matter and making the audition process a good positive experience for the child.”
The end result of seeing “thousands” of children was finding Tom Holland, fresh off his stint as the titular character in “Billy Elliot the Musical” on the West End. Holland came to the casting process late, but his discipline and confidence impressed Baig and Bayona more and more upon each callback for the role of the oldest son. “We knew whoever was going to play the role had to have natural leadership qualities, sensitivity, and a wonderful ease with themselves,” Baig says. “And Tom had all of those qualities and more. We really were very lucky to find him.”
For the couple at the center of the film, Watts and Ewan McGregor may seem odd choices, given that the real-life family was Spanish. But Baig stresses their talent and naturalism. “We were making an international, English-language film, and when discussing options they both jumped out immediately,” she says. Both actors’ talent outweighed their native nationalities and won them the roles. As a husband and wife separated after the tsunami, the actors cast needed to convey the determination and naked emotion that would keep the film grounded in a human story. Again, Baig stresses their “naturalism,” saying that “it makes their characters so much more accessible to the audience”—thus making “The Impossible” possible.
Casting Directors: Shaheen Baig and Raweeporn “Non” Srimonju
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Writer: Sergio G. Sánchez
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts, Tom Holland
The Pitch: A family struggles to survive the 2004 tsunami in Thailand.