How Alexander Payne and CD John Jackson Cast 100+ Actors for ‘Downsizing’

Photo Source: George Kraychyk

Casting ensembles has become somewhat of a specialty for John Jackson, the man behind fleshing out Paramount Pictures’ “Downsizing.” For Alexander Payne’s first foray into science fiction, Jackson joined the two-time Oscar-winning writer-director in assembling a roster of movie stars for roles big and small to share the screen with little-known international talent pulled from markets like Canada, Scandinavia, Serbia, and Vietnam.

The near-future dramedy follows Matt Damon as Paul, who chooses to “downsize” (physically shrink to five inches) himself, his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), and his children in an effort to fix the world’s overpopulation crisis. An added bonus: In the new miniaturized community where he moves, money goes a lot further than in their naturally sized Omaha, Nebraska.

“Downsizing” was Payne and Jackson’s seventh time collaborating, but their first time working with a big budget that required some star power from the studio. Payne began tooling the script over 10 years ago, and when the film went into production years later, Payne and Jackson agreed Damon was the right person to anchor the story. “I remember talking about Matt Damon as far back as 2009 or early 2010. He was attached around 2010,” Jackson says. “Paul was the first piece of the puzzle; then we started to build around that piece.”

To do that, Payne and Jackson have a working relationship that involves what Jackson describes as “constant communication,” and the two are completely collaborative in casting decisions. “I have access to my director on a daily, hourly, weekly basis. When we’re on location or at the studio, I always have his ear and he mine,” Jackson says. During the yearlong, worldwide search for the “Downsizing” cast, their communicative foundation prepared them for this larger-scale project.

“Casting was slightly different in this case because it was important that that core cast be people the studio could get behind. We talked more about movie stars than we ever did in the past,” he admits. “We’ve made a point of steering away from anything that would resemble stunt casting. We both believe that the process takes however long it takes, and that everyone should be considered.”

Luckily for Payne, actors tend to want to work with him, too. (Films like “Sideways,” “About Schmidt,” and “The Descendants” have earned Oscar nominations for Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, George Clooney, Virginia Madsen—the list goes on.) Throughout “Downsizing,” you’ll see scenes with familiar faces like Margo Martindale, James Van Der Beek, Neil Patrick Harris, Laura Dern, and Niecy Nash. “We always have wonderful people come in to read for us or put themselves on tape, and we’re always amazed and delighted at who’s willing to do it. It’s not a power trip. It’s extraordinarily helpful for actors to come in,” Jackson says.

Getting in the room, however, is not always possible. The nature of the script required a range of nationalities to be represented onscreen. “You can’t even imagine the overwhelming variety we were presented with from all over the world,” says Jackson, who used FaceTime and Skype sessions to read with actors. Keep an eye out, too, for co-stars Christoph Waltz and the film’s breakout, Hong Chau. “It also helped us to figure out who the characters were and helped me to be exposed to all these amazing actors I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.”

The end result is a cast list of well over 100, each role filled by the right actor. “Am I thinking about the ensemble? In an abstract way, of course,” says Jackson of his casting process. But he’s more stuck on the world he’s placing actors in rather than the actors themselves. “It’s way easier to think of the reality of the world that the film creates and build from that. Then the ensemble will create itself.”

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