Casting Up-and-Comers in ‘A Most Violent Year’

Photo Source: Courtesy a24 Films

There’s a certain thrill to casting an up-and-coming auteur’s newest movie. With each actor attached to the project, buzz proliferates for all involved, and the sense that the film will garner critical acclaim intensifies. Such is the case with writer-director J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year.”

Tiffany Little Canfield of Telsey + Company says casting Chandor’s 2011 feature “Margin Call” was a pleasure. “It’s very difficult to do independent films with first-time filmmakers,” she says, “because often you can’t get the industry to pay attention. In this case we had a really great script.” After Chandor’s success with that film and the Robert Redford–starring “All Is Lost,” the stakes were high going into production on his historical drama “A Most Violent Year.”

The film, which chronicles the life of an immigrant and his family building an empire during one of the most violent years in New York City’s history, required two lead actors with recognizable names who could also do some heavy lifting acting-wise. After Javier Bardem dropped out due to scheduling reasons, Canfield says, “We went directly to Oscar [Isaac], who is such an up-and-coming star but hasn’t necessarily had the moment that makes him able to finance a film fully based on his involvement.” Jessica Chastain signed on quickly after Isaac; the two had studied together at Juilliard and were eager to work together. “And then,” says Canfield, “we were ready to make a movie.”

Attaching talent to the film’s supporting roles came about through a series of meetings and debates over hundreds of options. “We made some lists and got people on tape and shared our choices with J.C. and the producers,” says Canfield of the process. Because the film takes place in a city with no shortage of talent, Chandor relished the idea of casting New Yorkers such as Catalina Sandino Moreno, Alessandro Nivola, and Elizabeth Marvel, who Canfield describes as “one of our favorite actors.”

For the part of a district attorney based on a real-life politician, Canfield remembers she and Bernard Telsey had an epiphany: British star David Oyelowo. “He’s a fantastic actor, one who Bernie and I met a couple years ago and have been very excited for the right project for him,” she says. The role needed someone who could convey danger in subtle ways, but also suggest the character could one day run for higher office. “He has that kind of gravitas,” says Canfield. “David was obviously at the top of the list.”

Ultimately, what makes Chandor such a promising filmmaker, according to Canfield, is his appreciation for good actors. Unafraid to audition people and see their take on each role, he values originality, hard work, and ambition. Asked if Telsey + Company would like to work with Chandor again, Canfield exclaims, “I hope so! He didn’t use us on ‘All Is Lost,’ but that’s because there was only one person in the cast.”

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Jack Smart
Jack Smart is the awards editor at Backstage, where he covers all things Emmy, SAG, Oscar, and Tony Awards. He also produces and hosts Backstage’s awards podcast “In the Envelope” and has interviewed some of the biggest stars of stage and screen.
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