Casting History’s Icons in ‘Selma’

Photo Source: Atsushi Nishijima

When filming something of great emotional depth and historical import, you need more than just a stellar directing, writing, and producing team. “Selma,” the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. biopic, certainly has that in director Ava DuVernay, screenwriter Paul Webb, and a group of producers that includes Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey. But truly doing history justice requires actors who can embody both the individual citizens and the general spirit of the depicted time period. The entire project, in this case, hinges on a believable re-creation of the people behind the United States’ revolutionary civil rights movement, particularly its most iconic leader.

Actor David Oyelowo had been attached to “Selma” since the early stages of DuVernay’s conception of the biopic. “He came in and read with some of the actors and it was amazing to watch him bring Martin Luther King to life,” says casting director Aisha Coley. “It’s incredible. You just see the image of what this film is going to look like.” Choosing Oyelowo, a British actor with a vast theater résumé, allowed the creative team to build the film around his power; the ferocity and innate heroism he brings to the role calibrates the film simultaneously as commemoration and master class.

“Having someone of that caliber at the head of this cast, you want to make sure that everyone who supports him is really just terrific,” says Coley, who was charged with compiling a large ensemble of real historical figures. She started with extensive research of the 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery and the backgrounds and accomplishments of its organizers. “It was really a history lesson,” she says with a laugh. It also felt like an honor: “[‘Selma’] is one of those special jobs you wait years to be able to do.”

After researching activists such as James Bevel, Amelia Boynton Robinson, Annie Lee Cooper, and many others, Coley’s goal was to make audiences familiar with their stories and make them feel like they were seeing them anew. If an actor’s portrayal feels off, “someone’s going to know,” she explains. Moviegoers should think, “I really feel like I’m watching them, it takes me back, it makes me feel like I’m watching that person again.” How do you make sure a casting choice doesn’t seem off? Work closely with the director to balance physical and psychological similarities with performance chops.

According to Coley, DuVernay “really had a chance to get into who these people were.” Bold, assertive readings from actors with working knowledge of the emotional, moral, and political implications of the subject material yielded the best results for the writer-director and her team. “In the casting process, she really wanted strong actors who could show up and really hit it,” continues Coley. Whenever they stumbled across someone with just the right alchemy—confidence, historical know-how, and the kind of reincarnated spirit it’s often hard to put one’s finger on—that person booked the part. “If you can get all that with one actor, you’ve really struck gold.”

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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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