The Prolific A-List CD Behind ‘Knives Out’ Wants to Find a Role for You

Article Image
Photo Source: Raquel Aparicio

Every scene in “Knives Out,” Rian Johnson’s comedic murder mystery, features a star. The cast is a who’s who of Hollywood names—big franchise staples like Chris Evans and Daniel Craig, industry vets like Jamie Lee Curtis and Christopher Plummer, and newcomers like Katherine Langford and Ana de Armas abound. Behind it all was Johnson’s go-to casting director, Mary Vernieu. With a huge operation at her company, Betty Mae Casting, fans of TV and film have certainly seen the product of Vernieu’s work, from Oscar contenders to big-budget action to prestige TV and Netflix comedies. Speaking with Backstage, Vernieu shares how she brought the all-star “Knives Out” ensemble together, and what to know about her audition room. 

READ: How to Become an Actor

How did you assemble the “Knives Out” cast?
Every part was super juicy. We knew most of them would be people that we knew, except for the character of Marta—we were going to have to do a search for her. And then with Benoit [played by Craig] we did a lot of lists and checked a lot of availabilities and tried to home in on who could actually do it. While we did a search for Marta, we put the rest of the cast together through setting up Skype [calls], where it was mostly reading for those roles. Casting in general is a puzzle and a painting all at once; they all have to fit and the colors have to energetically feel similar. The key with that is great actors. Great actors know how to work with other great actors.

What was the casting process like for Marta?
Rian really wanted somebody that people hadn’t seen too much before, because she was the surprise character in a way and it’s her movie in a lot of ways. He wanted somebody that was going to be a real discovery and a surprise. We read all of the women that we could find that fit the description. Ana [de Armas]was shooting a movie at the time. I had known about her from other projects and really liked her and kept saying, “You just have to wait for her.” Rian wanted somebody who wasn’t too beautiful, and she is very beautiful, but she was able to underplay her beauty in a certain way, and the role wasn’t about that. She self-taped, and at the very end of the process, she flew into Boston from her movie shoot at the very last minute and got the part.

What can an actor expect from auditioning for you?
An audition is just a moment in time for an actor, right? I’m big about giving people another shot. I’ll always see someone again. People are growing every day as actors; they’re learning every day. It’s all about seeing the potential in someone, and they’re maybe not going to be exactly right for the part, but if they’re a good actor and they’re working hard,
I try to recognize and reward that by continuing to bring them back until we can find something that they’re right for.

What makes an actor memorable in an audition?
Do the work, have a good attitude, and I always say leave the work in the room, because there are a million reasons why someone doesn’t get a part, and a lot of times it doesn’t have anything to do with them. I think it’s important to maintain a positive attitude. It’s rough out there, and you just have to keep at it; the right thing will come along if you’re working hard and trying.

How do you work with Johnson when casting one of his movies?
He’s very specific about what he wants. I’ll read the script and then I’ll make him a big list and check availabilities of all the people I think could be right. I’ll say, “OK, here are some suggestions and who is available.” And then he’ll say he likes seven to 10 actors and this is why. That also helps me maybe suggest some other people that are more along the lines of who he sees [in his mind]. It’s a process of making a list, getting his response, and then we keep narrowing it down.

What made your work on “Knives Out” unique?
This film is all about the actors. They all had to have whatever their motive may have been as part of the story. There wasn’t any role that wasn’t super important, because they all had such a big part of the story, even if they were only onscreen for a little bit. Even someone like Edi Patterson—she had maybe three or four scenes as Fran, but she was key. It was a great challenge to look for people who fit. There was no small role. Every part was insanely important; they all were leads in a certain way.

You have such a large office working on so many projects at once. How does that work?
We definitely collaborate on everything and it’s really great to have all eyes on deck, so to speak. But also, if someone wants to do their own project, they are absolutely welcome to do that. I oversee everything, and if a movie comes in, I’ll usually do the movie with one of the other casting directors. We basically just kind of pair up with each other.

Where do you look for talent outside of agent submissions?
I’m definitely always looking. I think I drive everyone crazy. I’ll see someone on a commercial and I’ll say, “Find that person.” Or I’ll see someone on the street and I will go up to them if they’re exactly right and I’m really needing that role—especially with kids. I see a lot of theater. I have season tickets to the Geffen [Playhouse], which I find to be a very helpful resource. I go to New York and see theater. I try to see everything I can, whether it’s a play or a TV show or movie. I try to make sure that I’m really current. Also, if an agent calls and says, “So-and-so’s in town, will you need them?,” I do a general every day, because that way I’m able to meet people in town from out of the country. I find that to be very helpful.

What shouldn’t an actor do in your audition room?
I try to let an actor have as much freedom as they need to get to where they want to be artistically. But if the casting director in the room is saying to you, “Could you just do it this way?,” there’s a reason why: The producers are asking for something in particular. Don’t argue. Sometimes, people get a little bit set on the way they’ve prepared it, and they need to be able to be flexible once they’re in the room.

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

Ready to get to work? Check out Backstage’s film audition listings!