What It’s Like Finding Talent for the Visionary Guillermo del Toro

Article Image
Photo Source: Raquel Aparicio

“I’m nervous before every audition, before every casting session,” says Robin D. Cook. It’s not something actors typically hear from a casting director. As she points out, investing in each actor’s success is a major component of her job. “I know the actor is nervous!” she adds. “But there’s something that comes out of those nerves that you can’t describe.” The Toronto-based CD’s decades-spanning work includes “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “Grey Gardens,” “Room,” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and it has earned her seven Emmy nominations and three Casting Society of America Artios Awards. “Nightmare Alley,” her latest of many collaborations with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, is now taking awards season by storm. In the midst of casting an upcoming anthology series that del Toro is working on for Netflix, Cook offers her best career advice for working actors. 

What is it like working with a visionary like Guillermo del Toro?
I’ve been lucky enough to work with Guillermo for 10 years now…. When he’s on a film or series, he writes for people. So, you know, I can’t take the credit for Cate [Blanchett] or Toni [Collette]. That’s Guillermo. Same with Sally [Hawkins] in “The Shape of Water.” He has the most intense, insane, brilliant vision. And everybody always wants to come play with him. I don’t know if he’s talked about this, but he watches everything: all the film, all the TV—he is astonishing. Sometimes, Guillermo will mention somebody that I don’t even know. So always, I can bring an actor up and he’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. 

“You have to have a certain passion, and you have to be committed. You have to love what you do.”

What can an actor do in an audition to make themselves memorable, even if they don’t get that part?
I wish I could bottle that, whatever that is. I would say they make it themselves, you know? What I’m interested in is really, truly just being real to the scene and being present. Without an actor, I don’t have a job. So we want the actor to succeed. We are on their side; we always want them to get the job. I always say: Do your research, because I did my research, even for a meeting with you. That’s just what we do. Be off-book and be present, and ask questions. If you’re not happy with your audition, ask to do it again.

What’s your ultimate career advice for working actors?
Just enjoy it, truly. You have to have a passion for it. It is a life; it is all-consuming; it’s not just a hobby. Honest to God, I would do this for free. I tell very few people that! And I think that you have to have that same mindset—just feel so lucky and blessed. Go in knowing how lucky we all are.

What else don’t actors know about that casting directors do?
Here’s the thing about auditions: Those actors represent who you are and what your vision is. I’m trying to show Guillermo what I have interpreted from what he’s looking for. Those actors represent me. So I want everyone to succeed. Because the better that the actor is, you know, I’m a hero! It goes both ways. 

Where do you look for talent outside of agent submissions?
We used to do a lot of theater. You can watch “Zoom theater” here in Canada, so we still do that. On “Station Eleven,” the new HBO miniseries, we contacted schools. We put out an open call. We’ve done everything—I’ve gone to street corners before. I helped Sarah Finn when she was doing “Shang-Chi [and the Legend of the Ten Rings].” She hired me to do a search here in Toronto. Even on “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” I remember Nia [Vardalos] asked me to go to Greektown, and I just handed out flyers. In fact, two kids that I hired in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” are now very established actors in the city.

Do you have other success stories—examples of stars in the making who broke through in their audition?
When I was on “Room” [with fellow CD Fiona Weir], we did open calls for that. Jacob Tremblay got that job. Jacob did that himself. He did not let that job go. He auditioned four times and just kept pushing and pushing, because he was so passionate about it. I have, like, 10 emails saying, “He’s got to do it; what do you want him to do?” And it went a long way. I mean, I don’t want every actor to go out there and push! I just want them to understand that you have to have a certain passion and you have to be committed. You have to love what you do.

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 30 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

Looking for remote work? Backstage has got you covered! Click here for auditions you can do from home!