Carmen Cuba is one of today’s most sought-after casting directors. She assembled the kid- and ’80s-centric cast of Netflix hit “Stranger Things” and put together the cast of young newcomers in 2017’s “The Florida Project.” She teamed up again with frequent collaborator Steven Soderbergh for last month’s “Unsane” and she’s working on the much-anticipated revamped “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” both starring Claire Foy. Her projects span all genres and cover TV and film. That’s a deliberate choice for her—as was her decision to become involved in Tanya Saracho’s “Vida,” coming to Starz May 6. The show is part of the premium channel’s push for inclusive content that brings visibility to communities that are underrepresented in the entertainment industry. Although she has what seems like a constantly growing list of projects currently in some stage of production, Cuba has an extremely thoughtful approach to her professional projects. And for actors, it doesn’t end with offering them a role.
“Vida” has been getting a lot of buzz as Starz has focused on new audiences. How did that focus affect the casting process?
I am very deliberate in what new voices I help support and what new stories I can help tell, and I feel very lucky about who seeks me out. It’s even more exciting now that the things that have been important to me are rising in prominence and awareness among the decision-makers as well. The way that Starz has supported Tanya has been encouraging. As I’ve gotten older, I consider it part of my job to help build not only actors to a level where they can compete for the biggest jobs, but also to help build new storytellers to a level where they, too, can be given a wider audience.
What was the casting process like?
We did lots of talking, checking in, and evolving about all the directions we were exploring (more than usual) and how they affected what the piece was trying to depict. We were very focused on the cultural and LGBTQ aspects. We also heavily considered what sisterhood feels like and represents to us each personally and to society as a whole, as well as to how it has been depicted in TV and film. We wanted to reflect everything in its most authentic way as we understood it through the actors that we connected to in the process. We were flexible in a very special way; the story was the guide.
What should an actor know about auditioning for you?
Nothing. It’s better if I’m a blank slate to them so that they can focus on the audition. I have things that I do that I’ve heard are very particular to me, but if I shared them with you they would lose their spontaneity for the actor in the room and defeat the whole point!
What surprises people about what you do?
I think people are surprised that what I do involves so much more than an actor seeming “perfect” for a role based on how it is described on a character description. A huge part of my job involves being very deliberate in matching an actor to the elements of the piece—the director’s style, the budget of the piece, and the schedule are as important to me as how the actor performs the scene in an audition.
What’s the biggest audition faux pas for you?
I would say coming in unprepared isn’t the best recipe for success. But also coming in so prepared that you can’t be flexible when given direction, even if you don’t agree with it, can also really work against you.
How do you prepare for an audition process and source prospective actors?
I use traditional and nontraditional ways to source prospective actors and it is always guided by what the project actually requires. I am constantly keeping track of people who have stood out to me and do what I can to find creative ways to introduce them to the directors I work with when the timing is right. I do generals with actors who are presented to me by agents, but even those are carefully considered so that when I’m meeting someone, it’s generally because I know of something coming up in the next year that they could be right for. I also seek out people on my own. I set up my own generals with people who I read about or see onstage or in other projects—either in person or via Skype. Sometimes they aren’t even actors, but performers or just creative types who I think are interesting and inspiring in some way. I’ve Skyped with scientists and other nonperformers to help me in my research for projects where I need some background to help guide my choices. It’s all very natural and organic. I don’t have a set system; I go with what moves me.
You have your hand in so many projects and so many different genres and types. How does that work behind the scenes?
I try to not pick projects that overlap in content or even demographic and certainly not at the same time as each other. Once “Stranger Things” became a hit, I got offered a ton of teenage and kid projects—some even also set in the ’80s!). But I stayed away from them. It’s not interesting to me to repeat myself, but I also don’t know how to do lots of versions of the same kind of casting and not [have it] feel like a lesser version of my original attempt. I’ve been lucky to have opportunities that are so diverse in thought and content. I like exploring worlds I haven’t explored before; having to dig in to find stories that make me grow as a person and as a professional. I also benefit from constantly doing so many different types of projects, because it means I have a very strong database of actors who I’ve loved in so many different categories. It cuts my time down from project to project because I have top choices in almost every age group and demographic, and it’s always pretty current. It builds on itself.
What’s one thing an actor should do for more successful audition results?
Be prepared. And be open.
Besides agent submissions, where do you look for talent?
I go to the theater, and I almost always end up casting someone I’ve seen live within six months. I’m very susceptible to seeing a performer live that I’m not actively trying out for one of my own projects. I have a network of people who work with unsigned theater actors that I reach out to on almost every project. I have friends who know my taste who send me names of actors they’ve seen in obscure things and I keep track of them. And I watch film and television and weird stuff online and track people down on my own. I read and do a lot of research and find myself going down rabbit holes that inevitably lead me to someone interesting that sparks me to an idea I can use. I also have my own favorite directors and casting directors whose work I love, and I am not ashamed to admit that I am often tracking down actors they’ve used in their projects as well! I’ve figured out in the past few years that what I don’t need to do is watch anything in my “free time” that doesn’t interest me. Because I’m watching stuff I actually love, I often end up falling in love with the actors in these projects.
What don’t actors realize about what you do?
I think we are all just doing our best, and when our paths cross it is with the shared objective of success on both our parts of getting the role cast. That is all they need to know, really: that I’m definitely taking the time to be in the room with them because I think they have a shot at either the thing they are auditioning for or for something in the future that they don’t know about. I also watch tons of documentaries, and I realize that when I’m doing that, I’m actively studying human behavior and what people who aren’t actors look and feel like in real situations. This influences me a lot in many aspects of how I do my job.
*An earlier version of this article stated that Cuba has roughly 16 projects in production.
Looking to get cast? Apply to casting calls on Backstage.