‘Swarm’ CD Carmen Cuba on How She Recognizes Breakout Potential

Article Image
Photo Source: Courtesy Amazon Studios

Casting director Carmen Cuba knows how to find the right talent. Her impressive resume includes plenty of big-name projects, including “Stranger Things,” “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” and “Nope.” Now, she’s working on Prime Video’s buzzy satirical thriller “Swarm.” Created by Janine Nabers and Emmy winner Donald Glover, the series stars BAFTA nominee Dominique Fishback as Dre, a woman whose obsession with a popular R&B artist turns deadly. The series also features real-life pop stars, including Billie Eilish as the leader of a cult.

We’ve talked with Cuba before about how she finds fresh talent. This time around, we wanted to hear how she casts a series with so many twists and turns.


In the room with Carmen Cuba


Courtesy Amazon Studios

Here, the CD breaks down her process for “Swarm,” including how she recognizes breakout potential, what she looks for when casting characters who are going to die, and why actors shouldn’t get discouraged when auditioning. 

Dominique Fishback’s “ferocity” helped her land the lead role on “Swarm.”

“When the ‘Swarm’ script came in, I definitely thought of [Fishback,] but I didn’t think of her for the Dre part,” Cuba says. She initially tapped the actor for the part of Marissa, Dre’s sister. “To me, [Marissa] was so aspirational. Like, I could really see [Fishback] as somebody whose love would send the other character on that journey.” 

However, Fishback’s desire to play Dre changed Cuba’s mind. “She being the brilliant and brave actor that she is, said, ‘Thank you, I appreciate [the offer for Marissa], but I really want the Dre part,’ ” the CD explains. “We would have been lucky to have [her] on either part, obviously…. But it’s amazing that she didn’t [want the role of Marissa] and then put in the amount of work that [the lead role] required.” 

Fishback’s willingness to have an open conversation about the role was also a deciding factor. “She’s just very articulate and confident, and that is something that you would want the actor playing [Dre] to have,” says Cuba. The role of Marissa ultimately went to Chloe Bailey. 

Working on a film adaptation of Broadway’s “Girl From the North Country” inspired Cuba’s casting decisions for “Swarm.”

Cuba says that Bailey—who’s also a singer-songwriter—didn’t audition for “Swarm”; but she did read for another project the CD was working on: a feature adaptation of Conor McPherson’s musical “Girl From the North Country,” which features the songs of Bob Dylan. 

“I was influenced by my idea for ‘Girl From the North Country’ of having singers act. So my head was sort of already in that space,” she says. “[‘Swarm’] is obviously about a performer. And I also wanted it to feel different from [Glover’s other series] ‘Atlanta’…. So Chloe fit into the musician [concept] here.” 

Bailey ultimately landed a role in the film, having made an impression on Cuba by being “malleable in the audition process.” So it only makes sense that the CD thought of her again when casting “Swarm.” “She took direction really well, and she was just really flexible. And [she] also just definitely has this warmth and brightness.” 

When casting a character who meets a gruesome fate, Cuba pays more attention to what the actor does when they’re not speaking.

“I think probably the thing that speaks most [to casting a character who dies] is that I am always looking for what you feel when the person is not speaking,” the CD says. “So if [an actor is auditioning for me], it might be that I’m paying more attention, actually, when they’re not talking. What are they doing? How are they listening? Are they compelling in their silence? Am I drawn to them in those moments?”

“It's funny that I didn’t really think, [when I was casting ‘Swarm,’] Oh, my God, what are they going to be like when they die? The thing is, in my opinion, you can’t audition [the death] scene…. It wouldn’t be what it is,” says Cuba. “So you do have to take this leap of faith and…not only count on the actor but count on the actor they are acting opposite, the director of the episode, and just the energy of the whole project.” 


Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert/Prime Video

Cuba was looking for “the right time” to cast Billie Eilish in a project. 

“This is a good story about the collaboration we [casting directors] have with agents,” the CD says. “I had been working with [Eilish’s] agent at Wasserman, Scott Melrose, for years. We discussed how she was interested in acting, but she didn’t want to do a big thing; but then she did ‘SNL.’ ” 

From there, Cuba was on the lookout for a project that would be a good fit for Eilish. “Our ability to get her was certainly enhanced by the fact that she has a history with Donald,” she says. “But truly, she wouldn’t have signed on if she wasn’t interested in the character. And she has, as you can imagine, an incredible work ethic; and she was not fancy. It was the right moment and the right project for us to be able to do it.” 

Cuba says breakout roles come in due time. 

Cuba has helped launch a lot of careers—for example, the younger cast of “Stranger Things.” When speaking to her about how she recognizes breakout potential, the CD reflects on a casting session she once had with Sophie Thatcher, who went on to star on Showtime’s “Yellowjackets.”

“I met Sophie Thatcher when she was 17, and I texted everyone and was like, ‘This girl—she is so special,’ ” Cuba says. “It’s like [all the young actors] you see in ‘Yellowjackets.’ She’s just fresh and wild and free—and at 17! She is an example of someone who just is herself…. It’s effortless for her.

“It took a long time before [‘Yellowjackets’] came along…. Ten years ago, if I had seen Sophie, I would have been dying to try to…find her [a role]. And now, I just put that feeling inside of myself and remember [to] put her in my memory bank, my file, and just know that if I have something…I’ll go to her—but also that it’s just gonna happen for her.”

Cuba enjoys watching actors she regularly sees in auditions hone their craft over the years. 

“We get to start auditioning people at the beginning of their journey and watch them grow,” she says. This was particularly true when it came to casting three of the main actors on “Swarm.” 

“Like Paris Jackson…she fits in the music mold, but I started auditioning her in 2017,” Cuba says. “So I’ve watched her through the audition process really find her craft…and her strengths. Also, Kiersey Clemons is someone I’ve auditioned over the years since she was young. 

“And Byron Bowers is…a standup who I met when he first came out [to L.A.]. [I auditioned him] for ‘The Chi.’ He booked that; and from there…I put him into [Steven] Soderbergh movies, and he’s in [other projects of mine, too]. And that, to me, is the most rewarding [thing]—helping to build [actors’] careers in an authentic and organic way,” she continues. 

“And they still have to…work for it. At a certain point, obviously, you get offers, but [only for] certain things. And for other things, I think the audition is really valuable.” 

When auditioning, actors should know that they could be reading for multiple projects. 

“I have a whole slate of projects through April of next year…. So you’re reading for so many things [when you’re auditioning with me], when you think you’re [only] reading for one thing,” Cuba explains. “It could take years; so there are times when I see someone a lot for various things, and then…it slows down between us. 

“But a lot of times, that’s because I’ve had them do enough of a range of things that, in my mind, I’m like, OK, I understand what they can do, and now I can be more targeted [about] why this part is great for them,” she adds. “And that’s so mysterious. Like, you have no idea. There’s so many things I work on that even agents don’t know I’m working on.”

How to get cast by Carmen Cuba


Courtesy Amazon Studios

If you’re looking to land a part in a project the CD is working on, you’re in luck—she frequently posts notices on Backstage. Here are details on a few films, TV shows, and networks Cuba has cast for: