The Great Casting Successes of 2021

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Photo Source: Margaux Quayle Cannon

While you may be hitting your capacity for year-end best-of lists (“Best Gadgets of 2021,” “20 Kitchen Items You Must Have in the New Year,” etc.), I’m here to offer one exclusively for you actors out there: the best casting moments of the year. 

Let’s start with the team behind Jane Campion’s masterful “The Power of the Dog”: Nikki Barrett, Tina Cleary, Carmen Cuba, and Nina Gold. The casting of Kodi Smit-McPhee was particularly inspired. Now 25, the Australian performer began acting professionally at 14. I first noticed him in a 2007 film called “Romulus, My Father” opposite Eric Bana. Many of his performances as a child and teen actor in the years since have been absolutely breathtaking, but none as much as his turn in “The Power of the Dog.” 

Smit-McPhee plays Peter, a fragile, bookish teenager in 1925 Montana. He stands out like a sore thumb and ultimately becomes a target for the brutality of Benedict Cumberbatch’s unforgiving ranch owner Phil. Smit-McPhee’s gawky physicality and ability to project wallflower-ish sensitivity make him the perfect fit for this character. You’d never suspect him of anything, which makes the twist ending of this film all the more gutting. 

Another performance that grabbed my attention this year was from an even younger actor: 12-year-old Woody Norman in “C’mon C’mon.” He stars as Jesse, the nephew of Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) and son of Viv (Gaby Hoffmann). Having cast a lot of kids myself, I’m always on the lookout for new and authentic performances—and these days, it’s hard to find child actors who seem like “real kids” rather than little adults. To see them acting like their natural selves onscreen is a rare thing. Many have adopted bad habits such as indicating (e.g., miming their heart being broken when talking about a broken heart) and overacting (think: performing in the cartoony style of a Nickelodeon show in an otherwise grounded story). 

The relationship between Norman and Phoenix’s characters is heartbreaking and beautiful to watch; it captures the magic and fear of aging and change. Casting directors Mark Bennett and Jennifer Venditti struck gold. 

No list would be complete without giving a shoutout to Cindy Tolan. She and legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg are responsible for my favorite ensemble of the year in “West Side Story.” Having cast several films for Spielberg myself, I know how thorough he likes to be in his searches. Tolan oversaw multiple open calls for the better part of a year to find the perfect cast. The result is a stunner like Rachel Zegler making her film debut as María, and theater vets like David Alvarez (Bernardo), Ariana DeBose (Anita), and Mike Faist (Riff) getting their shot at Hollywood fame. As actors stepping into the shoes of characters played so memorably in the original 1961 film, they had to find a way to redefine their roles while still nodding to their predecessors. Thanks to Tolan’s keen eye for talent and Spielberg’s vision, they pulled it off with style and grace.

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

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Marci Liroff
Known for her work in film and television, producer, casting director, and intimacy coordinator Marci Liroff has worked with some of the most successful directors in the world. Liroff is also an acting coach, and her three-night Audition Bootcamp has empowered actors to view the audition process in a new light.
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