How ‘Uncut Gems’ Cast Its Diamond District Personalities With CD Jennifer Venditti

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Jennifer Venditti doesn’t make it a point to gravitate toward indie film, but she’s always on the hunt for new stories and worlds to explore, and indies are where that’s happening most. Plus, when she’s looking for talent, she’s searching everywhere—literally. From the standard agent submissions to street scouting, Venditti doesn’t like to limit how or where she looks for people, actors or otherwise, to potentially appear in projects she’s casting, and often the alchemy of her ensembles are recognized in the awards space. This year, as a go-to CD for the Safdie brothers, she populated New York City’s Diamond District for “Uncut Gems,” as well as Shia LaBeouf’s semiautobiographical “Honey Boy.” And that’s in addition to her work on HBO’s “Euphoria.” In conversation with Backstage, she explains how her process changes with each project and deconstructs just what that looked like when fleshing out A24’s Adam Sandler–starring “Uncut Gems.”

What was the casting process for “Uncut Gems” like?
For the offer-only actors, those lists had been going on for a while, and there had been many. The film was conceived 10 years ago, and even then, the Safdie brothers were considering what actors were right for certain parts. It’s an ongoing process of sharing ideas. And then there’s the auditioning process. The thing that I love is it’s different with each project. It’s almost like a documentary project, in that we really learn. They go deep into research beforehand for years and years. When we start casting, it’s almost like catching up with that. They download all the research of the world onto us.

READ: Want to Make Films Like the Safdie Brothers? They’ve Got Some Advice

What kind of research goes into casting such a film?
My team and I go and meet some of the people in the world. In this instance, it was meeting people in the Diamond District and getting a sense of who they are, what they’re about, and what their extended life is about beyond work with the family. We went to some of their homes and met their extended family. And then we spent time on the block to see what the world we’re depicting is about so that we can understand it. For [the Safdies], it’s always a mix of fiction and nonfiction and how much can you bring to life the real story and how much can you mix in the imagined story within it? It’s a fine balance. It is kind of like a documentary in the beginning; we’re getting ourselves familiar with who the players are and what the world’s like. Once we do that, we build trust and find people within the community. There are two things happening at once: We’re putting breakdowns out for actors and we’re meeting those people, and at the same time, I have scouts who are out on the street and in the district. We’re also researching people online. And then everyone that I’m selecting from those different processes is coming into the office and auditioning.

What are those auditions like?
That process is the same pretty much for everyone. We do an interview to get a sense of who the person is. That’s mostly with the nonactors. Sometimes with the actors I do that, too. And then we do an improv with everyone. And then, based on that, if we like the improv, we call them back and sometimes we give them sides. For some roles it’s different. Some roles have sides; some roles are just improv. It’s really a mix. For both the nonactors and the actors, it can be a couple of stages. The Safdies take every role as if it’s a leading role. We did the most auditions for some of the roles that ended up getting cut out of the final film.

READ: How to Make an Indie Film

Where do you find talent for the projects you cast?
I don’t limit my casting; I don’t think anyone can anymore. We’re not on the street for everything. For “Euphoria,” we found a lot of people online. I feel like street casting isn’t always the appropriate way, because a lot of it is just doing research out of the box. It’s not relying on the same resources that everyone else is relying on. I don’t care about social media numbers at all, but we do look at YouTube. We look at interviews and research. It depends on what the rest of the project is. For “Honey Boy,” we did tons of research. We’d just finished a Mike Mills film and we did tons of research with kids, schools and groups and special acting classes. We’ll look to different community groups, community organizations, and nonprofit organizations that support kids. It just depends what the character is. And then we do research within that.

When street casting, what makes you want to stop someone and bring them in to audition?
It’s subjective and it’s all instinct. That’s why it’s really hard to teach people how to do it—it’s not a science. When we’re street scouting, we’re looking for someone who has a cinematic quality; you want to look at them, and after you talk to them, there’s something they give off that this character would have. You see them being able to bring that to fruition in a scene. We’re not looking for someone to be something other than who they are. We’re looking to bring out what we see in them. The first thing that attracts me to them is the visual. We might find a lot of amazing character-looking people, but they can’t bring the performance. We have to see how they talk, if they’re comfortable with themselves, and how they tell stories. You still never know until you get them in the room.

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When casting, how do you think about the group aspect of the ensemble you’re building?
It’s different per project. If it’s a love interest, you have to think of chemistry. If they’re adversaries, it’s a different kind of chemistry. In “Uncut Gems,” they’re all kind of like these unique unicorns or rare birds, and they’re all together. They’re not really having chemistry, except Howard [Sandler] and Julia [played by Julia Fox] had to have something. Whereas Idina [Menzel] and Adam, they were in conflict most of the time. It depends on the chemistry or what the group dynamic is, but for this one, it was more [about] finding these unique people who seemed like they would fit into the world. Everyone in this movie is somehow against Howard in some way, except Julia. It was finding these strong characters who would fit into this world and could hold their own. They’re all vying for themselves.

What draws you to casting indie film?
I don’t really see it as indie film. I’m attracted to certain storytellers and types of films. It’s about whether I respond to the story. Do I admire and feel like I’m going to learn from the filmmakers and be able to contribute in some way? I see casting as an art form, not a logistical department that’s just going through lists. I like to work with people who see it that [way], as well. If they want something unique and special, it makes sense to be able to contribute to that. I’ve had a lot of support and opportunity to be creative in the projects I’ve worked on. I like to be a part of curating something and the process of discovery. I also love mixing it with the process of putting the right people together. I see these films as stories and projects that want something unique. The filmmakers are looking for something tailored and curated to their story.

What advice would you give actors from your point of view as a CD?
Be the most dynamic, honest, truthful version of yourself. For me, when someone comes into the room and I can see that they just completely embody who they are—they’re not apologetic and they’re not trying to be who they think I want them to be—that’s the most attractive. There’s nothing worse than someone who’s desperate to be what they think I want them to be. Even if they’re not who I want them to be for that part, if they are 100 percent authentic in who they are, they might be right for another part. When they’re pretending to be something they aren’t, I can’t put them out for anything. 

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 2 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Elyse Roth
Elyse is a senior editor at Backstage, where she oversees all casting news and features content, including her weekly casting director Q&A series, In the Room. She came to New York from Ohio by way of Northwestern University, where she studied journalism, and now lives in Brooklyn. She might see and write about awards-worthy films, but Elyse still thinks “Legally Blonde” is a perfect movie and on any given night is probably taking in some kind of entertainment, whether it’s comedy, theater, ballet, or figuring out what show to binge next.
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