Why ‘Wonderstruck’ Director Todd Haynes Cast His First Films Using Backstage

Photo Source: Mary Cybulski

Did you know Todd Haynes—the Oscar-nominated writer and director behind “Carol,” “Far From Heaven,” and “Velvet Goldmine”—cast his first feature film, “Poison,” through Backstage?

“We didn’t have a casting director…[so] we put notices in Backstage and had auditions ourselves,” Haynes recalls on a mid-September phone call. “It was an amazing process, because I had to touch every single step and be present for it and watch everybody come in.”

Haynes says that Backstage is “an ongoing necessity” and “a seminal way of actors getting word of films that are casting.” Plus, he says he “learned a lot” by using it as a young filmmaker.

READ: How to Cast Like a Pro

While his use of Backstage came and went with his early career shorts and “Poison” (he now has a longstanding relationship with Emmy-winning CD Laura Rosenthal), his latest feature, “Wonderstruck,” echoes back to his 1991 debut in that it, too, spotlights several little-known and early-career actors. In the case of Millicent Simmonds, “Wonderstruck” marks her acting debut. She stars as Rose, a deaf girl living in 1927 New Jersey who runs away to New York City in hopes of connecting with her idol, silent film star Lillian Mayhew.

As a family film based on Brian Selznick’s 2011 novel (an unlikely—and self-admittedly—endeavor from the famously provocative Haynes), “Wonderstruck” plays out with the precision and grace of a partnered ballet routine: One-half of it takes place in 1927 as a black-and-white silent film, beautifully encapsulating how the deaf absorb the world; and the second half takes place 50 years later in color and sound. They play out concurrently back and forth until ultimately meeting in 1977.

Haynes also sought to honor the deaf community with “Wonderstruck” by casting a deaf actor as Rose, even though it was a “tremendous challenge” to land the right talent for their young hero. “It was an unknown. It was a risk,” Haynes says. But Rosenthal eventually found Simmonds (whom friends and colleagues fondly refer to as “Millie”) outside of Salt Lake City. “She just blew me away from the very first audition tape she sent in,” Haynes says. “There’s something in this kid that is really, really extraordinary—deaf, hearing, boy, girl, whatever. She’s just a unique person at the core.”

American Sign Language is at this point second nature for Simmonds, but it was all-new territory for Haynes and his oft-collaborator, Julianne Moore, who pulls double duty here as an older, 1977 version of Rose and as the aforementioned Mayhew. Haynes says that Moore took the responsibility of signing onscreen “customarily, as she always does, with such seriousness and respect” for the community she’s representing. He notes, too, that if you count Mayhew’s fictional silent film excerpted within “Wonderstruck,” Moore actually takes on three different roles by film’s end. “All of them are nonspeaking roles, which even in such a rich and diverse career as Julianne’s is something she had never done before,” Haynes says.

Over the course of filming, Moore and Simmonds built a real “kinship” and began modeling each other’s gestures and adopting little practices like handwriting (Simmonds became a temporary lefty for the film) to really tap into the nuances of playing the same woman 50 years apart. And while she doesn’t practice ASL in the film because 1927 predates its widespread use in deaf culture, Simmonds and translator Lynnette Taylor helped Moore with her character’s onscreen signing behind the scenes. It was a partnership Haynes saw in all aspects of his mixed hearing and deaf set.

“There was just a real generosity on both sides of everybody really trying to come together and find ways of communicating,” he says. “Of course, we all communicate all the time beyond our words, with our gestures and with our faces and with our hands. You don’t appreciate all [these] other ways until you’re in a situation like this.”

Want to get cast in a feature film? Check out Backstage’s film audition listings!