With over 20 years of experience between them, casting directors Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee have done it all. They took Jennifer Lawrence from an unknown to a household name when they hired her for her Oscar-nominated role in "Winter's Bone." And they corralled the most impressive cast of last year in "Spotlight," the current favorite among gamblers to win Best Picture at the 2016 Oscars, and a nominee in three categories at Sunday's Golden Globes.
The movie, based on true events, follows investigative reporters on the Spotlight team of the Boston Globe who uncovered a massive scandal of child molestation within the local Catholic Archdiocese.
To bring this newspaper procedural to the screen with an “All the President’s Men”-like intensity, director Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent”) needed actors who could fit into an ensemble, but also command the screen for individual scenes.
Barden and Schnee (whose credits include “Pitch Perfect," “Prisoners,” “August: Osage County,” and McCarthy’s other movies) began the process as they usually do: They read an early draft of the script and then compiled a long list of actors they figured would be good fits, to go over with McCarthy.
“When you work with a director multiple times, there’s a shorthand, and what comes out of that is the same tastes in actors and acting styles,” Barden said.
McCarthy led the charge in getting the top-billed actors to join. Mark Ruffalo was the first to sign on, taking one of the Spotlight reporter roles. The director then signed actors he had worked with before, like John Slattery, who would play Globe editor Ben Bradlee Jr.
As other name actors came on board, like Michael Keaton as Spotlight editor Walter Robinson, Liev Schreiber as the paper’s editor-in-chief Marty Baron, and Rachel McAdams as another reporter, Barden and Schnee were hard at work auditioning actors for the supporting roles.
Though the film was shot around Toronto as a double of Boston and features Canadian actors, the filmmakers ended up looking to talent with Boston roots to give it a stronger sense of place.
“There was no mandate to get people who looked like the real reporters,” Schnee said. “But there were some actors we tried for roles who just weren’t as authentic as Tom wanted.”
And given how bad Boston accents can be in movies, they likely made the right move. In the case of one character, Patrick McSorley, a victim who speaks to Spotlight, Barden and Schnee tried trained New York actors, but McCarthy thought there was something still missing.
“Our casting person in Boston, Carolyn Pickman, found this actor Jimmy LeBlanc, and he was the real thing,” Schnee said. “He gave the perfect Boston accent.”
LeBlanc’s performance as a tough guy with a tortured past lasts only one scene, but it’s critical to how the movie works, as it’s one of the first times we get to hear from a victim. That powerful moment shows the audience the depth of the pain victims have carried around for years.
“That’s the key to any casting job,” Barden said. “The authenticity and the truth of the story has to come through the actors, and when you get it right it's seamless, and when it's not quite right it sticks out like a sore thumb.”