“Someone once said that casting directors come and invite everybody to the party, and then we don't go.”
You may not know Margery Simkin, but you definitely know the movies she's cast. Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun, Little Shop of Horrors, Field of Dreams, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the entire Avatar franchise to date – she's one of the top casting directors in Hollywood, with a clear eye for talent both new and seasoned. As part of the 2023 International Film Festival of St Andrews, Filmhounds sat down with Margery to discuss how movie actors are turning to TV, unpacking the process of casting a Hollywood movie, and of course, Avatar.
There was once a very defined split between television actors and movie actors – the foundations of both mediums were inherently different, from the pay scales to the actual filmmaking itself. But today, we see the likes of Rachel Weisz, Harrison Ford, Nicole Kidman, and even Robert De Niro making the jump to the small screen. “I think there is more of a blurring between the way things are filmed in the two mediums than there used to be. TV is becoming more cinematic that way. But it used to be a lot more close ups in television, you didn't have the scope and the scale. So you didn't have the big masters. So filling the space was really different,” Margery explains. The rise of streaming services has ballooned budgets and created an emphasis on ‘cinematic' TV – if M*A*S*H was made today, its series finale probably would've been a one-off theatrical event.
Casting directors are integral to the beginning of a film's production, and with the rise of the internet and smartphones, Margery's potential scope has ballooned. “On a big day of casting in person, and I mean a huge exhausting day, you can see 35 people; I can see 300 people on video at night, you know?” – she'd been Zoom casting long before the pandemic made it the norm, not just because it makes her job easier, but also because of the opportunity it opens up for actors around the world, not just in the U.S. “It's all about the opportunity to see a greater number of actors for a role, and be able to reach out to people represented by smaller agencies, in terms of access but also because that access translates to diversity too, it all begins to expand.”
Casting directors aren't just thinking ‘is this person right for the part?' but also how they can enhance the part itself through their casting: “I feel like every good casting director has tried to shake things up, be diverse in terms of every element – gender, race, you know, just “how can we make this surprising?” is what makes our job interesting.”
One such example is Sigourney Weaver's return in The Way of Water as 14-year-old Kiri – Margery explained that Sigourney's profile is often associated with strong, intimidating figures like Ripley or Katharine Parker; but off-camera, her quite silly, playful personality made her an ideal, albeit unexpected, candidate for the role. “I like to say what my job is to recognize good ideas, and maybe they're ideas I've had and maybe they're ideas somebody else's had, an agent, any sort of representative. It could be the PA, the prop person – anybody who has a good idea. If it's a good idea, it's about recognizing that good idea.”
What's clear from talking with Margery is that her assessment of actors doesn't begin nor end with the audition itself – she's constantly searching, watching how actors perform their roles in other forums like late-night talk shows, junkets or red carpet galas. “With something like a late-night couch interview, you see things about the way somebody is, and you look at stuff with their work, and it gives you clues into who they are and who they can be.”
Casting for a film is a pretty difficult and long process – casting for the world of Pandora, though? That's a whole other story. “For Avatar, if they needed a prop during the audition, I immediately knew they were wrong for this job.” She admits this sounds harsh, but ultimately, it makes sense – those chosen wouldn't be acting on a big, sprawling set, but instead a large-sized grey box, adorned in a black lycra mo-cap suit with thousands of dots on their face; there's not many props when your world is computer-generated.
Another issue when casting the original Avatar was the obstacle of the Na'vi language, which at that point hadn't been written by Professor Paul Frommer. After a quick pow-wow with him, Margery had a plan in place for an unconventional audition process. Everyone would come in and perform the scene in English – then, they would repeat the scene in any nonsense sounds of their choosing. “My theory was that the audience wouldn't speak the language, so I wanted it to be intelligible without subtitles, – I didn't know whether we were going to subtitle at that time, and then I need to make sure they could make those sounds.”
Fortunately, Margery didn't have to get so experimental with The Way of Water, especially as now people not only understand the world of Pandora but are actively interested in being a part of James Cameron's vision. Some of the actors billed for Avatar 3 include Michelle Yeoh, Oona Chaplin and David Thewlis – I ask if Margery has started her process for any of the further sequels yet. “We haven't started auditioning four and five yet. I will say, you're in for some incredible treats – three and four and five are amazing, if we get to do them. It just keeps escalating.”
Although acting requires a great amount of skill and talent, throughout our conversation Margery reiterates how integral luck is to the entire operation. Luck is how she found herself working on the Avatar franchise with James Cameron, after bumping into her friend Jon Landau at a friend's child's play, who just so happened to be starting up work on Avatar and invited her to meet Jim. Likewise, Steven Berkoff may have never been cast in Beverly Hills Cop if it hadn't been for Margery's flight back into LA showing Octopussy, with Margery glancing up to notice Berkoff on every seat's monitor at just the right moment – and for Berkoff to actually be in LA when she got off the plane.
As our chat comes to a close, I ask Margery her take on how Hollywood casting will develop over the next few years. An avid fan of international cinema and television, she mentions how Korean TV has been taking up a lot of her time recently, and it gets us onto the point of once regionally-known actors having the potential to become worldwide superstars. “I think there are big stars from other cultures, and I think that there's a great opportunity to integrate people from across many cultures into these big action franchises, and I really think it's going to happen.” We're already beginning to see the potential of this with The Woman King's powerful Thuso Mbedu, Polite Society's Ritu Arya splashing onto the screen alongside Squid Game's HoYeon Jung and Lee Jung-jae scooped up by A24, Apple TV+ and Star Wars – as long as we have casting directors like Margery, that splash may soon become a wave.