Casting Director Nina Gold on Intuition and Happy Accidents – Emma Badame interviews

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Filmmakers can have the best script in the world, the best director – all the way down to the greatest craft service team in the biz, but if they don’t have a cast that fits, then their project is doomed before it ever gets off the ground. That’s the importance of casting. If you don’t get it right, nothing will click. Which is where Casting Directors come in. Often the unsung heroes – or, as is more often the case, heroines – of a film, without them you won’t get Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, or Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, or even Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth in The Crown.

Those latter two brilliant choices are thanks to British Casting Director Nina Gold. A veteran of more than three decades in the industry, she began her impressive career casting extras in rock music videos and before long found herself working alongside her countryman, auteur Mike Leigh. From there she’s gone on to collaborate with award-winning filmmakers like Jane Campion (Bright Star and The Power of the Dog), Steven Spielberg (The BFG), and Sam Mendes (1917 and Empire of Light). Her full filmography reads like a “best of”, with the casts of audience and critical favourites like Bad Sisters, Game of Thrones and Chernobyl down to her. Her most recent project, Firebrand, just premiered in competition at Cannes 2023.

We had an opportunity to sit down with the busy professional to ask her more about how her job works, why it seems to be a role filled primarily by women, what changes she’s seen over her career, and how it feels to see someone she had a hand in “discovering” hit it big. Read on to hear more from her:

EMMA BADAME: My first question is something I’ve been dying to ask someone who does what you do, and does it so well. How do you become a casting director? What’s that path like?

NINA GOLD: It really was a series of happy accidents. I didn’t even know that “Casting Director” was a job. When I finished studying at school, I just knew I wanted to work in film but I didn’t know what I wanted to do exactly. Or how to get there. But as I was figuring it out, I started helping a friend in casting music videos in the 1980s and it kind of evolved from there.

EB: Was there a moment where you looked around and realised you were truly making a go of it? Where you realised that this was your career now and you felt confident in what you were doing?

NG: Probably when I started working with Mike Leigh in the ‘90s. I couldn’t believe what I was getting to do and even now I still expect someone to come and tap me on the shoulder and kick me out.

EB: Is it a feeling of a kind of imposter syndrome? Do you still feel like you’re kind of making it up as you go?

NG: Not quite that. It’s more that I really don’t think I have all the answers even now, so I don’t know how to explain everything. As you’ll tell from my answers [laughs].

Benedict Cumberbatch in THE POWER OF THE DOG

EB: You’ve had the chance to work with actors at the outset of their careers and then get a front-row seat as they blow up to the A-list. Benedict Cumberbatch comes to mind, looking at the arc of projects you’ve been involved with together – from early things like Tipping the Velvet and Starter for 10 to The Power of the Dog and Patrick Melrose. When an actor blows up like that, does that become a hurdle or an advantage when it comes to casting them in future projects?

NG: Tipping the Velvet may have been one of his first, if not his first, screen role. I saw him when he was at drama school and it was clear that he was incredibly talented, so it’s been great to see him, as you say, blow up. It’s been great to work with him and to establish a kind of rapport. That’s not to say that it happened overnight for him, like he hasn’t put in the time or the work – he most definitely has and it’s been great to see that pay off.

EB: Can it become a hindrance when they get to that A-list stage? If you want to cast them in things, does that become harder to do?

NG: Not really. It’s great to develop those relationships and grow. The only issue when they’re doing that well is that they get so busy, it becomes harder and harder to find the time to fit things into their schedules! But it’s a good problem for them to have.

Still from BAD SISTERS

EB: With a series like Bad Sisters, the familial relationships are so incredibly integral to the narrative and its success – so casting the group as almost a unit seems key. With Slow Horses, it feels like you might build around the lead, in this case, Gary Oldman, and work from there. Where’s the starting point for you on a project? And how do you build out?

NG: With Bad Sisters, it started with Sharon. Not just her as a performer, but as a writer too. She’s fantastic and it’s a real gift getting to work with her. Her writing is so phenomenal and natural, that it made it clear what we needed to search for and how we needed to match her vibe; it was a joy to watch all the talented actors have such fun with it too.

And that’s true for most projects–you’re often trying to match people’s energies and the feel of things. It could be around an actor, the material, or a director’s vision. It’s working to find the best fit for the whole cast, working to find all the right pieces and watch them tie together.

EB: You’ve seen the rise of HBO’s epics and then streaming networks entering the ring. There are also so many more women and BIPOC filmmakers and showrunners now than even 10 years ago – which speaks to a wider variety of stories being told too. What’s been the biggest and most welcome change you’ve seen in your role as casting director? And how has it changed your job?

NG: The biggest change is really in the number of projects being made. It’s astounding. In London, the opportunities for actors have just increased incredibly in the last 10 years. Which is really a good thing for everybody.

And in terms of gender and diversity, there are definitely more women’s stories being told – more of everyone’s stories being told, really. Far more filmmakers out there making things, which has been fantastic to see. Overall though, those differences haven’t changed things much at my end of things. The problem on my end becomes that people are so busy, it can be hard to get them for a project.

EB: So it’s more than just the A-listers like Cumberbatch or Olivia Colman now. That’s not a bad problem for everyone to have.

NG: Certainly not. And seeing more of that gender balance has made things much more interesting and it’s a positive, for sure.

EB: Film and television is such an incredibly collaborative medium…and casting seems particularly intertwined with so many elements. You’re working with the vision of others, in all kinds of genres, from so many different source materials, and trying to make it as much of a reality as possible. What is that relationship and process like between the filmmakers and casting director and how do you deal with differences of opinion/wish lists?

NG: I think the good work comes when you don’t agree about everything, but you still have a really good working relationship. They trust me, I really trust them and we are a proper team, even when we disagree. I think often if you’re really very much on the same page as the filmmakers, then it’s maybe the wrong job. It’s better when you’re working with people who you know, but with whom you don’t have to see everything entirely eye to eye all the time. You can still arrive at a kind of commonality of vision at a point and go from there.

EB: And you do end up working with a lot of the same filmmakers over and over again, so I’m guessing the relationship carries over from project to project too. That’s probably true of casting directors in general, that you work with a lot of the same people, on the filmmaker side, and on the acting side. I mentioned Benedict Cumberbatch and Olivia Colman, but Ben Whishaw and Sally Hawkins are actors you’ve worked with a lot too. What kind of qualities are you looking for to work with people again and again? And is there a disadvantage almost to working with the same people all the time? Or is it just as much of a challenge each time you approach a new project?

NG: I think each project is its own challenge, but then some people do kind of present themselves as a really great casting idea, even if you have worked with them a million times before. And you’re not going to ignore that.

EB: You’ve been in on the ground floor of some of the most popular and award-winning series of the last 20 years – from Rome and Game of Thrones to The Crown and Chernobyl. But you’ve also cast within existing massive franchises like Star Wars and more recently Indiana Jones. How do you approach casting new vs. existing properties? Is there a difference or is it the same from your vantage point?

NG: Yeah, I guess the vibe is established with some of them. With the Star Wars stories, it wasn’t established necessarily, but it was a big deal to have to bring in all the whole new characters. It felt like a big responsibility to honor that legacy, but take it to a new place. No matter what the material, you have to try and make it feel right every time, whether it’s new or established worlds.

I find it hard to analyze what is actually going on in casting or what it is that makes one combination of people in this particular set of characters better than another one. It’s quite hard to explain it. I think really quite a lot of casting is an instinctive, intuitive thing. Something that is very hard to break down in any way.

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Emma Badame

Aside from garnering for herself a one-time Jeopardy win, Toronto-based Emma Badame has parlayed her passion for film into a life-long career. Her work has been featured on, eTalk, The Mary Sue, Cineplex, CTV's PopLife, The Canadian Press and more. She is also a programmer with the Rendezvous With Madness Film Festival.