Tess Joseph could have never imagined that her career as a casting director would take off at her doorstep. But in the early Noughties, Mira Nair showed up at her parents’ old, colonial home that Joseph had offered to show to the art directors of The Namesake. In the course of the conversation, Joseph — who was then working with Derek O’Brien’s team at Bournvita Quiz Contest — was signed on by Nair as the casting director for the 2007 film. Soon, for every other movie set in India, Hollywood came calling. Till date, the Kolkata-native has worked on The Darjeeling Limited (2007), The Waiting City (2009), Fair Game (2010), West is West (2010), Life of Pi (2012), Meena (2014), SOLD (2016), and Lion, the six-time Oscar-nominated film. Joseph is currently in Los Angeles for the Academy Award Nominees’ Dinner with Kristy McGregor, the Hollywood casting director for Lion. Excerpts from an email interview:
Were you always interested in cinema?
My father is a cinephile, a member of film clubs and a regular at film festivals. So, watching movies, especially foreign films, was encouraged. Baba and I would discuss films in detail, understand the moment where a character pivots. I owe this education to my father.
What was it like to work with Mira Nair and get into casting for the first time?
Mira is truly about finding the person to play the role — not just an actor, it can be anyone. For The Namesake, I would watch Bengali TV channels and record the characters I found interesting on VHS. My research team would then find numbers and approach them. Over emails we shortlisted our favourites, I would meet them; Mira and I did the final callbacks. The film was my sabbatical from my TV work but I went back knowing that I had found love in casting.
How do you approach casting for a project?
The script is the key. I break down each character and choose the scenes for each character’s audition. I sit with the director with references, just random faces off the internet and a mix of actors I might see in that role. Some directors have tremendous clarity and tell you exactly how they see each character; others are open to being surprised. With young directors, you often guide them to see the characters evolve.
What has been your most difficult project?
The Darjeeling Limited and SOLD were the toughest. In the first film, everyone from India, apart from Irrfan Khan, was a non-actor. But working with Wes Anderson, the film’s director, I quickly learned that every single face in every shot is composed and cast. I walked around the sets with a file containing 1,200 faces with details of the scenes and costumes they appear in. One among them was that of an old man with a turban and dark glasses that Wes had clicked. ‘Wes told me he wanted this man in one scene,’ a crew member told me. When I asked where he saw him, he said, ‘on the highway’. We tracked him down and he is there in the film.
On SOLD, the subject was trafficking and we wanted a 12-year-old girl to play the lead. The film begins in Nepal, so we workshopped with schools across Nepal and the Northeast to create awareness about trafficking; we needed students to understand why this film was being made. We auditioned about 800 girls for the lead and eventually found her in Assam.
Last year, Lynn Stalmaster received an honorary Oscar for casting. Do you think there should be an Oscar for casting directors?
Absolutely. Casting directors are the unsung heroes of the movie industry. It is tremendous to see an Oscar being given to Stalmaster who has cast countless classics (The Graduate, West Side Story); without him, the careers of John Travolta and Jeff Bridges wouldn’t be the same. I was at the Artios Awards (for casting) by the Casting Society of America last month. Lion was up for Best Casting Nominee, a first for any Indian casting director. So, I hope we will soon be hearing of a category for Best Casting at the Oscars.