Amy Cook (“Building Character”) on the Oscars

by Kathryn Beaton on March 1, 2018

Our author Amy Cook, an Associate Professor of English and Theatre Arts at Stony Brook University, recently answered some questions about her new book, Building Character: The Art and Science of Casting.


Films play a prominent role in your book’s examination of casting choices. When you look over the list of nominees for this year’s Academy Awards in acting, what casting choices stand out as exceptional?

Some of these actors originated the roles they are in: there was no other Lady Bird or Elisa Esposito before Saoirse Ronan and Sally Hawkins were cast in those roles. Other actors are playing partsfor which there was a very clear original, e.g., Winston Churchill or Tonya Harding. No one was surprised to see Meryl Streep cast to play Katherine Graham in The Post—she’s the right age, sex, race, and has the same sky-high stature as an actor as Graham had as a publisher. We do not notice the choice.

In order to play Tonya Harding, Margot Robbie must allow herself to less likeable and attractive than she is, while at the same time evoking sympathy for Tonya. Robbie, an actress perhaps best known for playing Harley Quinn and being beautiful, surprises the audience by inhabiting this unattractive role in a more serious movie. I’m not saying that she didn’t turn in a good performance, only that some of her performance was locked in by her casting.

Frances McDormand, on the other hand, plays Mildred, a character for whom there is no real life counterpart ghosting her performance. Although the character is written by Martin McDonagh, McDormand manifests her, creates her, at the intersection of her talent, aging female body, and her lack of celebrity persona. The character is not upstaged by McDormand’s celebrity status the way, for instance, that Denzel Washington’s celebrity tends to upstage his character Roman J. Israel, Esq. in the movie of the same name.


The Oscars do not currently have a category for best casting or best ensemble cast, although other award ceremonies do. What do you think would be the pros and cons of this? What recent films do you think might have made good contenders? 

Perhaps the reason there isn’t an Oscar for best casting is that for years people’s perception of casting was that you simply matched this type of character with this type of actor. When the Oscars started, 90 years ago, “central casting” was a secretarial task, i.e.,  maintaining lists of the actors the studio employed and the “types” they were to play: leading man or cowboy, ingénue or old maid. Casting became an important job around the time Marion Dougherty cast Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy. This was about the same time that theaters began experimenting with “nontraditional casting,” e.g., casting black actors to play traditionally white roles. Then, suddenly, casting became something of interest.

The absence an Oscar for Best Casting or Ensemble Cast doesn’t reflect the current state and art of film. Look at a movie like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: three of actors have been nominated for a best acting award. Sarah Finn, who cast the film, should receive credit for putting those three people together, and the ensemble should be acknowledged as well, because McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson created an ecosystem that allowed each of them to flourish.


Meryl Streep has been nominated for Best Actress 17 times, but has only won twice. She has played Margaret Thatcher, Julia Child, and Katherine Graham, among other real life characters that she has brought to the screen. What do you think makes her so convincing in these roles? How can she look so much like these three different women?

Let me start with the obvious: she’s a thin white woman. That gives her a power that we should not underestimate. Viola Davis is a talented actress but she would be less convincing as Margaret Thatcher. As Davis said in her 2015 Emmy acceptance speech,  “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” Hollywood writes more parts for thin white women.

Rather than discussing Streep’s clearly amazing technique and ability to notice and mimic the tiny details that come together to create Thatcher or Child, let’s look at a more basic question: how is it that we are able to see Margaret Thatcher as Margaret Thatcher? In other words, how do we simplify the complicated stimuli by which we experience the people who inhabit our world? I am interested in the cognitive process that allows us to hold features together and turn them into a face distinguishable from another face.

It turns out that it is an important neurological function that can be traced to identifiable areas of the brain. There are those who cannot recognize faces and those who are super-recognizers.  People with prosopagnosia are “face blind”; they cannot recognize people from seeing their faces, not even people they know well. As difficult as some film and dramatic narratives can be to follow, imagine how difficult it would be if you could not perceive any difference among the faces of Hamlet, Horatio, and Laertes–or Bond, M, and Dr. No. Those with deficits in the facial recognition areas of their brains report not having much interest in film or television, because their inability to recognize the different characters makes it difficult to follow the story.


Your book also looks at “strategic miscasting” and “counter casting.” Are there any examples in the current Oscar nominees?

Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Counter casting is a way to shift the narrative and expand our categories based on casting actors (or ourselves) counter to the expectation. When Lin-Manuel Miranda walked onstage for the first time as Alexander Hamilton, the strategic miscasting was obvious and perfect. Casting a Latino as Alexander Hamilton and an African American as Aaron Burr does not confuse any historical recollection of the character, nor does it ask that we “look past” the race of the actors. It is not non-traditional, it’s counter casting: casting that forces a renegotiation with the protocols of reception. The casting creates new characters in a network of history, future, bodies, and colors. If the body playing the part does not match the presumed race of the character, spectators learn protocols of reception that question the central importance, the normality, the invisibility of white bodies.


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