Spirit Awards Thu 2.27.2014

SPIRIT AWARDS SPOTLIGHT – Inside the Casting of Fruitvale Station

We asked casting director Tracy “Twinkie” Byrd to chronicle her experiences casting the Film Independent Spirit Award nominated feature film Fruitvale Station. Here’s what she wrote:

Ryan Coogler knows who he wants and why. It’s great to work with a director who has a strong vocabulary when it comes to the craft of acting. He is clear on tone, POV and intention. When I first read the script, I left with my own impression. However, Ryan’s description of the narrative in our discussions infused further detail and dimension to the story that I hadn’t seen before.

When it came to the role of Oscar Grant, Michael B. Jordan was on the list of actors to be discussed. Ryan and I looked at his work to date such as The Wire, Parenthood and the feature film, Chronicle.

The role of Oscar posed some unique challenges. Oscar is a young black male; a gangbanger/drug dealing father of a beautiful daughter, Tatiana. He’s in an on-again-off-again relationship with his girlfriend, Tatiana’s mother. Whew! All of the things that we, the audience, might choose to judge and then dismiss and distance ourselves from. Ryan and Michael B. Jordan take the viewer on a ride of empathy, discovery and redemption. We begin to see Oscar as a complex human being with feelings, inner struggles and conflict.

We ultimately see ourselves in Oscar; in his love for Tatiana, his mom and his girlfriend. In the way he cares for a stray dog who was hit by a car in the street. Now we are Oscar.

Michael has special qualities in his “actor arsenal”–depth, emotional availability, honesty. Vulnerability, fear and disappointment can be beautiful emotions to explore and film. That’s where the juice is. Michael read the script and then met Ryan for coffee. Obviously it went well, because after their meeting he was IN!

The next role to cast was the role of the mom. Thankfully, we had the real-life Oscar’s mom on video via YouTube to give us clues into her personality. A few strong actresses came in and Michael read opposite them. My assistant filmed it, Ryan gave direction and I watched in awe! Michael had an amazing grasp of the material. It was a moving experience. Per further discussion and input from Forest Whitaker, who was a producer on the film, we decided to surround Michael with star power. Octavia Spencer’s name came up and we were all in agreement. I made the phone call to her agent, emailed the script and we heard back very quickly. Octavia had a discussion with Ryan and she was IN!

Onto casting Sophina, the girlfriend who Oscar loves and grows to respect: I brought in a few of the top LA-based Latina actresses in the age range. There were several talented actresses who tried out. However, something didn’t quite fit. Ryan asked me about an actress based out of New York (always thinking outside of the box) named Melonie Diaz. He was ready to travel to New York for a meeting. My suggestion was to have her read the script first and then discuss. Melonie loved the story. Once again, it helps to work with a director who as a vision for talent. She was IN!

I put out a breakdown for the very special role of Tatiana, the daughter who inspires everything! My assistant showed me photos of young girls who were submitted for the role. I selected those who most closely matched our vision for the part. We pulled audition sides and recorded the girls’ audition performances. We submitted those tapes to Ryan to gauge his interest and approval. During that time, we found a little girl online who was just awesome. She had the perfect balance of innocence, professionalism and the coveted “lovability factor.” Ariana [Neal] and Ryan hit it off on Skype right away! Being Canadian, however, there was a work visa situation. Our wonderful production company knew how to handle the paperwork and moved on it right away.

Thankfully, we had a strong support system with Significant Productions and producers Forest Whitaker and Nina Yang Bongiovi, along with my local casting counterpart, Nina Henninger. Nina took on the supporting roles and filled out our cast beautifully with actors such as Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray and Ahna O’Reilly while Ryan brought on friends, family and local actors to create a very real sense of time and location.

Tracy “Twinkie” Byrd / Casting Director / Guest blogger

For more from Tracy, go to her website. For more info on casting, visit the Casting Society of America online.