2 Feb 2015

The casting veteran

A record 60 international casting directors are heading to Berlin this week for Shooting Stars. We talk to one of them: Britain’s Leo Davis.

Marwan Kenzari (Shooting Stars 2014) with Leo Davis
Leo Davis began her career in casting more than 30 years ago. Having worked in theatre in both Liverpool and London, she tried to persuade casting director Susie Figgis to take her on as an assistant. Figgis felt she didn’t need one at that time, but changed her mind when she landed Richard Attenborough’s epic Gandhi. “It was such a huge film,” says Davis, “there was no way she could do it on her own. I went in as her assistant, and stayed about ten years, I think. And then I branched out on my own.”

Davis has enjoyed a particularly close relationship with director Stephen Frears, working with him on ten feature films, including Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen and Philomena. As Frears tells it, the casting team were so determined for him to cast Chiwetel Ejiofor in Dirty Pretty Things that they remained deliberately vague about the actor’s age (he was only 25 when the film came out – significantly younger than Frears had envisaged for the role of a qualified doctor living illegally in London, with a wife and children back in Nigeria). The picture went on to earn huge acclaim, winning Best Film, Actor, Director and Screenplay at the British Independent Film Awards.

Davis has been attending the International Casting Directors Network in Berlin since its inception in 2005, an event that is programmed so that the attendees can meet and interact with the Shooting Stars each year. This year, a record 60 casting directors from all over the world will attend, including heads of casting from Hollywood studios Paramount and Warner Bros. Opportunities for the casting directors to meet the Shooting Stars have been expanded, with two separate networking sessions for the 2015 edition.

Although Davis explains that challenges remain with producers forever seeking star names not just in the lead role but also in several supporting parts, even for low-budget films, one positive is the growing international nature of casting. “Yes! That’s great news,” she says. “I would think Shooting Stars has had a huge deal of input into that.”

Tusse Lande, Leo Davis and Debbie McWilliams at the annual ICDN meeting
Davis, who served on the Shooting Stars jury in 2010, has personally cast several of the actors she’s met through attending the networking sessions in Berlin. For example, when director Stephen Knight (Locke) was looking for a young East European actress to appear in his London-set drama Hummingbird, Davis knew immediately who to cast. “He described this nun, and I thought, I’ve just got the perfect person, she’s unbelievably nun-like, she’s Polish, and we cast Agata Buzek (Shooting Star, 2010).” 

In upcoming film The Ones Below, directed by David Farr (co-writer of Hanna), Davis has cast Finnish actress Laura Birn, a 2013 Shooting Star. She has also cast Dutch 2006 Shooting Star Mimoun Oaissa in the Hanif Kureishi-scripted short Weddings and Beheadings. Earlier, Davis cast Danish 1999 Shooting Star Iben Hjejle in High Fidelity (2000), opposite John Cusack.

“They’re so exciting, the European actors,” says Davis. “They’re ambitious, they want to make it, and at the same time they’ve got great taste, so it’s a good combination. They’re not looking for the giant American TV series, or their heads aren’t into the massive American lead role. They want to do good work.”

Leo Davis with Shooting Star Mikkel Boe Følsgaard at the 2013 Casting Breakfast
As for the private sessions with the ICDN, Davis reveals that the discussions are important for sharing information and comparing challenges faced in different territories. “We’ll spend time discussing why, until quite recently, the French didn’t give casting directors credits. Well, we’ve always had credit [in the UK]. It’s different things, about issues like payment. If I go and see a Russian film, and I think an actor is superb, I can always go to the Russian casting director and say, is he [consistently] superb, have you seen him in the theatre, give me more information.

“It’s become a kind of help network. If I’m doing something in France, instead of casting it myself, I’ll always say at the beginning, ‘Why don’t we employ a French casting director? I know three or four!’ And you try and get them jobs as well because they know what they are talking about. Having said that, it’s a challenge, because producers rarely want to fork out more money for an additional casting director.”

Casting remains the art of the possible: finding actors that are inspired choices for the role, while working within the star-driven constraints of the film’s financiers. For that reason, working with Stephen Frears on his 1993 Irish film The Snapper endures as a cherished memory for Davis.

“In an ideal world, you’d like to cast a film with a whole pile of unknown people, so that the audience goes to the cinema with no baggage, they’ve never seen them before. And it’s only happened one time in my entire life, which was doing The Snapper. I was allowed to cast perfectly, because there were barely any Irish names [known internationally] at that time that could be cast.”

This preference for fresh faces means that US producers have tended not to come calling for Davis’ services. “I don’t think I ever get Hollywood films,” she chuckles. “They think I’m a pain in the arse. Because you’re saying things like, ‘Let’s cast it properly.’ The job’s gone immediately once you say that. They only want to hear about Bradley Cooper.”

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