Nina Metz Q&A: ‘Oppenheimer’ casting director talks about the new Oscar category for best casting

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is adding a new Oscar category for casting directors, starting in 2026.

The Oscars are a pinnacle of achievement for actors. But casting those actors is an art and talent all its own. The Emmys have recognized casting directors since 1994. It’s good to see the Oscars finally catch up.

If the category existed this year, Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” would be a likely contender. The cast is filled with boldface names — many of them previous Oscar winners and nominees — giving sharp and memorable performances. The movie’s casting director is John Papsidera, who has a long and expansive resume that includes TV and film. He’s been doing this for 30 years, casting Taylor Sheridan’s shows (including “Yellowstone”) as well as “Lessons in Chemistry,” “The Night Agent,” “Wednesday,” “George & Tammy,” “Westworld,” “The Flight Attendant,” “The Expanse” and “Austin Powers,” just to name a few.

He has also worked on all of Nolan’s films except one (“Insomnia”).

“One thing I really love about Chris and (wife and producer) Emma Thomas is their loyalty to people. The loyalty they’ve shown me is humbling, It’s a hard thing to find in life, and it’s really hard to find in this business.”

A two-time Emmy-winner, Papsidera talks about the ins and outs of casting.

Q: Let’s start with “Oppenheimer” because the size of the cast is impressive, but it’s also stacked with so many big names. How did that come together?

A: Over the last 28 years, Chris Nolan and I have established a pattern. I’m one of the first people who reads the script when Chris finishes, and there were two things that were really important and different about “Oppenheimer.”

One, we were trying to give respect, and their due, to the original people the characters are based on. These were the rock stars and major players of the atomic science world. So we didn’t want them just to feel like a sea of unknown faces. We wanted to give them a presence within the film that they had earned throughout their careers and their work. So we wanted them identifiable in that way.

And two, Chris very smartly knew that we were making a three-hour film about an astrophysicist and atomic scientists and, because we always release in the summer, we’d be up against a blockbuster Marvel movie. This time it happened to be “Barbie.” He wanted to stack the deck and give audiences a reason to come see the film, rather than people thinking: Oh, it’s three hours about a scientist. So, that was also part of the design and the plan behind the casting.

Q: Did Nolan know ahead of time that he wanted Cillian Murphy to play J. Robert Oppenheimer? They worked together previously on the Batman movies, as well as “Dunkirk” and “Inception.”

A: He was in Chris’ mind. But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t bring up other people, some that we had worked with before, some that we had not.

But Chris said to me: “I’ve been staring at this picture of Robert Oppenheimer for months while writing the script, and I can’t get Cillian out of my mind.” And I said, “He’s shorter than Oppenheimer was, but he’d be brilliant.” So he was a no-brainer.

Q: I have to say, I do notice when actors playing real people aren’t the right height.

A: I do too. I also have a thing about casting people who are playing a family. I want them to look like they’re plausibly related. It drives me crazy when the kids look nothing like the parents.

But that’s also part of the fun challenge. When we were casting Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Chris wanted Bane to look really huge. And when you’re looking for huge bodies, a lot of the time that means you’re looking at ex-WWE wrestlers. There’s a really limited pool of actors with that physique.

But we both thought Tom Hardy would be brilliant as Bane. So the way we solved that was to hire shorter actors for his scenes. I think Tom Hardy is maybe 5’10”, so my job was then to hire people who were no taller than 5’8” to surround him.

Q: Once you assembled the cast for “Oppenheimer” — Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh, the list goes on — did you stand back and think: Holy crap!

A: (Laughs) Yeah, Emma and I would have a few conversations where we were like, “OK, it’s enough!”

Q: It’s like “The Towering Inferno” — famous actors as far as the eye can see.

A: And that’s the thing I would talk about a lot with Chris: I don’t want it to become “The Love Boat,” where it feels like every star imaginable is in the movie. And that’s where the real art of casting comes in.

Sure, anybody can get stars if you have enough money. But it’s about how to cast them in a way that doesn’t pull you out of the film, which can happen if it’s a misplaced cameo or someone too famous for the role. It is about putting that together in a seamless way. When you’re weaving a fabric, you don’t want a big lump in the middle of it, you want it to be smooth and consistent. And I think we really attained that here. Over 30 years, I’ve built up an entire library of actors in my head to draw from. So it just depends on what you need at that moment.

But then I have to negotiate their deal.

Q: Wait, I didn’t know that! I assumed the producers negotiated the deal. Casting directors do that?

A: Oh, no — that’s on my plate, I negotiate the actors’ deals. The leads are making a certain amount of money, which keeps getting higher and higher. So we have to be the go-between a lot now, the middleman reciting deal points.

Q: But you know what the budget is and what you can spend, and then you have to figure out how to divide that up among the actors you need to cast?

A: Yeah, especially on Chris’ films. Sometimes on other projects, you remain in the dark, because for whatever reason producers keep that a secret. I’m constantly saying to people, “We’re on the same team. My job is to get you the cast you want for what your budget is.”

Q: Often, an actor’s level of celebrity determines whether a movie will get made. Does that affect your job? Do studios tell you: We need big names and here’s a list of the 10 actors we think are high profile enough?

A: Yes. All the time (laughs). On every project. Because studios want to cover their bases with people that can go on a talk show and generate publicity.

But this affects independent films too. The Independent Spirit Awards don’t recognize individual casting directors and I think that’s a huge slight because most independent films would not even be made if it were not for casting directors. The reality is, many independent films need one or more famous names to get financing. It’s almost an equation: This famous person could be enough to support a $3 million budget, but if you have two of those people, you can make it for $3.5 million.

Q: And it’s your job on an independent film to brainstorm not just which actors you think are right for the role, but you’re thinking: Would this role appeal to them for reasons other than a big paycheck?

A: Right, what is the motivating factor for an actor? When you don’t have money to throw at them, what makes a difference to an actor? And usually, that’s the kind of role that they get to play, or who the director is, or the story they’re telling, or maybe doing something incredibly different from what they’ve done before. So you’re always thinking through those questions in order to give you an edge to land that person.

Q: What should we as audiences know about what a casting director does beyond the obvious?

A: Casting directors, for the most part, cast every role that speaks in a film. We don’t do background or extras normally. So it’s about presenting the director and producers and the studio with ideas that you have for all the roles.

Q: Everyone from the lead actors to the waitress in the scene who says, “What can I get you, honey?”

A: That’s correct. Now, some projects come with a lead actor attached. I don’t get those that much. For example, there was no Christian Bale as Batman before we came up with the idea and talked about it and auditioned him.

Casting is such an integral part of the filmmaking process because 80% of the time directors and producers aren’t familiar with all the actors who are out there. I mean, everybody thinks they’re a casting director, from assistants to whoever.

Q: And people are online fancasting all the time!

A: (Laughs) Yeah. But by and large, you curate what a director and a producer sees and what their options are for casting a role. And more than likely, they don’t know a lot of actors exist until you bring them in the room to read.

Q: So it’s not only your job to know what actors are out there, but you have to know what their strengths are as a performer. Maybe they’ve only been cast in comedies, but you think they have the ability to do drama and you’re just waiting for a project that you think fits their talents?

A: A thousand percent. I feel like I match the souls of actors to the words on the page. Whether it’s something I know personally about an actor from meeting them, or something I’ve picked up from their work, you start to distill certain characteristics and traits that match what is on the page.

Without an actor, things like location and costumes, all of that doesn’t matter. Without an actor, you don’t have anything.

Q: To your point, this is why actors are worried about AI.

A: And it’s totally understandable. It’s frightening.

Q: How many actors do you think you’re aware of?

A: It’s tens of thousands, probably.

You rely on your memory a lot. And I have a staff that always helps me day in and day out. I’ll go back to projects I did before and look at idea lists. And you get introduced to actors all the time watching TV. I drive my wife insane when we’re watching TV because I spend half my time on IMDb if I’m not sure who a person is.

But the famous story about Schwab’s (legend has it movie star Lana Turner was discovered at Schwab’s drug store in Los Angeles), that doesn’t really happen.

Q: Are there actors you discovered early in their career who are now stars?

A: There have been a myriad of people, but it drives me crazy when casting directors try to claim credit for it. The process is so collaborative.

I put Charlize Theron in her first movie, 1996’s “2 Days in the Valley,” but I only found her because a manager named John Crosby called me and said, “You’re looking for a 6-foot blonde and I just met this girl in line at the bank who’s a model. Would you read her?” And I had to be open enough to say, “Sure, I’ll read her.”

Q: That kind of is a Schwab’s story!

A: (Laughs) It is. But it’s so rare.