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When casting began for the role of Marie-Laure LeBlanc in the small-screen adaptation of the hit novel All the Light We Cannot See, Shawn Levy—the project’s director, writer, and producer—didn’t start small.
“When you decide, as I did, to open up the casting process to low vision and legally blind contenders for this protagonist, who is herself blind, it's not like you can go the usual route,” Levy tells T&C. “It's not like the talent agencies have filled their rosters with actors who are blind; it's not a big pool. That’s why I opened it up with a global casting search announced in a blitz, and we got hundreds and hundreds of self-tapes from people who just filmed an audition on their laptop or their phone. Among those, I noticed one from a young woman named Aria Mia Loberti, and while at that point I didn’t know anything about her, I knew that there was something about her that popped.”
It would have to. The actress Levy was looking for would have a big job to do; she’d portray the beloved protagonist of All the Light, a four-part series (out now on Netflix) based on the bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Anthony Doerr. The novel tells the story of a young, blind girl in Nazi-occupied France who occupies her time with a radio broadcast reading of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea— perhaps transmitting information for the resistance—to whoever might be listening. One of the people who does hear is a German solider named Werner Pfennig (played by Louis Hofmann), a radio expert with no fervor for his military service, and the paths of the two characters become fatefully intertwined.
“I just did a tape in my bedroom because I was having a rough couple of months, and I wanted to do something that sounded fun and different,” Loberti said in an interview prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike. “I never really thought anyone would see it. When I got the call back the day after I sent in my tape, I was really surprised. And then after that, I got the call to meet with Shawn for the first time. I was still just thinking, this is really fun! I can't wait to see this movie when it comes out! I had these little snippets of the script and that was just a treat for me as a book nerd and because I knew and had a connection to the book through my mom. It never dawned on me that I was ever going to get the part or that I was ever in contention for it.”
Levy, however, was immediately drawn to her. “I didn't know what she had acted in, I didn't know what her training was, all I knew is that there was a combination of intelligence, which was extremely self-evident, and a luminous quality on camera,” he says. “I later found out that not only was she new to acting—she had never even auditioned before—and she was in fact a Fulbright scholar who was pursuing her PhD in rhetoric. I found a needle in the haystack, and I found it in the most unlikely of places.”
Unlikely places would be something of a theme for the production, especially as Loberti found herself on a set for the first time. “This production was so inclusive; Shawn was an exceptional guide, and he allowed me to shadow him in the first few weeks,” she says. “They shot a lot of Louis [Hofmann's] scenes before they began with my scenes, and during that time, Shawn would take me around set. I had never been on a set before, so I got introduced to all of it. Everything was a first.”
One especially memorable first was Loberti’s introduction to the attic set where her character would spend a significant amount of time. “When it came time for me to be introduced to the attic set, where I would be filming most of my scenes, I didn't know that walls were moved out of the way for people to light,” she says. “I didn't know that it wasn't just you and a cameraman and a lighting person in the room. It’s actually more like 300 people in the room with you, watching you do this every day. It was really cool to learn how many people play such a big role in creating something that I hope is going to be so special to so many people.”
Of course, not everything about taking on a job like this was easy to pull off. “What was difficult was being a first-time actress,” Loberti says. “I had never been on a set before and that was the challenge. I brought a lot from my day-to-day life—my ballet training and martial arts training—with me to the stunts. I got to do all the stunts except for driving the car. Having Shawn as my guide was amazing and I am grateful to him for believing in me.”
Despite being a first timer, Loberti’s performance is something Levy is convinced will go a long way toward making the series resonate. “There is a poise and there is a presence in her performance that makes you doubt her rookie status,” he says. “When we first met, Aria said to me, ‘I don't know what I'm doing. I need you to help give me a chance of being great, and the only way we're going to do that is if we're fiercely honest with each other.’ I took that mandate at face value, and I was really blunt with her early on, especially in the first several weeks of shooting, where truly she had no idea what she was doing. Little by little, I watched her get great. And I, in turn, benefited from her experience in the world, the daily experience of navigating the world without sight. She changed the way I directed because I needed to rely less on my facial expressions and gestures and more on what I said and how I said it.”
The resulting work is a touching, powerful, and unfortunately timely reminder of the power of hope and the importance of recognizing humanity in others—and you’d never know that acting wasn’t something the series’ star hadn’t been doing for years. “It’s mind-blowing,” Doerr, who wrote the book the series is based on, says of Loberti’s performance. “We’ve worked on this for so long, to see it created is so astonishing. And watching Aria—who was so determined to do everything, including stunts, herself—show that an actor with a visual disability can do everything any other actor can do really underscored that she has that same ferocity off screen as she does on.” Needless to say, even if All the Light marks her first appearance on screen, it’s safe to bet that it won’t be her last.
“My priority right now is learning about myself as an actor and getting a body of work that I'm proud of,” Loberti says. “I was so lucky to get to work with such incredible people on All the Light We Cannot See. I want to continue to make beautiful things with beautiful people. Things that matter. I hope this opens the door for a lot of other people who might not have opportunities before this.”
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