From open calls to Zoom auditions, BAFTA-nominated casting directors Ellen Lewis and Rene Haynes discuss how they put together the enormous ensemble for this epic crime saga. By Yasmin Omar
Martin Scorsese is famed for his long-running collaborations. There’s his
creative partnership with editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and actors Robert De
Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. Perhaps less known is his working relationship
with casting director Ellen Lewis, who has sourced talent for his projects
for over three decades. During that time, she helped launch the careers of
Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street, 2013) and Juliette Lewis (Cape
Fear, 1991), and has populated Scorsese’s wide-ranging cinematic worlds,
from 19th-century New York high society in The Age of Innocence (1993) to
the Las Vegas of Casino (1995). ‘Because I’ve worked with Marty so long,
I do hold a little place in his brain,’ she says, with a smile.
Their latest venture is Killers of the Flower Moon, a haunting, true-crime story detailing the genocide of the newly oil-rich Osage Nation in 1920s Oklahoma, which required a massive ensemble of white and Indigenous actors. As soon as Lewis heard that Scorsese was considering the project, she immediately contacted Rene Haynes – a former colleague on Netflix’s Western miniseries Godless (2017) – who specialises in Indigenous casting (her credits include finding the Native extras for Dances with Wolves  and The Twilight Saga’s wolf pack). Bringing on Haynes was crucial, Lewis says, because ‘authenticity is the most important thing in my job’. To this end, Lewis has made a habit of seeking guidance from local-community experts throughout her career, as she did for Scorsese’s Kundun (1997), Hugo (2012) and Silence (2016).
After hearing from Lewis, Haynes cleared her schedule (‘Even if I wasn’t going to be available, I was going to be available!’) and the two casting directors began poring over executive producer Marianne Bower’s treasure trove of research. ‘We looked at home movies from the Osage, photographs of people in the film from the 1920s – the Native family, the outlaws and such,’ Lewis explains. This process allowed them to get a sense of what people generally looked like at that time, although Haynes is quick to point out that she doesn’t consider Killers a quintessential period film. ‘Faces were contemporary,’ she says. ‘Women were plucking their eyebrows and wearing make-up back then. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told young actresses on other projects to stop plucking their eyebrows. I’ve seen it take them out of the running because their face isn’t right for the era.’
At this stage, the pair read through the script and broke down the parts into categories: the outlaws, the townsfolk, the Osage Council, etc. ‘When you’re doing a cast of this size it can get complicated,’ says Lewis. ‘But every single role is vital, no matter how small. We are thoughtful about what every person’s face is like, whether they fit in the world… It just adds great texture and depth.’ Haynes describes casting as assembling ‘a giant human jigsaw puzzle’, starting with the leads and fitting together the pieces to create a cohesive picture. There was a surprising switch-up to the lead roles on Killers, which, Lewis caveats, ‘happened above my head’. DiCaprio was originally slated to play the FBI agent Tom White, who was assigned to investigate the Osage murders, but after reading an emotional scene between World War I veteran Ernest Burkhart and his Osage wife Mollie Kyle, he realised that Ernest was the part for him. He would portray him instead, while Jesse Plemons filled in as Tom. ‘It took the story in a different direction,’ Lewis says. ‘The focus was not going to be on the FBI, but more on the family.’ Haynes remarks that this change in perspective was ‘a tremendous gift to the Osage people’. ‘This particular horrific story now gets to be told.’
When casting Indigenous roles, Haynes always proceeds with the utmost cultural sensitivity. Before sending the open call for Killers, she asked the film’s Osage consulting producer Chad Renfro how to respectfully reach out to the tribe, and had him check the wording on her request. That first open call, which ran for three days in November 2019 in Pawhuska, Oklahoma and attracted thousands of hopefuls, felt like ‘a wonderful community gathering’ where Native people reconnected in the waiting room. Haynes aimed to keep the process as simple – and pleasant – as possible. ‘I can’t do my job without them wanting to see me,’ she says. ‘I literally said hello to everybody who came, and very quickly assessed if I thought they were right for one of the available roles. If they were, I’d give them a brief set of sides [a script excerpt] to study for a few minutes, then they’d go in and see Ellen, who’d put them on tape.’ What stands out to Haynes and Lewis on these tapes? It’s simple, really: truth. ‘I don’t want to see any acting,’ Haynes says. ‘I want to see somebody who has the ability to make me believe they’re saying those words for the first time.’
As they started collating a database of potential day players and supporting characters, the casting directors were still on the lookout for someone to play Mollie, who would become the emotional heart of the film following the rewrites. ‘When reading a script, I wait for a voice to come to me,’ Haynes says. ‘I keep reading until the right person clicks in. Lily [Gladstone] was present when I first read Killers, and I very enthusiastically sent her to Ellen.’ Haynes and Lewis were impressed by Gladstone’s audition, and were ‘strongly thinking of her’ for the part by the end of 2019. Then, of course, February 2020 rolled around, and all operations were forced to shut down. No casting decisions had been made yet.
The colleagues laid low for several months of Covid lockdowns, then restarted in earnest that October. ‘All of those wonderful Osage people we had met during that open call hung in there with us for a very long and protracted casting process, then learned how to audition via Zoom,’ Haynes says. Ever helpful in her approach, she created a document of ‘10 Basic Steps to Zooming’, which she shared with candidates ‘to give them a competitive edge’. Although far from ideal, remote working did have its upside: it was Gladstone’s online reading with DiCaprio that clinched her the part. ‘At the end of that call, it was just clear that Lily would be Mollie,’ Lewis says. The casting director also had the inspired idea to see whether musicians with acting aspirations – grounded from touring because of the pandemic – would be interested in appearing in the film, and eventually added seven of them to the Killers ensemble. This unconventional attitude is typical of Lewis, who cast Action Bronson, a rapper with no acting experience, as the casket salesman in The Irishman (2019) after finding him in a cigar club. ‘I became obsessed with him! He was so fantastic.’
The Killers of the Flower Moon cast is a balanced mix of lauded veterans (Robert De Niro) and first-timers (Tommy Schultz, a former firefighter), painstakingly put together by Lewis and Haynes. Haynes sees the film as ‘the pinnacle’ of her career to date, and fondly remembers presenting it on the Croisette. ‘Seeing our Indigenous actors walk the red carpet at Cannes, then being in the room and experiencing the standing ovation and overwhelming pride of the Osage Nation was hands-down the proudest moment of my career so far,’ she says, adding, ‘I hope to have many more.’
This article originally appeared in the Awards Journal. Pick up your free copy now in any Curzon cinema while stocks last.