Casting Director Carmen Cuba Discusses ‘Stranger Things’ Auditions

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Addicted fans have been watching “Stranger Things” for five seasons, absorbing all the creepy happenings occurring in the fictitious town of Hawkins in the 1980s. “Stranger Things” was Netflix’s first original series, and there was no certainty it would turn into the hit it has become. But with each passing year, the sci-fi drama series has been showered with a steady flow of accolades, including seven Emmys. So let’s look back at the casting journey of the show.

Working with the Duffer Brothers, the series’ creators, casting director Carmen Cuba ushered several young actors into their intriguing and career-catapulting roles—namely, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, plus Sadie Sink ( who started in Season 2).

Cuba told Variety that she begins her process immediately after the show creators conceives of a character. She explains, “[The Duffer Brothers] start talking about the characters as soon as they start thinking about them. So that’s usually before they start writing them. I can start looking out [for actors that would be a good fit]because [the Duffers] know I’m always casting a bunch of things. I can always sort of pretend to be looking for one thing while I’m looking for another, especially with this show. We have to do a lot of that.”

As far as the personal qualities she looks for in young talent, “They love what they’re doing, and not really in the professional sense necessarily, but just in the playingful sense,” Cuba says. “That’s what I look for in a child actor, especially because it’s kind of a strange thing for a kid to have a job. I don’t respond to the kind of kid actors who are looking for a job—and the next job and the next job. [I respond] more that they’re there to play and put clothes on.”

With limited time, Cuba conducted a worldwide search for fresh faces to fill the spots. “We made a real effort to find kids that could embody the idea of ​​being an outsider,” she recalls. “We hoped that interesting kids would bring the material to life. And the truth is the material was so great, so set, the tone was all clear. Sometimes when you’re casting, it’s a little ambiguous, and you sort of find it while you’re auditioning. And that wasn’t the case with this. We just needed to match the kids to the quality of the characters as written.”

When the multitudes of young actors auditioned, each read lines from the 1986 coming-of-age film “Stand by Me.” When Finn Wolfhard came in, he easily matched the role of Mike Wheeler; it didn’t hurt that he was a movie buff of 1980s films. Gaten Matarazzo stood out as particularly authentic, and so he was selected after the first viewing of his audition tape. Millie Bobby Brown sent in an audition tape from London early on in the audition process, and it was clear she was a contender for the mysterious Eleven who has psychokinetic abilities. Cuba followed up the tape with a virtual interview, in which Brown spoke with an American accent for 45 minutes.

With the wild success of the show, Cuba gives props to the kids themselves. They transformed from an adorable cast into a pop-cultural phenomenon. “They were destined for what’s happening to them. They’re dedicated and curious and artistic and really enthusiastic about imagination, even more than sort of ambition,” she insists.

But with each new season comes new roles to fill, which presents quite a challenge for Cuba. After all, not only do the established cast members work well together on-set and with everyone involved in the production, but they became best friends—even like family. “It’s a very tricky thing to try to step into as each season passes,” Cuba explains. “Because that core, original group is very comfortable with themselves, with their characters, with the process, with the directors. You have to really test, however you can, how this person will be able to step into [his or her] character while also stepping into this phenomenon.”

The show’s editor, Kevin D. Ross, said, “You can’t find a better group of kid actors than we have on ‘Stranger Things.’”

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