Carmen Cuba Interview for Deadline
Q. What were the first pieces that fell into place in casting the series?
A. Because the Duffers were an unknown entity and it was meant to be a small, little thing—and there weren’t any famous kids that we would attach that would help gain us any visibility—it was clear that Joyce and Hopper were our starting points.
For a million reasons, it didn’t take us long to become ridiculously excited about Winona Ryder as Joyce. Once she was on board, it gave us an opening to be free with where we went with Hopper, because for a show that’s small, you only needed one anchor, really.
David was someone that had been around doing incredible work for years. Once everyone saw his audition, we knew—he was undeniable, especially opposite Winona.
Q. What was the process of casting your young leads? How many kids did you see throughout the process?
A. In the movie we did together, it was basically three people in a bunker—parents and a kid. We’d worked together in auditions with kids, so I knew what kind of kids they responded to, and I also knew how they, as directors, work with kids.
The place that we started was discussing whether or not these could be kids that we found in an open call, who had no experience, or if we thought they should have some experience. We also, by the way, did not have very much time to cast this. Some movies have a six-month search for the one kid who’s the lead; that was not the case.
We opened it up to kids all over the world. We saw nearly 2,000 kids internationally, but we didn’t do any open calls. We agreed that with the time constraints of shooting a TV show—their first show, that they were going to be writing, directing, and showrunning—that probably what we were going to end up with were kids who had at least some experience. That’s sort of where we drew the line.
In the end, a few of them were on Broadway for years at a time, and they each had done at least one significant role. Millie was on a BBC miniseries where she was unbelievable; Finn [Wolfhard] had done an arc on a TV show, so none of them were inexperienced.
Q. Was there an extensive process of chemistry reads, with the casting of your child actors?
A. Absolutely. For some parts, we only had one actor, which is the Gaten Matarazzo part. He was the only one. For the others, we had at least a couple, and then we just mixed and matched.
It actually was very clear once you got them in a room. The idea was that, in this case, you really were casting a group, as opposed to one at a time. It wouldn’t have worked to cast one at a time.
Q. Did Netflix express any anxiety with this process? Even with your adult leads attached, you had to find child actors who, together, could hold up a series.
A. We always knew it was ambitious to expect that we would find kids that were going to be able to pull this off. At the same time, remember, it was a tiny show. They are very free—or at least they were at the time—with their tiny shows.
Their expectations were probably much lower than it seems. The scripts were great, the Duffers were exciting, and we had Winona. They trusted the team. Sort of from the very beginning, we were finding kids that we loved, so there was a level of comfort.
Q. With Stranger Things, all of the kids you cast became world famous almost instantly. It must be greatly satisfying to help actors bridge transitions and rise in their careers.
A. I think that’s exciting for anyone involved in what we do. It ranges from introducing kids who no one has seen on a particular platform before, but also giving [visibility to] David Harbour, someone who most of us would recognize if you said, “Oh, you know. That guy who played the other newscaster on The Newsroom.”
Getting to give someone like that a platform—someone who’s been around, who’s such a brilliant actor who people in the business know, who’s really been toiling and working—is really exciting.
Q. What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far with this project?
A. Listen, a lot of what we cast is locals in Atlanta. I oversee all of that. To find actors who are at the same level as all these other people, and that can hold scenes opposite them, is always a challenge with any location. I will say that I think we’ve had great luck in Atlanta—each year, the pool there has gotten stronger and stronger. That’s where we found Shannon [Purser], who plays Barb, and that’s also where we found Joe Keery. Those two people, who were really pivotal characters, we found them there, but we really had to dig. We really just kept on pushing, but that’s to be expected.
I think we really took care with this one to just keep digging. We didn’t settle on any single part, down to the one-year-old in the family that doesn’t speak.
Q. Now that you’ve established the world of Stranger Things with Season 1, how have the challenges of casting shifted?
A. I’d say an interesting challenge was that when we were casting Season 2, the entire world was obsessed with the show, which meant that we had big name actors who wanted to be on the show. There was, on one hand, the excitement of “Such and such wants to play a role. How do we fit them in?” which we tempered by staying really true to the show. Maybe the challenge there was not getting sucked into the idea of being able to have access to way more people than we did in Season 1, and staying true to the authenticity of what we had already created.
The real challenge, when you got down to it, was finding people who could be as strong and as dynamic as the ones who we cast in Season 1 who everyone fell in love with. It’s kind of crazy: When these kids become so iconic so quickly, it’s tough to imagine any other kids slotting in next to them, but I think we did. I think the people we found are their own force.