Why Casting Director Cindy Tolan Looked to Theatre Actors for Oprah’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Special Features   Why Casting Director Cindy Tolan Looked to Theatre Actors for Oprah’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
 
What stage actors could offer that others can’t for Oprah’s upcoming HBO film.

“With theatre actors, what I love is in the silent moments,” says casting director Cindy Tolan, contemplating her inclination to hire experienced stage actors when casting for film and television. “When they’re not saying anything, there’s so much depth and added dimension because they are trained to be there.” Theatre enthusiasts familiar with Tolan’s work for screens big (Straight Outta Compton) and small (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) will notice familiar faces.

April’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is no exception. Based on the non-fiction book by Rebecca Skloot, the HBO film centers around the story of an African-American woman whose cells were harvested without her permission and used to produce the first immortal human cell line; her cancerous cells also led to medical breakthroughs in 1951. Oprah Winfrey serves as co-executive producer, in addition to playing Henrietta’s daughter, Debra Lacks. The film follows Debra, who also narrates the story, as she searches to learn about the mother she never knew. “Whenever you have someone with the talent of Winfrey, you want to make sure she has the best talent to work with,” says Tolan. “For me, that is a lot of theatre actors.”

Tolan cast Renée Elise Goldsberry (Hamilton) in the title role along with Reed Birney (The Humans), and Courtney B. Vance (Lucky Guy), in the movie directed by two-time Tony winner George C. Wolfe.

Working with Wolfe helped Tolan, since the director knows most of the actors from other projects and they all want to work with him. “He uses shorthand because he’s so savvy,” Tolan says. “We had many conversations where he would say, ‘Who’s that guy? I can’t remember, it was so long ago, but he was married to so-and-so…come on Cindy, you know who I’m talking about!’ I would figure it out so quickly, and I think if he was working with a casting director who wasn’t in theatre, there is no way they would know who he was talking about.”

Tolan started casting theatre over 20 years ago, so she remembers a pre-Hamilton Goldsberry, who worked on three Shakespeare plays at the Public and MTC’s Good People. “Even though she’s only in a couple of scenes, the actress needed to be there, she needed to get it right quickly, and she had to be someone with incredible depth and talent,” says Tolan. “Renée just lit up the screen.”

Wolfe already knew Birney (“It was amazing we could get him out of The Humans,” Tolan says) and Tolan added Adriane Lenox (After Midnight), John Benjamin Hickey (The Normal Heart), Gabriel Ebert (Matilda), Roger Robinson (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone), Byron Jennings (She Loves Me), Leslie Uggams (On Golden Pond), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Stick Fly), Peter Gerety (Lucky Guy), Reg E. Cathey (The Green Bird), and John Douglas Thompson (Jitney)—all actors primarily known for their stage work. “There was a common language that all the actors have with George and with each other because of what they have learned in theatre, and then the texture and the fabric of the piece becomes one,” says Tolan. Of course, this doesn’t negate the talent of actors who are not in theatre, as every medium calls for something different.

But in the future, Tolan sees more theatre talent crossing over to television. “With TV having exploded, everybody’s doing everything now,” she says. “If you’re good, it doesn’t matter what the project is; we want you.” And Tolan maximizes her nights out at the theatre to find new talent. “I circle every single name of every actor that I thought was exquisitely talented in the play, and I make sure that I bring them in for the next thing for which they are appropriate, no matter what it is that I am casting: film, TV, or theatre,” she says. “My hope is that all of the actors in Great Comet find their way onto TV and film. Why shouldn’t they? They’re amazing. Theatre has a wealth of talent. Why not embrace that?”

Iris Wiener is an entertainment journalist. Follow her on Twitter @Iris_Wiener or visit her at IrisWiener.com.

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