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How to talk to beautiful & cool strangers
Turbo STREET-SCOUT talk with legendary casting director Jennifer Venditti
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Cool, beautiful, intriguing strangers — as far as we here at Blackbird Spyplane are concerned?? U gotta love ‘em.
So we were stoked to hop on the Spyphone the other day with veteran casting director / gifted visage-perceiver Jennifer Venditti, who has traveled the globe since the ‘90s scouting fascinating faces (and the bodies & souls attached) for Yohji Yamamoto campaigns; Zoolander (!); BBSP-beloved directors like Andrea Arnold (for American Honey) and the Safdie Brothers (for Good Time and Uncut Gems); and, most recently, Euphoria…
Today Jennifer’s dropping a career-spanning book called Can I Ask You A Question? via A24, and it’s mad cool — not just for the many candid shots of vibey people, but for the sneakily profound essays (from Venditti, Josh Safdie, Miranda July, and others) about what it means to truly PEEP someone...
We discussed authenticity & bogosity in entertainment; doing yr best to not exploit civilians when U hook them up with the fashion ~ Hollywood mothership; how the magnetic young Oakland king Angus Cloud got “discovered”; the best way to chat up a COOL BEAUTIFUL STRANGER; and more…
Blackbird Spypane: Angus Cloud, a.k.a. Fezco on Euphoria, which you helped cast, is a talented young Oakland king, so I wanted to talk about how he came onto yr radar. I know it was Eléonore Hendricks who first spotted him in NYC — can you walk us through what happened from there, and how it reflects yr process generally…?
Jennifer Venditti: “We were doing scouting in several cities, and I was in New York doing readings with signed actors, too. Eléonore was scouting in New York, and we had some other great options for Fezco, but one day she called me and said that the night before she’d found these two guys, and her phone was dead so she couldn’t take a picture, but she gave them her number and our office address so they might come by.
“We had no idea if he would, but Angus showed up. I remember he grabbed this pair of brass knuckles I have sitting on my desk, and held them, and he had this quality about him that was very peaceful. Looking at him, ‘sensitive’ wouldn’t necessarily be the first word you think of, but as we talked he was really present and peaceful and sensitive, which was in tension with the way he looked and spoke, and his incredible eyes — it was the alchemy of all those things.”
Blackbird Spyplane: So while you’re talking to him, you’re kind of holding a rough picture of the character in mind, and seeing if and how the two people intersect?
Jennifer Venditti: “I come up with a list of questions that will give an insight into the person, and whether or not there are similarities between them and the character. That’s the first stage. Eléonore would have interviewed him on the street, but since her phone was dead we did it in the office. We took pictures and hung out, and he had no real plans of being an actor — with a TV show you’re asking someone to sign up for maybe 3-6 years of their life, so this was so left field for him it was hard for him to wrap his head around the next step.
“But he came back for an audition, and what was mesmerizing was, when he said the lines, I was like, Is he improvising? He made it his own, and that’s an art. And in the scene we gave him, Zendaya’s character had a really long monologue, so he had to listen a lot, and his eyes gave me goosebumps — he was one of the most active, cinematic listeners I’d ever seen. So much was happening on his face and he wasn’t saying anything.
“So we sent his tape off, and to this day I’ve never had a situation where everyone — from HBO to Sam Levinson to the producers — everyone said, Who the hell is this guy? It never happens like that.”
Blackbird Spyplane: I feel like in the past decade, decade and a half, the bar’s been raised when it comes to casting and costuming movies and shows about “real people,” where there’s this level of documentary-grade, anthropological authenticity that wasn’t necessarily there in, say, the ‘90s. Like, I’ll pick on Erin Brockovich, ‘cause I recently re-watched it — it’s a classic, but Aaron Eckhart shows up playing a biker dude and he’s got these tats and sideburns and an American flag bandana on his head, and no disrespect to his performance, or to the costume designers and makeup team, but I don’t really buy that he’s a biker!! I’m not sure that would fly today …
Jennifer Venditti: “The people I work with, that’s the kind of thing they can’t stand. Josh and Benny, Sam. With Andrea Arnold, on American Honey, her nose for authenticity is like no one else’s. We had open calls in a community in Panama City, Florida, and I had never seen that kind of poverty — kids living in tents behind Walmart, children of the opioid crisis. But then other people answered the open call that were fronting as those kids, dressing a certain way, talking a certain way. And Andrea said, ‘This isn’t the real deal.’ She saw through it.”
“And to be clear, it’s of course not that I’m against traditional actors. Do I think every film should be street cast? No, because it doesn’t serve every film.”
Blackbird Spyplane: The way you do casting, it’s not quite portraiture, not quite documentary, but it’s not not those things…
Jennifer Venditti: “It’s a balance between those things, yeah. I talk a bit in the book about this Budapest trip, when I was there to find people for Yohji Yamamoto. I went to this art school and I was so moved by the people there — I felt honored to be in their presence, and when I went to approach them I was, like, ‘Something doesn’t feel right. What am I doing? What’s the point of this job?’ I had to find the meaning of what it is that I’m doing here — I can’t just descend on these people saying, ‘It’s so great to be in a fashion ad, I’m gonna adorn you with my presence and see you.’ That didn’t feel right. I was a voyeur. So I had to get to the real intention of, Why is this important, besides monetarily? Which is important, but there had to be more.”
Blackbird Spyplane: What answer came to you?
Jennifer Venditti: “I’ve been obsessed with observing people forever — growing up, that was my cinema. I went to places where I could observe people and I was curious about how everyone else was doing it. So I’d always been someone who saw things I thought were beautiful, but my focus was on the thing in the background, not the obvious thing.
“What I eventually realized is that I wanted to expand the idea of what people considered beautiful and have it include all these other people I’d considered beautiful, whether it was an older woman or an older man or someone of a different size — all the flavors of what it is to be human in physical form.”
Blackbird Spyplane: One enviable skill you’ve developed is talking to strangers and putting them at ease — the kind of interaction most ppl would like to be good at, at parties, on first dates, etc… Can you share some technique?
Jennifer Venditti: “You have to feel good about yourself in order to approach strangers, because it’s an exchange. Someone is seeing you, too — it’s a reciprocal act. So you’ve gotta have your intention clear, and it better be pure. You can’t attract without that — there’s a frequency you give off if you’re clear in your intentions, and if you’re not. With me, I really do want to talk to that person. I think they’re beautiful, or interesting, and when the curiosity is really there, there’s an openheartedness to it. There’s no, ‘What’s your ulterior motive?’
“Because the first minute or so of talking to someone, it’s all energy. They didn’t actually hear what you’re saying, because they were feeling it out, because it was weird to be approached out of the blue. Early on doing street casting, when I was really nervous and desperate to find 10 people before the day was over, I gave off nervous and desperate energy — and that’s when people run. You know what I mean? Same as when you’re on a date and you’re a needy person, it’s like, Ewww.”
Blackbird Spyplane: D*mn — too true.
Jennifer Venditti: “You don’t want that near you! But if you’re in the flow and trusting and following instincts and you’re curious, it plays out differently.”
Blackbird Spyplane: You write about being sensitive to the high potential in yr line of work for exploitation — plugging regular, untrained people into a universe that might chew them up and spit them out…
Jennifer Venditti: “I’m the person they’re trusting as they go into an uncomfortable place. And once you’ve been in a spotlight, the fall can be really hard. So I try not to set up false expectations. Especially in our culture, some people think, ‘This is my ticket — this is gonna change my life.’ I try to make it clear that this isn’t something you do to change your life or start a career — this is an experience that is gonna be special, you’re gonna experience yourself in a different way, experience others in a different way, maybe receive some gifts from that, and then move on. If people want to pursue it further, we try to support them, but the hard thing is the industry might make a big deal out of this person because of the project they’re in, and that doesn’t always translate to a career.”
“The way I justify it, or handle it, is I don’t see myself as someone who’s changing lives. I’m just one person on the path.”
Blackbird Spyplane: It bugs me out that we give off so many clues and cues about who we are that we aren’t even aware of. Not just obvious things like how we get our hair cut but how we stand, how our faces sit, what we do with our eyes, how our mouths move — it’s a trip that people can see and infer so much about me within seconds. You write in the book about being fascinated by the masks we choose to put on and what they reveal about us — and the masks we wear without consciously knowing it.
Jennifer Venditti: “It’s an idea I’m endlessly fascinated by. And it’s a big part of why I admire acting, when people really go there, because it’s a metaphor for life — a lot of struggle and unhappiness comes from people holding on to roles. Life is inducting change all the time. You lose a job, someone dies, your kids grow up and you’re still a parent but that’s not your central role anymore. We’re always being nudged into changing roles, and I think that’s the real art of life: How can you be fluid within that, rather than restricted to, ‘This is the role I want to play forever, and I don’t want it to change.’”
Blackbird Spyplane: Finally, you sent over a picture of yr office, where there’s this enormous triptych of weathered, painted wood. What’s the deal?
Jennifer Venditti: “So this artist, Daniel Peddle, he used to scout for me, and he loved found art — he saw it everywhere. He gave these to me 15 years ago and yesterday I asked him to remind me the exact story behind them. He sent me a text: ‘I took them down from a dilapidated billboard underneath the BQE. I climbed three stories high at midnight and lowered them down with a rope. Definitely risked my life for them. Oh and I think I was tripping on mushrooms, too!’
“They’re gorgeous, and they’re exactly as he found them. You could tie that back to street casting — it’s about beauty in the foundness of people. Finding people, finding art, seeing beauty and magic everywhere.”
🔦 You can cop her excellent new book, Can I Ask You A Question?, from A24 HERE.
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