Cage fights, chat shows, train platforms: the strangest places films have found their stars

Looking to cast a new film sensation? Then visit a prison, look at Instagram or head to a station. Because that’s where these future actors were hanging out

In 2014, director Sean Baker shot his lo-fi LA drama Tangerine using three iPhones. For his followup The Florida Project, Baker’s smartphone would again be vital – but for casting, rather than cinematography. Struggling to find someone to play Halley, a free-spirited single mother trying to make ends meet in an Orlando hotel, Baker stumbled on the Instagram feed of Bria Vinaite, a New York designer posting clips of herself goofing around. After a flurry of DMs, Vinaite was hired and is now set to be a breakout star. But it’s not the first time directors have found casting inspiration in unusual places.

The cage fighter

Gina Carano stars in Relativity Media s HAYWIRE. film still
Cage fighter to roof-jumper … Gina Carano in Haywire. Photograph: Claudette Barius/Publicity image from film company

After the plug was pulled on Steven Soderbergh’s version of Moneyball in 2009, the prolific film-maker didn’t beat himself up – he watched other people do it in mixed martial arts tournaments instead. Impressed by pro fighter Gina Carano’s prowess in a series of bruising MMA cage matches, Soderbergh thought he could construct a lean but effective action movie around her striking combat talents. Haywire underperformed on release in 2012, but Carano would go on to star in Fast & Furious 6 and Deadpool.

The chatshow cautionary tale

Of all the oddball tales about the making of Gummo, Harmony Korine’s vivid but unsettling debut as director, one of the strangest is how he discovered one of his stars. Nick Sutton was a former paint-sniffer who was wheeled out to scare kids straight on an episode of the Sally Jesse Raphael daytime chatshow titled My Child Died from Sniffing Paint. Struck by his distinctive look, Korine tracked Sutton down and invited him to play the cat-tormenting Tummler.

The train platform arguer

Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank
Rail rage … Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank Photograph: Holly Horner

In the golden age of Hollywood, the popular myth was that some lucky waitress, dancer or hat-check girl could find herself plucked from obscurity and turned into a star. Katie Jarvis had her own discovery moment on the platform of Tilbury Town train station in Essex, when a casting agent witnessed her having a shouting match with her boyfriend. That impromptu audition got her the lead role in Andrea Arnold’s award-winning council estate drama Fish Tank, where she held her own against Michael Fassbender.

The convicted hitman

For Gomorrah, his caustic portrait of the venal Camorra crime syndicate in Naples, director Matteo Garrone made a point of casting locals and non-actors. His quest for authenticity took him to an Italian theatre outreach project working with prisoners, where he was impressed by Aniello Arena, a murderer serving a life sentence. A judge ruled that it would be inappropriate for Arena to play a Gomorrah gangster but Garrone was eventually permitted to cast the former hitman as a fishmonger in his celebrity-culture satire Reality.

The TV quiz champion

Thomas Horn, right, with Max Von Sydow in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Quiz kid … Thomas Horn, right, with Max Von Sydow in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Photograph: Fran ois Duhamel/Francois Duhamel

The narrator of Jonathan Safran Foer’s 9/11-themed novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is Oskar, a super-smart and intensely methodical nine-year-old with Asperger syndrome. For the 2011 film adaptation, director Stephen Daldry assembled a starry cast of veterans – including Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and Max von Sydow – but only found his lead after a tip from producer Scott Rudin, who had been impressed by the young winner of a special teen edition of long-running US quiz Jeopardy! Thomas Horn was invited to submit an audition tape and claimed the role. Sadly the film itself wasn’t such a winner.

The Sharknado tweeter

For all Sharknado’s inherent silliness, someone on the production team was smart enough to invite prominent social media users to board the franchise. Like thousands of other people, Kelly Oxford’s immediate response to watching the knowingly daft disaster movie in 2013 was to make fun of it on Twitter. When the first of many sequels was being filmed a year later, Oxford – a popular author and influencer – was approached to make a brief but entertaining cameo in a movie stuffed with them.

The football-mad truant

Abraham Attah, centre, in Beasts of No Nation.
Rap skills … Abraham Attah, centre, in Beasts of No Nation. Photograph: Shawn Greene/AP

Looking for suitable candidates to play the crucial lead role of 11-year-old Agu in Beasts of No Nation, his gruelling drama about child soldiers in west Africa, True Detective director Cary Fukunaga initially put out on open casting appeal across local TV and radio in Ghana. After that was unsuccessful, he toured run-down neighbourhood schools in the capital Accra, and chanced upon 14-year-old Abraham Attah, who had skipped school to play football. Attah – who recently popped up in Spider-Man: Homecoming – sealed the deal after further impressing Fukunaga with his rapping skills.

The tabloid tearjerker

Off the leash … Freya with Anthony Hopkins filming Transformers: The Last Knight
Off the leash … Freya with Anthony Hopkins filming Transformers: The Last Knight Photograph: Paramount Pictures/YouTube

Every dog has its Bay: after six years in a Liverpool animal shelter, things were looking rough for Staffordshire bull terrier cross Freya. But when the Mirror ran a story in 2016 dubbing her “Britain’s loneliest dog”, Transformers mastermind Michael Bay took time out from approving storyboards of giant robots waving Arthurian space swords around to cast Freya in his latest and loopiest instalment The Last Knight. For most of her scenes, the talented newcomer was partnered with Anthony Hopkins, ignoring the received wisdom that you really shouldn’t feed a dog ham.


Graeme Virtue

The GuardianTramp

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