‘Our best tip-off was Greggs in Bolton’: the secrets behind finding the hottest new screen stars

From boxing gyms to train stations, Streetcasters are plucking people from obscurity and giving them leading roles. Here, the best tell all – including why they’re always mistaken for the police

When Lucy Pardee was tasked with finding a young Scottish girl to play the lead in the film Aftersun, her usual methods were off-limits. Without Covid, she would have been in schools and youth clubs, spending months observing and meeting kids who had never acted before. As it was, she and her team set about “old-fashioned phone-bashing”. “We had to activate the virtual version of what we would ordinarily do,” says Pardee. “The almighty power of mums’ WhatsApp and Facebook groups … The secret of streetcasting? Admin!”

It was on a Facebook group that Frankie Corio’s mum spotted Pardee’s virtual flyer. Putting herself forward alongside 800 other girls, Frankie, then 10, was one of 70 invited to Zoom casting sessions consisting of casual chats, show-and-tell and word games. Corio’s parrot featured in the background of the calls and she sent the casting team a tape of her climbing a tree. For Pardee, the sessions were designed to recreate the safe, playful environment she would usually establish in person. “There’s a fallacy in our industry that if people want it bad enough, they’ll make it happen for themselves. Bullshit. Not everyone is blessed with front-footedness; doesn’t mean they’re not right for the role.”

Pardee is one of the world’s best known streetcasters, renowned for her painstaking searches for films such as American Honey, Catch Me Daddy and Rocks. She sees her work as “democratising opportunity” in an industry that “can be ridiculously grand” – finding people who would not or could not otherwise get into acting. She spent nine months in schools to find teenage girls for the coming-of-age drama Rocks. Lead Bukky Bakray, who subsequently became the youngest ever Bafta Rising Star winner, confessed she thought Pardee was just “the laziest Ofsted inspector on the face of the planet”.

From left: Ruby Stokes as Agnes, Anastasia Dymitrow as Sabina, Kosar Ali as Sumaya, Bukky Bakray as Shola ‘Rocks’, Tawheda Begum as Khadijah and Afi Okaidja as Yawa in Rocks.
From left: Ruby Stokes as Agnes, Anastasia Dymitrow as Sabina, Kosar Ali as Sumaya, Bukky Bakray as Shola ‘Rocks’, Tawheda Begum as Khadijah and Afi Okaidja as Yawa in Rocks. Photograph: PR

Most famously, Pardee found Katie Jarvis for Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank at Tilbury Town station. Looking for someone with “proper fire”, she had seen “2,000, maybe 3,000 girls”. But it was on her way home from youth club workshops, having missed her train, that she saw Jarvis have a massive row with her boyfriend. Biding her time – “Katie was really angry, and I thought, if I go over to her now, her blood’s up so she’s not gonna hear what I’m saying” – Pardee boarded the train then got off early, following Jarvis to ask her to audition. Jarvis was a revelation, but Pardee knew she would be: when she saw her, she got a “cold feeling at the top of my stomach. That’s the telltale.”

She got the same feeling with Corio once they met in person, during an improvisation where Corio had to think about something that made her sad: “She cried but it wasn’t a performance. She was just sad and this tear dropped down her face.” Last month, Aftersun, in which Corio stars opposite Paul Mescal, picked up seven British independent film awards.

Streetcasting has long had an air of romance about it. Whether it is Martin Compston in Sweet Sixteen or Thomas Turgoose in This Is England, the idea of someone plucked from obscurity and parachuted into stardom is a thrilling one. And while it is true that casting directors often spot their subjects in the most unlikely of places, searching for the right person can be a big slog. “It’s not romantic; it’s serious business and accountability is extremely important,” says Pardee.

Katie Jarvis as Mia in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank.
Katie Jarvis as Mia in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. Photograph: Bbc Films/Sportsphoto/Allstar

When Kharmel Cochrane approaches someone in the street, armed with her ID lanyard and DBS check, she often gets mistaken for a police officer. “I try to be relatable,” she says. “Like: ‘Hey, I like your trainers!’ I try not to go straight in with: ‘Do you want to be in a film?’” It does seem like an offer that might be too good to be true, but as the longtime casting director for Robert Eggers, Cochrane genuinely has a life-changing opportunity on the table. She found the child actors for Eggers’ horror The Witch by scouring schools in Leeds, and sourced hulking Nordic sailors for The Northman by posting call-outs on Instagram for men over 6ft 7in. Pre-Covid, she would trawl boxing clubs, cafes in Soho and Westfield shopping centre. When she was casting the BBC Three horror Red Rose, the hot scouting tip-off was Greggs in Bolton.

But introducing total newbies to the industry brings a special kind of responsibility. “The thing I always think about streetcasting is that these are just people going about their lives and you come in with an opportunity they might never have known existed,” says Cochrane. “There was the attitude for a long time of ‘We’ll streetcast and get people cheaper.’ We’ve really had to argue and say no, you have to pay the exact same – whatever was in your budget. It’s not about the exploitation of your average Joe.”

Amber Fitzgerald as Ama in His Dark Materials.
Amber Fitzgerald as Ama in His Dark Materials. Photograph: Simon Ridgway/Bad Wolf/BBC/HBO

For truly naturalistic performances, though, streetcasting is often the go-to route. Kahleen Crawford has been collaborating with Ken Loach for almost two decades and is well used to finding people able to deliver the kind of rawness his films require, understanding that it’s “a massive leap of faith” for someone who has never considered acting as a path. Paul Brannigan, who played the lead in Loach’s The Angels’ Share, was a youth worker whom writer Paul Laverty met while doing research. Brannigan ghosted Crawford several times before finally showing up to an audition: “When people are from a background where they haven’t been built up to have much self-esteem, to put themselves in the line of fire takes a huge amount of courage. He did come in the third time and he was extraordinary,” says Crawford.

Streetcasting is also useful when the role demands specifics the traditional pool of actors might not satisfy. Crawford found Matthew Jordan-Caws, who plays Billie Piper’s son in I Hate Suzie Too, by contacting deaf schools, while Amber Fitzgerald-Woolfe, who plays the young deaf character of Ama in His Dark Materials, was discovered via an Instagram search. Elsewhere in TV, when Sam Levinson was assembling his eclectic bunch of teenagers for HBO hit Euphoria, his cast included A-listers (Zendaya), nepo-babies (Maude Apatow) and indie favourites (Alexa Demie) – but it was the unknowns who made the biggest splash. Angus Cloud (lovable drug dealer Fez) was snapped up while walking down a Manhattan street, Hunter Schafer (free-spirited Jules) was a model and activist who happened upon a casting call for transgender girls, while Chloe Cherry (fan favourite Faye) was an adult film star who Levinson found on Instagram. The refreshingly bold performances of all three made them breakout stars.

Juliette Motamed in We Are Lady Parts.
Juliette Motamed in We Are Lady Parts. Photograph: Laura Radford/Channel 4

For Aisha Bywaters, streetcasting is the answer for “things you don’t believe are in the system”. That was certainly the case with We Are Lady Parts, for which Bywaters won a Bafta. “Lady Parts is about a female Muslim punk band. We didn’t know if that did or didn’t exist,” she says. “One of the main women is played by Juliette Motamed and she was streetcast. We found her on Instagram – she was a model, a musician and doing all these creative things so we took a chance … She’s now in the new Magic Mike movie.”

Occasionally, when Bywaters puts out an open call-out for a role, she gets negative feedback from disgruntled trained actors. Does she ever get professionals pretending to be novices? “Loads! All the time.” Her call-out for unknowns for the lead in the upcoming adaptation of Candice Carty-Williams’s novel Queenie included a disclaimer that professional actors were also being considered. “I understand it,” says Bywaters. “You’ve gone through the system then someone tells you: ‘No, we want authentic.’ So then, what is acting? Is it just ‘being’? But I do feel like there’s enough for everyone.”

Jedaiah Bannerman, soon to be seen in The Kitchen.
Jedaiah Bannerman, soon to be seen in The Kitchen. Photograph: Albert Sackey

Most recently, Bywaters worked on Daniel Kaluuya’s first feature film co-writing credit, The Kitchen, due later this year, and streetcast 12-year-old Jedaiah Bannerman from a call-out on Instagram: “You knew from this boy’s tape that he was pretty good, then you have an audition with him and this guy has got such emotional intelligence. And he’s 12 years old, just loving football and loving his life. You’re just like: ‘Oh my goodness – this little boy just exists in society, having these great instincts! What is going on?!’”

It’s that gut feeling that is extra special when it comes to streetcasting. However exhausting, lengthy or seemingly impossible the search might seem, there is a magic to unearthing someone who otherwise would never have taken steps in this direction. As Pardee says: “It’s never good enough to say: ‘We tried and we put the poster up but we didn’t find them,’ because the truth is they’re out there.”


Rachael Sigee

The GuardianTramp

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