Words: Vanessa Dos Santos
After attending the premiere of much anticipated Andrea Arnold film American Honey, my friends and I left Leicester Square Odeon buzzing from the cinematic experience we just witnessed. We discussed Arnold’s use of long takes and the killer soundtrack (now on Spotify). We all agreed that one of the most significant aspects of the film was the band of misfits that takes the audience on this unconventional road trip through America.Like a fly on the wall we watch a group of kids from different cities and states interact with one another seamlessly. Besides young thespians Shia Labeouf and Riley Keogh, the cast was predominantly found on the streets and roads of USA.
GIF met with American Honey street casting director Lucy Pardee known for finding characters on the roads of Britain and US from Fish Tank to Catch Me Daddy, to talk about importance of trust in street casting and how it’s turning film into a more democratised landscape.
As soon as we met, I could immediately tell Pardee’s genuine warmth and ease is what attracts such an array of characters to her projects. Her interest in film started when she studied anthropology at university. Completing a course on visual anthropology led her to make a short film about ground zero in 2002. She quips that the short film ‘wasn’t very good’; nonetheless, she caught the bug. She quickly learned that the film industry was very much dominated by men and you have to go after things yourself. It was her grit in getting things done that has been the reason for her success.
The film relationship with Andrea Arnold came about through another British casting director, Jill Trevellick, who took Pardee under her wing as her casting assistant. Pardee pauses to mention that she wouldn't have gotten to where she is had it not been for key female figures in the industry that have trusted and helped her along her career; a topic that we would revisit.
When American Honey came along, Pardee just had a baby so she worked both remotely and in ‘intensive bursts’ going around the States finding the characters that we see on the screen. One anecdote that came to mind was the casting of Ray Ray. While Pardee and Arnold were on the search, they interviewed his brother at a country fair, who mentioned his gay brother. At this point they were in a religious small town in West Virginia. Pardee felt if someone so young was able to be openly gay in a place that was hostile to homosexuals, then that person was definitely worth meeting. She was proven right when Ray Ray introduced himself and his dog named Princess, ’It was love at first sight for all of us’.
When it comes to street casting, she says, it is quite unconventional, as you are not dealing with the traditional modes of casting actors from the same pile of drama schools and agencies. When looking for the lead of Fish Tank (Arnold’s first feature), she spotted the lead Katie Jarvis having a fight with her boyfriend, calling him a cunt. Pardee waited a few minutes and when Jarvis left the tube, she took a chance and ran after her to ask her to come for an audition. Seeing me wondering how does one just go up to someone to ask them if they would like to be in a film, Pardee shares that the job comes with a lot of trust between her and those she approaches, and you can also have a sense in the way the person behaves that they are interested in embarking on a long journey such as making of a film. Of course some people have flat out said no and knowing when to back off is something she has learned too.
Girls from Fish Tank
Trust and connection is what she described Arnold and main protagonist Sasha Lane had when they spotted her at the beach in Miami. Arnold and Sasha connected instantly when Arnold spotted Sasha on ‘spring break’ with her friends, and is that kind of energy Arnold brings to her projects. At times when Arnold and Pardee were looking for cast members they found themselves taking on the role of guardians; making sure inebriated teens and young adults were driven home using their rental car.
No screen tests or chemistry reads were done beforehand because Arnold didn't want the cast to know each other just like it would be in the story, so trusting their instincts that they chose the right people to be coupled up in a minivan for most of the shoot together was crucial.
Although the main cast is predominantly white, besides the main character Star, there is a moment when the ‘magazine sales crew’ hangs out with another crew of black teenagers and they seem to get along swimmingly. It’s only when we see Riley Keough’s character, the ringleader, wearing a bikini with the confederation flag pattern, do we see the contradictions and the ignorance of an American youth that is unacknowledged. This glimpse of poverty and segregation in the States that is depicted in the film is something that Pardee recalls as being one of the key moments she took from the casting process. She mentions going to one area that is predominantly black and how people were shocked and told them they shouldn't go there, yet she recalls being treated kindly by its inhabitants.
Pardee talks about the amount of respect she has for actors; their job requires them to be vulnerable and give up so much of themselves in front of a camera. There is this mentality that as an actor you have to be robust as a person and take rejection as a grain of salt. ‘I have been working in this industry for a long time and I wouldn’t say I am a robust person.’ Pardee says that she likes to stay in touch with the people she has met through casting, even those who didn’t get the part. One of her staples of casting is the effort to make the auditioning process enjoyable and hopefully an experience to take something from that you wouldn’t get otherwise.
Sameena Jabeen Ahmed in Catch Me Daddy
Of course the discussion of diversity cropped up when talking about women and people of colour working in film behind and in front of the camera. According to Pardee there are trends that dictate the level of diversity on screen, so if you are working on a period drama you are more likely to get actors that look like Lily White. I agreed, and quickly remembered the adaptation of Wuthering Heights that Arnold directed and Pardee worked on and the controversy around the fact they cast a black actor, James Howson to play Heathcliff. This could be seen as the unconventional choice but by now we know that these women do not work conventionally.
When it comes to the casting industry, it tends to be highly populated by women and she states it is still considered a ‘soft’ part of the industry - it's not taken very seriously and there isn't really a proper recognition or awards for casting directors as shown in HBO’s documentary Casting By. It seems poignant that the most female populated position in film is also overlooked.
She believes street casting also allows for diversity - becoming an actor is not cheap and by not going down the conventional path which usually involves speaking to agents and going to drama school showcases, she can go out to areas where people might have the talent but not necessarily the funds and support to take on a career in acting.
It comes as a shock to me that Pardee admits that once she had her child, she was taken more seriously, whereas ‘men in the film industry are usually taken seriously when they decide to be taken seriously’. There seems to be a construct that women are afraid to be the ‘go-getters’ while it’s always expected from men. Men are not afraid to be disliked which often means they get things done. We then came back to the numerous women who helped her along the way. Penny Woolcock was the first person to give Pardee her first job as a script researcher and it was Woolcock’s confidence in Pardee’s voice that has stuck with her to this day. Amy Flanagan, who now works as a commissioning director for Channel 4 proved to be a big influence for Pardee and would send work her way and was constantly championing the work of other women. Fran Landsman, a documentary filmmaker was someone that was fearless and clear in their vision which Pardee assisted and learnt from.
We ended the conversation on a high note, talking about both the need and nuisance of quota systems; hopefully they are a means to an end in which women are able to work in this industry equally. This can only happen if we back each other in our artistic endeavors. It seems that Pardee's profession mirrors her sentiments about film industry and how to be a woman in film - we must be unconventional and fervent in order to make the films we want to make.
American Honey is out in cinemas now.