Finding the right actors for a film is often a gruelling process, even when using the most conventional channels. To abandon these mainstream techniques in the name of authenticity can sometimes seem like madness, making the whole production that much more challenging for all involved.
But when this goes right, it can go really right, and land us with some of cinema’s most arresting, grittily memorable performances. With The Florida Project soon to be released in cinemas with its proudly non-professional cast, what better time could there be to list our 10 favourite examples of the technique.
10. Tangerine (2015) – Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez as Alexandra and Sin-Dee
Everything about Sean Baker’s Tangerine broke the Hollywood mould. Filmed on an iPhone 5 (looking fantastic regardless) in a guerrilla shooting style all around LA, it also actually led its transgender story with transgender actors. Taylor and Rodriguez, discovered by Baker at an LA LGBT centre give fiercely charismatic performances, hugely watchable even as their characters make awful decisions.
9. Beasts of No Nation (2015) – Abraham Attah as Agu
With a career-best Idris Elba to help with marketing, Cary Fukunaga was free to search far and wide for his lead in Beasts of No Nation, and he was rewarded handsomely for his efforts. Attah falls right into his role as an ever-more broken child soldier, shell-shocked and violent. It’s a performance that borders on unwatchability in its brutal frankness, perfectly suiting the rest of the harrowing film.
8. Bicycle Thieves (1948) – Enzo Staiola as Bruno
Though most of this list is made up of more modern films, left-field, hyper-authentic casting is not exclusively a noughties technique. Casting children is never an easy process, but Bicycle Thieves was an early example of precisely how to do it right. Staiola provides another facet of the realism that helped Vittorio de Sica’s film go down in history as an all-time great, but never at the expense of real cinematic emotion. He’s heartbreaking throughout, but never more so than in the devastating last five minutes.
7. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) – Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry as Hushpuppy and Wink
Director Benh Zeitlin found the “real” in his magical realist story Beasts of the Southern Wild in its leads Wallis and Henry. Perfectly believable as father and daughter, any starrier actors would have worked against the rough and ready style the film works so hard to achieve. One of the most high-profile successes of non-professional casting, Southern Wild landed the then nine-year-old Wallis an Oscar nomination, making her the youngest ever nominee and, thus far, the only actor born in the 2000s to receive this accolade.
6. American Honey (2016) – Sasha Lane as Star
Discovered by Andrea Arnold while messing about on the beach, it’s still hard to believe that Lane’s performance in American Honey was her first. She’s electrifying in a difficult, manic role, bouncing off the child actors just as well as Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough. Expectedly, Lane’s time as a non-professional actor was short, and she’s since become one of Hollywood’s most in-demand faces, landing roles in Ben Wheatley’s upcoming Freak Shift, and the new Hellboy reboot.
5. Moonlight (2016) – Alex Hibbert as Chiron/”Little”
All of the performances in Moonlight are truly special, and one of Barry Jenkins’ greatest triumphs was making sure every Chiron actor felt like different iterations of the same person. Most of the groundwork for this is laid in the film’s first chapter, with the tiny and terrified Hibbert. He’s tremendously affecting, simultaneously unassuming and all too aware of his world’s ills, and his chemistry with Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe is both wrenching and supremely uplifting.
4. The Rider (2017) – The Jandreau family as the Blackburn family
Not yet released in UK cinemas, but one of the 2017 London Film Festival’s most stunning entries, Chloé Zhao’s The Rider blends fact and fiction with inspired grace and fluidity. It grants us an insight into a way of life utterly alien to our own, and at the centre of the cast is the simply sublime Brady Jandreau.
He anchors everything and is the perfect set of eyes through which to view the world of Sioux reservation horse-breaking and rodeos. Jandreau actually earned less money acting in the film than he would in a month as a cowboy, and we should be thankful that he made the sacrifice; the riding and horse taming are movie magic in its purest form.
3. City of God (2002) – The entire cast
To create a genuine epic of a film with only one professional actor takes a director working on a higher plane of talent, and that’s exactly where Fernando Meirelles found himself as he made City of God. Due to the scarcity of young black actors in Brazil, Meirelles recruited hundreds of kids from the favelas to fill out his soul-crushingly young cast of killers and victims.
There’s not a weak link among them, every role a complete person whom you cannot help but feel deeply for. City of God is unforgivingly savage and bleak, and we cannot imagine it having the same power with a less raw, more studied ensemble of actors.
2. The Florida Project (2017) – Brooklynn Prince as Moonee, Valeria Cotto as Jancey, Bria Vinaite as Halley
It is sort of a cheat to have the film that inspired this list make it into the top two, but it’s also impossible to leave it out. The Florida Project simply has some of the best child acting you will ever see, from Prince and Cotto – both of whom are natural superstars, utterly hilarious and packed with enough energy to power a small town.
Discovered by Baker (making his second appearance on the list) on Instagram, Vinaite is magnetic, moving and winning until she bares her teeth, at which point she’s genuinely terrifying. A gorgeously empathetic performance from Willem Dafoe elevates his co-stars, who blend in seamlessly with the actual residents of the real Magic Castle motel where The Florida Project makes its home.
1. The Class (2008) – The entire cast
One of the very best French films of the last 20 years, Laurent Cantet’s The Class is not only a deservedly adored critical darling, but also the sort of foreign-language film that British schoolkids learning French actually pay attention to in lessons. The most obvious reason for this second achievement, which really is no mean feat, is the flawless cast of children.
Every student who ever watches The Class not only follows its story, but will also see themselves and their friends represented somewhere on screen. Every laugh is one of familiarity, every wince and gasp earned by an unerring commitment to the reality of school life. Fronted by real teacher (and the writer of the memoir upon which the film is based) Francois Begaudeau, The Class is a pinnacle of the proud French cinematic tradition of empathetic but unsentimental portrayals of real life.