Alex R. Hibbert and Jaden Piner in "Moonlight"

Interview: Casting Director Yesi Ramirez on Being Right for the Role in “Moonlight”

Last month, Yesi Ramirez was at the Critics Choice Awards, an unusual position for her and for most casting directors, who mostly take satisfaction in their work with little expectation for recognition. Indeed, this was the case as she could look around at all the faces at her table, seeing the many actors who she corralled to star in “Moonlight,” a small-scale production in which she acted as her own casting associate and assistant and coordinated a cross-country effort with director Barry Jenkins and producer Adele Romanski to find the film’s younger stars in Miami while she was looking for their older counterparts in Los Angeles. Three of the actors — Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, and Alex R. Hibbert – has been nominated for individual awards at the ceremony, but Ramirez could take special pride in the fact that the film was nominated for Best Ensemble. When the cast actually won, Ali flipped the script on Ramirez by giving her top billing in the acceptance speech.

“I couldn’t really believe that he did that. It was amazing,” says Ramirez, shortly after admitting she’s more comfortable on the other side of the camera. “I’ve gotten so many e-mails from my peers and from other casting directors that I haven’t even met and saw the work and admire it and congratulating me on his shout-out and how great it is for us as the casting community as well to be recognized for the work that we do. I feel like I’m in a dream doing this.”

Ramirez couldn’t have been better cast herself to handle the extraordinary demands of “Moonlight,” which required three actors apiece for the central characters Chiron and Kevin, ranging in age from 10 to 27 for roles that proved especially complicated to cast given Chiron’s burgeoning homosexuality. Having grown up in Miami and working with at-risk kids as well as people that were at the end of their lives with HIV/AIDS, Ramirez fully intended to be a juvenile public defender. But her plans changed after her father grew ill and she moved back to tend to his care, ultimately finding a purpose for the time she spent in law school in Universal Pictures’ legal department where she worked under the head of the casting department. Ramirez’s career aspirations shifted once more, eventually striking out on her own and working her way up as a casting associate on studio films and a full-fledged casting director on indies where she may work long hours, but often gets the desired result.

“When you love a project and you believe in it, the hours fade away and the time doesn’t really matter,” says Ramirez. “It’s just about getting the best performance.”

Even for the best-known actors in “Moonlight,” every turn feels like a revelation, boasting Harris’ electric performance as Chiron’s drug-addled mother, Ali’s compassionate role as an early father figure to Chiron, as well as singer Janelle Monae’s stirring acting debut, in addition to all the incredible young men Ramirez and Jenkins unearthed to play their lead characters, whether it’s the prepubescent Hibbert and Jaden Piner as 10-year-old Little (Chiron’s first nickname) and Kevin, Ashton Sanders and Jharrel Jerome as teens, and Trevante Rhodes (playing Black, Chiron’s second nickname) and Andre Holland as the adults. And while Ramirez enjoys a season of surprises as “Moonlight” continues to collect accolades, she took the time to talk about how the film’s cast came together.

Mahershala Ali and Alex R. Hibbert in "Moonlight"How did you get the gig on “Moonlight”?

I had met Adele Romanski, one of the producers, for another project and we hit it off. She said that she had this amazing writer/director that had a great script, so she said Barry and I should meet. We had breakfast and I remember saying to him, “Even if you don’t have me cast your film, I want to stay in touch” because I thought he was such an intelligent, amazing person. A year later, after they got their financing, they reached out to me and asked if I’d be a part of it.

What was it like looking for three Chirons and three Kevins to play each of the different ages in the film?

It was a great process, but it was not easy. The hardest was definitely the teen group – the teen Chiron and teen Kevin – to find and to find actors that not only loved the material, but were up for the challenge of these characters. Barry was great to say to me he just wanted the best actors for the parts and not necessarily be identical to each other. And when I started the process of auditioning and liking certain people, I saw something in them that resembled the other. It was a vulnerability that they all shared.

Were there certain scenes you keyed in on to see if an actor was right for the part?

Yeah, definitely and that’s usually a conversation [with the director] that as a casting director, I’ll pull material from the script that I think is appropriate and make sure that that’s the material that they feel strongly about as well and will show the best performance from the actor. For the character of Black, it definitely was the phone call [scene], and then the scene in the diner [with Kevin] that we were using for that character because there’s so much unspoken in that scene – and that was important for us to see the actor do.

I’ve heard you say something interesting, which is that part of the casting process is finding somebody that might be right for the director [and the relationship they’ll have] as much as they’re right for the part. Ideally, you’ll find both, but just how much of a consideration is it?

It’s important to keep in mind who your director is and that’s why the relationship is so important between the director and the casting director — to really get a sense of who they are and how they work and how they direct and how they’re going to talk to the actor. I don’t know that I necessarily would dismiss an actor if I didn’t think [they couldn’t work with a director], but it would be more about guiding them in the right direction and knowing what it is that the director is going to expect and want, so they can give their best performance. It’s more about that – the psychology behind picking up on their instincts and knowing where they want to go with the character.

Ashton Sanders and Jharrel Jerome in "Moonlight"There were a number of actors who came in for one role and ended up with another – what’s that conversation like?

It’s about shaping the character and finding who the character is. For Trevante [Rhodes], he was one of the ones that came in for Kevin. Because I didn’t know him as a person, he was just a face on a picture and on the surface, he looked like he might be a Kevin. As soon as he walked in the room, I knew that he wasn’t a Kevin – that he was Black — and luckily Barry and Adele were in the room and saw that as well. Sometimes, you are surprised but I had to meet these people in person to know like who they really are and what character they really fit in because I feel like you can’t get that essence from just a picture.

Are there questions you ask generally of actors to help you figure out who they are?

I generally just ask about their background – where they’re from and what their story is. That just leads to more questions, if they’re from a certain part of town or another part outside of the state [for instance]. It’s just about reading who they are — and how they even talk about who they are and where they’re from — and seeing the soft moments and the things they get excited about.

Janelle Monae had never acted in a film before this and Naomie Harris has said she’s long resisted a role like this [since] it wasn’t necessarily portraying black women in a positive light. How did you even know they were options?

Naomie is someone I’ve admired for a long time and feel that she’s a phenomenal actress. She really dives into each character and I think she could do even so much more than she’s been given the opportunity to do, so I was thrilled that she came onboard and she was someone that I knew could deliver from just seeing her performances in the past. Janelle is someone that I also really admired as a musician and felt like she could probably cross over into acting. I had helped on a project where she had auditioned and I put her in my brain Rolodex because I thought she did such a great job. There was such a naturalness to her abilities that worked really well, so when I was thinking of ideas for the role of Theresa, she was somebody I had have be considered.

Naomie Harris in "Moonlight"It’s famous now that Naomie came in for three days and Mahershala also had very limited time – is that much of a consideration when casting – how this person is going fit into a time slot and give the performance you need?

It’s mostly this is the actor we want and can we make this schedule work? We were fortunate that we could work it with their schedule. There were moments that we panicked and thought that it wouldn’t, but it all worked out. But it’s definitely something we consider if an actor’s not available and it’s all about if an actor’s not available during their shoot dates, can we move the shoot dates around to accommodate? A lot of times you can, and luckily we were able to on this one.

What was your reaction when you saw all this come together onscreen?

The first time I see it, it’s always very stressful because I’m watching their performances, so I don’t really enjoy it as an audience member. I’ve seen [“Moonlight”] six times now, so now I can really enjoy it. [laughs] But I just feel very fortunate. Everyone had a lot of love for the project and for the script and everyone’s so lovely to work with that I think it bleeds on screen.

“Moonlight” is now out in theaters.

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