"I've always really flown — or tried to fly — very much under the radar," says casting director Carmen Cuba.
That's proving increasingly difficult for the busy 47-year-old, who won a 2013 Emmy for her work on HBO's "Behind the Candelabra," was recently invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and is currently earning kudos from critics, the public and such celebrities as Shonda Rhimes, Stephen King and Amy Schumer for her casting of Netflix's late summer buzzy hit, the supernatural thriller series "Stranger Things."
Cuba has done many high-profile projects ("The Martian," "Magic Mike," "Now You See Me," "The Knick") but she admits she is especially pleased about the surprise success of "Stranger Things."
"Really, it encapsulates everything I'm about," says Cuba. "My love of iconic actors — casting Winona Ryder was my idea. My love of amazing supporting actors getting a shot at a lead — David Harbour has always been brilliant but never gotten the lead role until now. My connection to authenticity — all the kids are getting tons of praise for feeling 'real.'"
All this in addition to working on upcoming projects with filmmakers Steven Soderbergh, Ridley Scott and Oliver Stone.
"It's strange, but yes, now more than ever, people seem to want to know about me," says Cuba, the married mother of two tween boys, seated in her office at Red Studios on Cahuenga Boulevard. "I went to a party for a 1-year-old, and was held up the entire time talking to other guests when the word spread that I'd cast 'Stranger Things.'"
Cuba appreciates the praise, but prefers to leave talk of her to others. Calling attention to yourself doesn't fit the profile of casting directors.
"We're the silent people," says John Buchan, a casting executive for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation who worked with Cuba on Starz's "The Girlfriend Experience." "No one out of — or even inside — the business really knows what we do. Maybe it's instinctual to just go with that. We're seldom center stage, so we're not comfortable suddenly being thrust there."
Born to an American mother of Dutch, Italian and English descent, and to a Peruvian father who served as a political economist for the U.N., she spent her childhood shuttling between New York, Lima and La Paz, Bolivia. After moving to Los Angeles to complete her studies in journalism, she was spotted in an elevator and asked to audition for MTV's docu-series "The Real World."
Diversity was a crucial aspect of that pioneering series. She met with producers, but, apprehensive about appearing on camera, instead requested a behind-the-scenes internship. That eventually led to casting subsequent seasons of "The Real World" and other series for the network. Within five years, Cuba had progressed to film, working for celebrated casting director Margery Simkin on such movies as "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Erin Brockovich."
Buchan calls Cuba a perfectionist who wants to get every role — down to the most minor one — right. "She's more hands-on than most lead casting directors," he says, referring to her willingness to travel to remote settings to audition actors herself rather than leave that to her location team.
For Cuba the in-person interaction is essential for her job. "I go back and forth from the location and audition actors in person so that I can form a very personal opinion of what their range and potential might be, not only for the role they're reading for but for any other possibilities that may come up in the future. It's an added step which I love and am so lucky to get to do."
She thinks of casting as a "tangible accomplishment" that takes her from the earliest stages of a project to "seeing the final result of what so many talented people have worked so hard together to achieve."
Cuba is Soderbergh's go-to casting director; they've worked together on 11 projects over the past 16 years. "She doesn't default to what's fashionable or what everybody else is doing. She treats each project as a blank slate in which we're building the universe, performer by performer, with the understanding that everybody who appears on screen matters."
Writer-producer-director Lana Wachowski thinks that a great casting director is in essence a great matchmaker.
"You have to understand the personality of the directors and the actors, and you have to have an instinct for whether they would be a good fit. And here is where Carmen is particularly brilliant," Wachowski wrote in an email from Seoul, where she's completing the upcoming second season of the Netflix series "Sense8," which Cuba casts.
Added Wachowski: "Charles Dickens was incredible at naming characters; the names themselves helped make the world believable. Carmen does that for the films she works on. The people she casts bring an added reality to the world."
Daryl Hannah — another '80s icon whose career Cuba rejuvenated — says that while she was thrilled to be brought in for "Sense8," much time passed between her initial meeting and being cast. "Carmen stayed in touch, [letting me know] I'd be hearing from them soon. I'd never had that type of communication with a casting director before."
"Carmen's the only casting director I know who's emailed actors directly and said, 'Here's what I'm looking for on this next job. Do you have any talented friends who don't have agents that I should be seeing for this part?'" adds "Hamilton," "Frozen," and "Glee" alumnus Jonathan Groff, whom Cuba sought for HBO's "Looking." "At an initial audition, she'll ask actors a lot about themselves to get a sense of their personality and make them feel comfortable.
"Then she'll work with them like a director does. She really does feel like a casting 'director' — with emphasis on the 'director' — because she's brilliant at making actors feel safe."