Wednesday, May 27

Q&A: Alum, casting director Tamara Hunter discusses work on ‘Hidden Figures’

Tamara Hunter worked on the casting of Golden Globe-nominated film "Hidden Figures," a story about three mathematicians who defied race and gender boundaries. (Courtesy of Tamara Hunter)

Tamara Hunter casts characters who are capable of extraordinary feats.

She’s worked in the casting department on such films as “The Avengers” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” But for “Hidden Figures” she assembled a cast to play the mathematicians behind the task that was once considered impossible – sending a man into space. The film has garnered wide praise for its diverse cast.

The UCLA alumna’s 12-year career in the casting department spans many genres and studios from science fiction films like “Tron: Legacy” to action movies like “The Fast and the Furious.” Working as an executive in charge of casting on “Hidden Figures” was one of her last projects at 20th Century Fox before moving to Sony Pictures Entertainment to take on the role of head of feature casting.

The Daily Bruin’s Olivia Mazzucato spoke with Hunter about differences in the casting process of “Hidden Figures” from her previous work, the cultural context for the film and the personal significance the story held for her.

Daily Bruin: What made this casting experience different from some of the other films you’ve worked on?

Tamara Hunter: The first time I read “Hidden Figures,” the clouds sort of parted for me, in terms of a person in casting that’s sort of in an interesting place in her career. … This just spoke to me because it was a story that I didn’t know about, and I knew that it needed to get out there. I was excited. You didn’t even need to pay me to do this. It was like, this is why I’m a casting director. This is why I’m in casting. This is exactly what I love to do.

DB: What was the casting process like for you on “Hidden Figures”?

TH: It was sort of an embarrassment of riches of how many wonderful actresses of color that we had to explore in a movie like this, especially with a topic that was so unknown to most people. We put together a bunch of ideas, looked at tapes, talked to people, (director Theodore Melfi) met with some actresses and then we started to put the pieces together.

DB: How is casting people to play real, historical people different?

TH: I didn’t personally meet (protagonist) Katherine Johnson, but I did a lot of research. We watched tons and tons of interviews. We read as much of the books that it was based on as we could. We tried to put together a comprehensive research packet so when we went into the casting process it wasn’t just like, “Let’s just throw it on the wall and see what sticks.” … It’s finding the spirit and the essence of the person in the actor.

[Related: UCLA professor talks diversity and representation in cinema]

DB: The chemistry between the three main characters is very central to the film. How did you ensure that the three actresses you picked would have that connection?

TH: Ted had a sense of each actor. He knew Taraji (P. Henson) from some previous work. Taraji fell into place first, and then we discussed Octavia (Spencer), who was a no-brainer …

(Janelle Monáe) was a discovery, especially for casting because she’s a singer. She had done “Moonlight,” but “Moonlight” hadn’t come out yet, so we were all speculating. We knew she had so much energy and that’s always the tell-sign that somebody is going to work hard, and that’s exactly what she did. She worked so hard in the audition process and she nailed it.

[Read more: Movie Review: ‘Hidden Figures’]

DB: The #OscarsSoWhite movement has trended for the past two years at the Oscars. Did that add any pressure to the process or film?

TH: It’s in my mind already. It’s always a conversation that I’m having … but honestly, no, because I would put as much energy and effort into any work that I do. This just happened to be something that I was excited to help share the story. It wasn’t like pressure to make sure we were going to do it right; it was going to be done beautifully and right no matter what. If no one saw this movie and you weren’t calling me for an interview, I would still be screaming it from the rooftops.

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