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Hollywood’s first call in India

From casting films for Mira Nair and Wes Anderson to working on the Oscar-nominated 'Lion', Tess Joseph continues to have a charmed career

Tess Joseph with Sunny Pawar (right) and Abhishek Bharate (left).
Tess Joseph with Sunny Pawar (right) and Abhishek Bharate (left).

For some time now, Tess Joseph has been the go-to casting director for Hollywood studios in India. Her latest discovery is Sunny Pawar, whose performance in Garth Davis’ Lion is causing something of a sensation, leading to the eight-year-old appearing on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and presenting at the 2017 Golden Globes. This month, Joseph will be attending, for the first time, the Academy Award Nominees’ Dinner with Kristy McGregor, Lion’s Hollywood casting director.

Joel Edgerton, with whom she worked on The Waiting City, was the reason she got the Lion gig; the actor wrote to the producers of the film recommending her. It turned out to be an exhaustive casting process, especially when it came to finding someone to play the film’s five-year-old protagonist, Saroo. “Kristy and I screened 2,500 kids for the role over four months," says Joseph. “We came across Sunny Pawar after having visited dozens of schools in Mumbai, Pune and Delhi. He was shy, but after we put him through a workshop, Garth knew he was the one."

Joseph’s entry into films was accidental. In the noughties while she was working with the Bournvita Quiz Contest in Kolkata, two art directors for the show told her that film-makers were looking for an old flat in the city to shoot a movie. Joseph offered her own home in a British-era building off Park Street. The next thing she knew, Mira Nair’s crew was walking around her flat and taking notes.

“They didn’t end up filming in my family flat but they wanted me to have breakfast with them the next day," Joseph says. “Mira asked me whom I would cast for a particular character in The Namesake. I had no clue about actors in Kolkata. I said as much, but Nair asked me to describe the actor ideally suited for that character. I did. Next thing I hear from her was, ‘I want you to cast The Namesake.’" The best compliment she has got for her work till date came from Nair, who put Joseph’s name first in the end credits of the film.

After that, Joseph worked on Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited; Lydia Pitcher, The Namesake’s producer, was working on the film and reached out to Joseph. “Every director’s reality is different," Joseph says. “They see the world of their story, not reality as we know it. It is important to understand that to help directors translate their vision on film." With Anderson, Joseph had to go from school to school to find actors for the parts of three Indian brothers whom Owen Wilson and his siblings come across. “Working with Wes, I quickly learnt that every single face in every shot is composed and cast. Every face matters. Casting doesn’t stop at finding the lead actor."

For six months while filming The Darjeeling Limited, Joseph walked around the sets with a file containing 1,200 mugshots, with complete details regarding the scenes and costumes they appear in. One was of an old man with a turban and dark glasses that Wes had taken and shown to her. “Wes told us he wanted this man in a scene. I asked, ‘Where did you see him?’ He said, ‘On the highway.’ We tracked him down and he is there in the film."

Shortly after her stint with Anderson, Joseph moved to Mumbai. She cast Fair Game, Meena, The Waiting City, Sold and West Is West. One day, her phone rang and the woman on the other side said, “This is Avy."

“Avy who?" Joseph asked.

“Avy Kaufman," the voice said. Kaufman, one of Hollywood’s biggest casting directors, had been looking for months for someone to play the 11-year-old version of the titular character in Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi. Joseph and her team found Ayush Tandon for the role within a week.

Joseph doesn’t believe in auditioning actors with a cold reading. “The audition should be something actors can react to, that’s when their true performance comes out. As a casting director you are the first person who gives the director a glimpse of their movie."

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