Oscars 2022: Cindy Tolan’s work on ‘West Side Story’ proves casting is crucial

The film “West Side Story” has received seven Oscar nominations this year, including one for best picture, and Steven Spielberg received recognition for its directing.

The final results will be announced Sunday during a live show on this ABC channel from Hollywood’s Dolby Theater.

The film’s large cast was selected after an extensive search that lasted nearly a year, and choosing performers who are perfect for each role in a film is about making the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

This is where Cindy Tolan excels.

She may not be a household name, but Spielberg knows exactly who she is — and so do the stars of West Side Story.

“Steven Spielberg wanted to make the film as authentic as possible,” said Tolan. “And he basically said, ‘I’m not going to do this movie if we can’t do it.'”

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Tolan is the casting director, the first port of call for a performer looking for a job, and a key factor for any filmmaker looking to find the perfect cast for a film.

“What’s very important is that you want to build a cohesive whole without losing each actor’s voice,” Tolan said.

She has cast a wide net, auditioning 30,000 people to find performers to sing, dance and act on screen.

She also looked for people with charisma — sometimes referred to as the “it” factor — to show up on screen.

“It had to be quadruple threats,” Tolan said.

Her first step was to launch a social media campaign.

“We created a flyer that went viral,” she said.

When a New Jersey teenager named Rachel Zegler sent in an audition tape of “I Feel Pretty” recorded in her bathroom, Tolan told Spielberg that he needed to hear and see her.

Zegler was later cast for the key role of Maria.

On Broadway, Ariana DeBose was so busy playing “Disco Donna” Summer that she didn’t even want to audition for the film musical. Tolan asked four times and finally convinced her to try it.

Now she’s been nominated for an Oscar and won Best Supporting Actress at the British Academy Awards.

“I wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t dragged me into the room,” DeBose said in her acceptance speech. “Before Steven said ‘yes’ someone had to open the door. And she was.”

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Their gratitude is surpassed by others lesser known. Dancers Jeanette Delgado and Ilda Mason gushed about how much they owe Tolan at the National Board of Review Awards.

“It means so much to us that Latinas tell this story,” Mason said. “And Cindy Tolan gave us that opportunity.”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does not award Oscars for casting, although the organization’s current president, David Rubin, is a respected casting director. But there’s no doubt that the job is absolutely critical to the film’s success.

West Side Story is from 20th Century Studios, owned by Disney: the same parent company as that ABC network.

Mark your calendar: March 27th is Oscar Sunday. Special coverage of “On The Red Carpet” begins at 1:00 p.m. ET 10:00 a.m. PT and continues throughout the day leading up to the 94th Academy Awards ceremony. Stay tuned to “On The Red Carpet” after the last awards show for continued coverage. Be sure to follow @OnTheRedCarpet on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok for all your Oscars news and information. Click here to download our CTV apps and watch “On The Red Carpet” wherever you stream.

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Dais Johnston

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