This installment of Get to Know the Casting Director comes with the bonus opportunity of also becoming better acquainted with the current Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) president. David Rubin became the first casting director to ever hold the position when he was elected in 2019 and is now wrapping up his third term as president. As for Rubin’s casting career, his stacked resume includes classic Anthony Minghella films such as The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley, as well as blockbusters like Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black. Indie films also appear on it — Craig Gillespie’s Lars and the Real Girl is a prime example — along with big-name series such as HBO’s Big Little Lies. For those wanting to get to know the person behind the impressive credits and AMPAS title, though, we’ve got you covered. Rubin virtually sat down with Casting Networks to provide insights into everything from how he works — including a window into casting the new, star-studded Apple TV+ series ROAR — to what he’d be doing if casting weren’t an option.
It’s great to Zoom-meet you, David, and I’d love to kick things off with the beginning of your career journey. When was the moment you knew that casting was the job for you?
I’ll start by saying that I’m a New Yorker — born and bred — and going to the theater was a very big part of my life from a fairly early age. When I was a young teenager, I had the idea that I should write a note to the star of each Broadway show I was planning to see. Prior to entering the theater, I would knock on the stage door and make my request. For a show starring Angela Lansbury, for example, I’d let the stage door person know that I was a great admirer of her work and ask if it was at all possible to pass along a note to her. In it, I’d let her know I was a student of the theater and that I was looking forward to seeing her performance that day. Then I’d ask if it were at all possible for her to leave my name at the stage door because it would be an honor to meet her.
Did it work?
I’d say 90 percent of the time I made that type of request, my name would be left on a list at the stage door, and then I’d be ushered into the star’s dressing room to meet them after the show. So, between the ages of 14 and 16, I was having audiences with all of the great actors on Broadway at that time. Why they were interested in talking to me, I have no idea. [Laughs] I think maybe they were amused at having a young teenager be interested in their careers. That time was actually a precursor to my casting life, though, even if I didn’t know it was the field in which I’d eventually end up. My first professional industry job was on the production staff of SNL’s “Weekend Update” segment — I was with the show for the last two years of its original cast. After that, I met Mary Goldberg, who was the head of casting at the NBC Studios there at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. She was looking for a replacement assistant and hired me. My first day on the job, I sat at a desk with a giant volume on top called the Players’ Guide, which was essentially the print precursor to IMDb. It was a giant book that had photos of all the actors in New York, as well as nationwide, along with their agents’ names and contact info. As I paged through that volume, I realized that because of my history of going to the theater, I already knew so much about the actors it contained. That’s when I had my moment of realization. Growing up, I’d had no idea that there was a profession called casting. It was sitting there, going through the Players’ Guide, when it all clicked for me. Everything from my past that reflected my love for the theater and for actors seamlessly intersected with my interest in having a professional life in the entertainment field. Casting was it for me.
And the rest is history! Now jumping to present day and the recent release of ROAR, I have to ask how you assembled such an incredible cast for it. We recently got to speak with Richard Hicks, and I’d love to hear from you, as well, about the process of finding the right people for an anthology series with genres ranging from horror to Western.
The series takes a darkly comedic look at both female empowerment and female disempowerment — it’s timely, as well as entertaining. So, having great material and a unique concept helped attract high-profile actresses to lead each episode. And it also didn’t hurt to have Nicole Kidman as one of your executive producers, as well as Bruna Papandrea. That sort of established the quality of the show. And the pleasure of working on an anthology series is that you’re helping create a new world with every episode. That involves finding the right actor for each episode, one who can call upon the specific ability needed to perform in the genre of that particular installment. Plus, the material twists the perspective a bit, spinning things slightly outside the presented genre of each episode. So, you’re simultaneously staying loyal to the genre in which you’re working while also tweaking it, which is a fantastic challenge to have and a great way to work.
It sounds like you really enjoyed all the complexities of casting the series, and I’m going to segue here to my favorite question to ask casting. If someone made a film about your life story, which actor would you cast to play the role of David Rubin?
First, I’d question the logic that there would be a large enough audience for a film about my life. [Laughs] But, the question does remind me of a late actor to whom I was compared for many years, Edward Herrmann. Some people have actually mistaken me for him, which is extremely flattering considering the quality and breadth of his work. I’ve also been confused for Bob Saget, who unfortunately is also no longer with us. But as far as whom I would cast in this movie, I’m going to say Matthew Macfadyen. Not for the doofus he plays on Succession — his portrayal of Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice is what makes him my choice.
That’s a fantastic selection! Now, David, it’s not every day that I get to talk with the president of AMPAS. Can you share a bit about what it meant to be the first casting director elected to the position?
I’ll say, first, that the source of greatest pride was being involved with helping establish the Casting Directors branch at the Academy. All the significant collaborators in filmmaking — whose names you see in the main titles of every film — are represented on the Academy’s Board of Governors, but this was not true of casting directors for the first 85 years that the organization existed. Our efforts nine years ago, in solidarity and with the support of great directors and producers on our behalf, resulted in casting directors having their own branch at the Academy for the first time. The fact that I discovered an aptitude for committee work and governance while getting involved with the Academy was a surprise. And yet, I guess I shouldn’t have been shocked because part of the casting process is getting people on board with an idea or a creative notion that you have in regard to casting. Consensus-building is essentially baked into my profession. I discovered it was satisfying to help find consensus among people at the Academy, as well, which I think ultimately gave them the idea that I could be a leader of the Board. I didn’t seek the role nor ever imagined having it, but it’s been a tremendous honor to hold. And the fact that being in it has elevated the perception of casting — both in the industry and in the world at large — is a fantastic bonus of which I’m very proud.
Thanks for sharing that, David. I love hearing about the passion you hold for representing your field of the industry in AMPAS. And before we wrap, I have to ask a fun, last get-to-know-you question. You’ve seen much success as a casting director, even collaborating with the late, great Lynn Stalmaster. But in some alternate universe where you had to choose a different career, what would it be?
I’ll say that all through school, alongside appearing in theater, I was also directing. I exercise some of those tools in my work as a casting director, but it’s also a very different job. With that in mind, I think that directing for the stage could have been an alternate career for me. Otherwise, I would probably work as an educator in some form. I have tremendous admiration for people in academics and in education. My mother was a director of a private school so I know what kind of effect the influence of a great teacher can have on anyone. I think that in terms of leaving a mark and a legacy, nothing beats the education field.
From Rubin’s passion for his field of filmmaking — and how it propelled him into leading AMPAS — to his appreciation for those educating tomorrow’s leaders, this has been a window into the person behind the title and all the casting credits. Those interested in learning more about the latter can find the full array of film and TV titles on Rubin’s resume listed on IMDb.
This interview has been edited and condensed.