Millie Tom is a Toronto-based casting director known for her work on series like Nickelodeon’s Blue’s Clues & You reboot and films such as Kate Melville’s Picture Day. She also has a large presence in the world of video game casting, with various installments in the Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry series to her name. And while working on a number of upcoming projects, Tom still found time to virtually sit down with Casting Networks and provide a window into the person behind all the casting credits.
It’s nice to virtually meet you, Millie, and I’d love to dive right in with the start of your casting journey. When was the moment that you knew it was the job for you?
I don’t know that I had a snapshot moment — coming into casting was sort of an evolution that consisted of the universe opening doors for me. Before making the transition, I had been working for Alliance Entertainment in the Alliance Pictures division, which developed features. I read a lot of scripts for my job as the department coordinator, and I always pictured what the cast could look like for each one I read. It didn’t hurt that I was a pop culture junkie, and actors that would be good for the roles easily came to mind. Then one day, I actually got to sit in on a pitch meeting. They pitched this one actor who was on the rise at the time and who’s now a famous movie star. I knew that he wouldn’t be available for the project, though, because he was on Broadway at the time.
You must have stayed abreast of all the industry news.
I read the trades, but I actually knew that fact because a friend of mine had just seen the play he was in and told me that he was naked for most of the first act. So it stuck with me, and I spoke up during the pitch meeting to let them know the actor was unavailable. I think that contribution impressed my executives, and around the same time, the head of our casting division was leaving to put up his own shingle. We were in the middle of pre-production on a David Cronenberg movie, and he only works with one casting director, Deirdre Bowen. Unbeknownst to me, Alliance was attempting to woo her into coming on as the new head of casting. In the midst of all that, I was the person running the Canadian actors up to Deirdre and David for the film. I remember thinking that she was kind of scary, but she seemed to like me and offered to let me join her team.
That sounds like a huge opportunity.
Yes, the president of the Alliance Pictures division at the time basically told me that I seemed to have a real knack for the work, and opportunities like working with Deirdre Bowen didn’t come around often. I remember it was a big decision because I didn’t know if I was ready to give up developing movies. But I went for it, and she ended up mentoring me for three years. It was a huge learning curve because Deirdre is just brilliant and a genius at casting. I was so blessed to be trained by her, and I asked her once why she didn’t fire me at the beginning when I was still learning and pretty horrible at the job. She told me, “Because I was lucky enough that somebody didn’t fire me when I was first starting out.” She’s still my mentor to this day, and we actually worked on the first season of Kim’s Convenience together.
What a beautiful story of how you got your start in the business and the woman who gave it to you. Since then, you’ve cast an impressive list of video games. What can you tell us about casting those types of projects compared to film and TV?
What’s interesting is that I don’t think of casting video games any differently. For me, the performance always comes first. So the first part of the audition is the speaking portion of the scene, and then we’ll get into the physicality. For example, we may ask the actor to show us how the character would walk or run. I’ll also say that when casting video games, I keep an eye out for theater actors since the capture space — we call it the “volume” — is much like a theater rehearsal space. Plus, there’s often a bit of miming in motion-capture performances, and you sort of have to create the scene for yourself. Theater actors tend to really embrace both those things.
That makes sense. And considering this niche area of casting, I have a fun question for you. If someone created a video game character based on Millie Tom, whom would you cast for the role and what game would it be?
That’s easy — Lucy Liu. I mean, we don’t look similar besides the fact that we’re both Chinese and have freckles. But she fits perfectly with a life theme that I’ve recently been focusing on, which is female empowerment. Lucy Liu is just this strong Asian woman, and because of her, I was able to see myself represented on screen growing up. I admire her so much, and the game in which she’d be playing a character based on me would be one in the Tomb Raider series. Its hero, Lara Croft, is female and has all the power, which fits my theme perfectly.
What a great choice! Now going back to your career journey, I’d love to hear some of your proudest casting moments. Can you give us a few?
One thing that comes to mind is the list of incredible directors that I’ve had the absolute pleasure to work with over the course of the last 20 years I’ve been in casting. I’ll sometimes cast at the associate level under the umbrella of other casting directors in Toronto, which has afforded me the opportunity to work with people I never would’ve imagined possible.
Can you share some names?
Sure, with the intent to recognize with gratitude the chances I’ve been given to work with some incredibly talented folks. They include — in no particular order — Kasi Lemmons, Terry Gilliam, Jim Sheridan, Olivier Assayas, Edgar Wright, Barry Levinson, Richard Donner, and Mira Nair.
Wow. That is an impressive list.
Thanks. I love my career, and there have definitely been some moments where I’ve had to pinch myself. Another example is when Ralph Fiennes was developing a project, and Deirdre brought me in to work on it. The project didn’t ultimately go, but I’ll never forget that meeting. I was sitting across from Ralph Fiennes in a room, trying not to “fan girl,” and he ordered afternoon tea. When it arrived, he asked in the most gentlemanly manner if he could slice us some cake. I was like, “Ralph Fiennes is offering me cake — am I dreaming?”
[Laughs] What a moment!
But in all seriousness, I was just so honored to be in the room. And I’ll also share a proud casting moment with Millie Tom Casting, which involves Blue’s Clues & You. I cast seasons two and three of the show, which included finding the actor to play the lead’s grandmother, who was Filipino. That was a beautiful search to be a part of, and I also learned how to do a search for a deaf performer who’s also ASL proficient for the series. I met this incredible liaison with the deaf community who helped me, and the whole process really demonstrated how storytelling can be expanded with inclusive casting.
Before the interview wrapped, we had one last get-to-know-you question for the casting director. We asked what Tom did for fun when off the clock, and her passion for the industry shone through with her answer. Keeping up with film and TV was at the top of Tom’s list, who referenced herself as “one of the rare people who still pays for cable.” The casting director noted her city’s food scene, as well. “The best part about living in Toronto is that there’s no shortage of really great and diverse cuisine,” she shared. “I love food and always want to break bread with people.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.