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Photo courtesy of Nancy Nayor.

‘Barbarian,’ ‘Lisa Frankenstein’ Casting Director Nancy Nayor Opens Up About Genre Casting

Nancy Nayor might do a fair amount of work in the genre space, but don’t limit her to just that. While she is known for work in such horror flicks as Barbarian and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, there’s also action fare like the Adam Driver film 65 and Jennifer Lopez’ The Mother, so it’s not like you can pin her down to one thing.

Nayor has had an impressive career that began at Universal Pictures and saw her rising to Senior Vice President of Feature Casting before venturing out on her own. She recently worked on the latest season of the Amazon Prime series The Baxters, as well as the directorial debut of Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda, the Diablo Cody-scripted Lisa Frankenstein, now available to view on Peacock.

She spoke to us from her home office, where she was joined by Buster, the Pomeranian she “timeshares” with her stepson.

How did you get into casting in the first place?

I wanted to be an actress. I was in all my school plays in high school and college. I just loved being in theater, so I thought, “I want to go into theater in New York. But I want to learn what is needed of the actors, so I’m going to go in stealth and do an internship in casting and learn how to succeed in that field. Get the inside scoop.” I did my first internship at Manhattan Theatre Club, and within the first 24 hours, I decided that I love casting and that was going to be my path.

What was it that was so entrancing?

I had to interview a lot of actors for these equity principal interviews. I think it was a biannual requirement of all the Off-Broadway theaters for actors who either had no agent or didn’t have a good agent that they could meet the producers of the theater.

They put me in one of the smaller theaters with a table and chair and I was meeting everyone who was in line. I recognized a lot of those actors from seeing Broadway shows growing up and I thought, “Oh, my God, I don’t want to be in this line at 40, 50, 60 years old.” I thought, they’re so talented, I don’t want to compete with them, I’d rather see if I can help facilitate moving their career forward.

It’s amazing how many casting directors I’ve talked to started as actors.

I think it helps greatly in casting just to have a different dialogue with actors. A different understanding of the psyche of an actor. The challenges. The struggles. I think you have more compassion for the whole process, and I think it just makes you more well-rounded in the job.

It’s interesting, too, because every single casting director I’ve talked to has such a love of actors, and yet so many actors view them adversarially.

It’s true, we’re perceived as the gatekeepers, but we are always in the position of wanting to bring out the best performances, to help actors have the best environment. It makes life easy for everyone on both sides. I can be a hero with my producers and director to deliver someone wonderful who they love, so I want an actor to do well.

You do a lot of genre films. What led you down that road?

I was at Universal for the first 14 years of my career and was eventually SVP of feature casting there. In my first year in LA, I came out for two weeks to work on a Universal feature and stayed for 14 years. At the time, we had in-house deals with Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, Ron Howard and John Hughes — amazing filmmakers, and I got to work with all of them. That’s where I met Sam Raimi.

I cast The Whole Nine Yards and Road Trip, and then because I worked with Sam at Universal on Darkman, he brought me onto The Grudge, and then I did The Exorcism of Emily Rose within the same year. Those came out and just happened to be big hits, and it seemed to open the floodgates for the genre for me. I didn’t want to be ungrateful to have a niche, so I thought I would embrace it and just go along the genre journey.

It’s been a blast, and I do enjoy the combination of comedy and genre like Lisa Frankenstein or Barbarian. I did one recently with the Barbarian team called Companion, with Sophie Thatcher and Jack Quaid. It’s in the post, and it’s just hysterically funny.

Because of the nature of your work, I imagine you also discover a lot of talent, too.

I mean, it’s great. I put Gwyneth Paltrow on her first film ever, which was called Shout. I cast Tessa Thompson in her first film where she was one of the opening cameo kills in When a Stranger Calls. I think genre gives an opportunity for that over and over because you want to feel like you can relate to the people in the film, so you don’t need big movie stars.

I think that’s a trick for the audience to feel like, “this could be happening to me, this horrible story. This horror could be visiting my front door.” That’s why it’s not Brad Pitt starring in a horror film because I can’t relate.

That feels like it segues well into my last question, which is what piece of wisdom or advice would you give to someone coming in to audition for you?

I would say, be relaxed. I think a lot of times, back to your point at the beginning, this fear or this anxiousness or nervousness that comes up because you feel like, “Oh, this person’s not rooting for me or they don’t want to see me succeed,” but it’s the opposite.

We do want to see them succeed. That creates a tension that I think inhibits creativity a lot of the time. Also, to be bold. Not to be fearful of making a choice. Sometimes people are so concerned with making the wrong choice that they go vanilla instead of taking bold chances, which I think are the auditions that are the most memorable.

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