Oral Histories

Marvel's Casting Director Breaks Down How She Assembled the Avengers and the Biggest Names in the MCU

A role-by-role oral history of the challenges and near-misses of casting Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and the rest of the MCU, plus a look at the future of the franchise.

by | December 10, 2019 | Comments

Jesse Grant/Getty Images
(Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images)

Every casting in the MCU has made headlines, from the inspired albeit unconventional casting of Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man to the moments-before-San-Diego-Comic-Con casting of Simu Liu in Shang-Chi. Just about everyone has had an opinion on who should play these iconic comic book characters on screen, and they’ve been debated, scrutinized, and celebrated in every corner of the internet. But it may surprise some to learn these difficult choices have all rested in the hands of one woman. Over the course of 12 years, 24 films, and hundreds of roles, casting director Sarah Halley Finn has been the unseen force pumping the lifeblood directly into the heart of the MCU.

Today, it may seem like a no-brainer now to cast RDJ as Tony Stark or Chris Pratt as Star-Lord, but in the early days, neither name was at the top of the Marvel wish list. It was thanks to Halley Finn’s foresight and persistence that both actors were paired with their roles, but the MCU’s lead casting director insists her efforts are a “collaborative process.” Casting over 1,000 roles has allowed Finn to accumulate a few stories of near-castings and tales of actors who took a little more convincing to say yes, some of which she shared with us when we chatted with her a few weeks ago. Read on for our extended conversation with Sarah Halley Finn, in which she chats about casting not only RDJ and Pratt, but also some yet-to-be-cast actors she hopes to add to the ever-growing universe. 


Iron Man: “He wasn’t exactly known as an action hero.”

Marvel Studios
(Photo by Marvel Studios)

“The casting is always this collaborative process with the director and the writers and the producers, each trying to find the absolutely perfect embodiment of this character. And as we were working on Iron Man for a couple of months, we were really talking about a lot of different people that could play the part. But we kept coming back to Downey. Of course, everything you see onscreen is the reason why we kept thinking about him. And ultimately, because it wasn’t a slam dunk at the time he tested for it. He had been known for Oscar-nominated work. He was an incredible actor. He wasn’t exactly known as an action hero. This was a very different kind of role, and he hadn’t been doing the same work for a few years, so he was willing to screen test. And that was the proposal that we made to our people as a way to just find out if it was really the way to go for the character. So because he agreed to screen test, we worked on it fast, and really, he came onto the soundstage in high spirits. I remember walking him in — and I remember it so crystal clear —  he came in high spirits. He knew what he wanted to do. I think he felt good, and I think as soon as he said the words, we all knew we had arrived.”


Captain America: “No one else could play Steve Rogers except him.”

Marvel Studios
(Photo by Marvel Studios)

“After Chris Evans turned us down, I think it was the creatives who made that happen. It’s Kevin Feige, it’s Joe [Johnston]. It was really about helping him understand that there is an exciting character to play. It was not just an idea. He might have had a thought of what this means in the comic book universe but not what ideas it was about. But I know he also considered what this represented for his life and all those kinds of considerations — you’re aware of that and what he was weighing at the time. But it was really the creative engagement detailing about how he was the perfect person to bring this character to life, how no one else could play Steve Rogers except him and why, and what qualities he had that were perfect for it. And then they got creatively engaged to the point where it’s harder to say no.”


Hulk: “I had worked with Mark off-Broadway in New York, and it was really exciting when he jumped in.”

Marvel Studios
(Photo by Marvel Studios)

Hulk was already in production when I came onto Iron Man, so I was not involved in casting [Edward Norton], and I think for whatever reasons, [Norton] was not involved when I was doing Avengers. So again, it was talking to Joss [Whedon], talking to Kevin, my team. ‘How do we see this character now? What are his qualities? What are we looking for? Who is the best person to bring him to life?’ I had worked with Mark forever ago, off-Broadway in New York, and I had known him for a long, long time. And it was really exciting when he jumped in, and jumped in quickly.”

He was cast right before San Diego Comic-Con correct? 

“Yes, but there are hours and hours of stories for every single person, and that happens with more people than you might think, because one of the things is these actors aren’t just sent a script. It’s not like they’re just sent a script that they can say yes or no to it. The scripts are secret. They’re confidential. They get hand-delivered with a security guard and they’re waiting in the car while you read. It’s really sometimes a long process and of engagement with the creatives, with the director, and with Kevin [Feige], to help people understand the world. Maybe there’s some artwork, maybe there are some examples of things that can get them to understand what they’re going to be playing, but it’s not always as easy as it might seem.”


Thor: “Yes, both Liam and Chris Hemsworth read and were the loveliest guys.”

Marvel Studios
(Photo by Marvel Studios)

“It took months. In truth, I have not slept in 10 years. Are you kidding? [Laughs] Yes, both [Liam and Chris Hemsworth] read and were the loveliest guys. But for Thor, Liam was young. He was so young at the time, and it was a long process, and hopefully, we’ve gotten it right. But we’ve got Liam in our sights. We’ll find something for him. [Laughs] It seems like there was no one else to play that part now, but when we were approaching Thor with Kenneth Branagh, we knew this guy had to be part Shakespearean. Asgard had to exist in a complete otherworld and yet be utterly relatable and human. And that was a very difficult combination. And the material we were using for auditions, was a Shakespeare scene. So it took some callbacks, and some work, to really feel like we had arrived there.”

And then Thor changed entirely with Thor: Ragnorok.

“Yeah, it’s amazing and it’s really gratifying for me, because I think another hope when we’re casting these roles is that we’re going to find actors who have the range to go a really long distance. And I think when Chris Hemsworth broke, we knew he was a movie star, but I don’t think people saw in him the performance he just gave in Thor: Ragnarok and Endgame. To see him make that leap to comedy and the way the audiences responded to him, it was so exciting. It’s like an actor you know, and yet, you’re discovering him in completely a new way, and really fun to be able to surround him with interesting characters like Korg and all the other characters that you see him interact with.”


Star-Lord: “We had to find somebody who was really sympathetic but also understood the humor, pace, and rhythms.”

Marvel Studios
(Photo by Marvel Studios)

“Actually [Chris Pratt] came up after he read because there were a lot of things we were trying to accomplish. We really want this to be perfect. We wanted it to be perfect for us, and a movie for the fans, and it was a long search on Guardians of the Galaxy. It doesn’t seem like a difficult role, but it’s a difficult role. He’s heroic, but he’s a bit childish. He comes into his own. He’s very funny, and he also has this deep issue that he struggles with — abandonment from his father and his childhood — so there’s a lot of layers that go in. We had to find somebody who was really sympathetic but also understood the humor, pace, and rhythms; and could bring all of the dimensions of the character to life. Chris was known for comedy; he wasn’t necessarily known as heroic. He also wasn’t known as an action guy. Chris had done another audition for me for another Marvel film, and I had seen those kinds of heroic noble qualities in him, and I knew he had the comedy. And I had seen Zero Dark Thirty and Moneyball, so I knew he could bring the action element to the role.

And so, I kept bringing it up to James, to the point where James — I read in a print [magazine] — called me annoying and didn’t really see him for the role. He claims that I tricked him. I don’t really remember it that way. [Laughs]  It just so happened that Pratt was coming to read and James was there at the same time. So, yeah. [Laughs] Well, the one thing I will say, what’s great about James is that he was very public on the press tour to be like, ‘No, this is Sarah. I didn’t see it, but I’m so glad she made me do it. That’s also great about working with him. It was very generous of him to be as open as he was about the process. And frankly, we had a lot of humor and that kind of camaraderie throughout the casting process. It really helped, and it helped him work with Chris. It helped Dave Bautista, who hadn’t had a lot of acting roles, feel comfortable. And I think that his energy, his humor, his compassion, as an artist and as a director, was infused throughout the whole production. I think you can feel that in all the performances.”


The Guardians: “Ensemble casting takes a lot of thought and a lot of work, and we test things out.”

Marvel Studios
(Photo by Marvel Studios)

“By the way, ensemble casting takes a lot of thought and a lot of work, and we test things out, you know? Once we cast Chris [Pratt], we were able to think about the qualities that he brought to the role, and then how to juxtapose that and how to support that in different ways to make the film interesting. So with [Dave Bautista], we knew that their chemistry was going to be really important, for Drax and Star-Lord to have something. And again, we did some mix and matches. We tried different ideas, but Dave and Chris really clicked. And so, it was being able to see that. And then, conversely, with Zoe [Saldana], we knew we really wanted somebody strong who was going to go up against him and give him a run for his money in a certain way, and she really brought that. And that’s the process with any group casting.”


Rocket: “You need to present the voice as a fully dimensional, living, breathing character, especially with someone like Rocket.”

Marvel Studios
(Photo by Marvel Studios)

“I approach voice actors the same exact way I approach the onscreen characters. I think that you need to present the voice as a fully dimensional, living, breathing character, especially with someone like Rocket. There’s incredible pathos he brings, and he’s damaged and wounded. And yet, you want to care for him, and you want to love him, and you want to laugh with him. And I think the audience got completely behind him. Basically, when we started thinking about the character, we’re looking for the essential qualities. Who do we want to convey this emotion? How does the director want that character to come to life? So with Rocket, we had a very good idea of what James wanted, but we went through over a hundred voices, probably more. And that’s my team, which is amazing, and taking James’ thoughts and notes. And we asked the other departments to give us any visual aids we could start pairing and mixing and matching a wide range of vocal qualities, of temperaments, of cadence, to try to see what would and all that comes together for how we could best personify that role.”


Spider-Man: “The search went on for over a year just to cast that one role.”

Chuck Zlotnick/Columbia Pictures
(Photo by Chuck Zlotnick/Columbia Pictures)

“Can I talk about that? [Laughs]”

Those guys Asa Butterfield, Timothée Chalamet, and even Tom Holland have been really open about discussing it.

“Yeah, well they’re all amazingly talented actors. I can say that much. They’re all amazingly talented actors, but again, it was a role that we were trying to combine very specific elements and a range of qualities. So, for various reasons, I think the search went on for over a year just to cast that one role. And I think they’ve all gone on and done great, and I think Tom has really done right by the character.”


The Villains: “Michael B. Jordan’s role was so poignant.”

Matt Kennedy /© Marvel / © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
(Photo by Matt Kennedy /© Marvel / © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

“I don’t think we necessarily approached casting a villain in a different way from casting anybody else. You’re still going, ‘What are the essential qualities we’re looking for and who’s the best person to bring that to life?’ And in Black Panther, Michael B. Jordan’s role was so poignant. It captured everything we hoped to do, which is create a multi-dimensional character who is not one-sided and who audiences can understand even if they’re doing bad things.”


New Faces in the MCU: “We can look anywhere. Marvel is so open.”

Courtesy @DisneyStudios Twitter
(Photo by Courtesy @DisneyStudios Twitter)

“It gives me so much energy to see more [diversity] in the MCU, and I’m so excited to go into work every day, because I feel like there are no limits. We can look anywhere. Marvel is so open. It’s a new day, and really, we are going to try anything. We have a deaf actress, Lauren Ridloff, who joined The Eternals, and right now we’re looking for an 18-year-old Muslim-Pakistani female. It is beyond exciting.”


Casting Disney+: “We’re really approaching the streaming shows like movies.”

“Yeah, it’s very early but we’re really approaching the streaming shows like movies. They’re going to be very satisfying, I hope. We’re really not looking at them any differently. They’re incredible storytelling. We have incredible writers. We’re putting together incredible casts, incredible directors. Very ambitious visions for these shows and the present a lot of new challenges but I’m really excited.”


Casting Oscar Winners: “They’re able to stretch and do something that might be completely different.”

Chuck Zlotnick ©Marvel Studios 2019
(Photo by Chuck Zlotnick ©Marvel Studios 2019)

“When I first came to the MCU and I was working on Iron Man, I was walking down the hall and somebody was making fun of me and saying, ‘Oh, what, are we just going to have all Academy Award winners and nominees in the film?’ And I had a moment of panic thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to make the most boring superhero ever. What’s it going to be? Nobody’s going to relate to it.’ But [knocks wood] it’s worked out well, and I think for these actors, there’s a lot to play. There’s a huge range to a lot of these characters, and sometimes it’s just something really different. Look at what Cate Blanchett did in Thor: Ragnarok. It was fantastic. But Kevin and the mindset at Marvel is very collaborative. It’s collaborative with the directors, it’s collaborating with the actors. Creatively, they’re all able to play in the sandbox. They’re able to stretch and do something that might be completely different. So for someone like Brie Larson, yes, it’s a leap to go from Room to Captain Marvel, but the way she embraced that character was complete, you know? She did the physical training. She researched it, she dug in with the directors and wanted to find out how to create this character in the way that I think actors approach in a role. So yeah, it was the whole process for her and for every actor to who takes on one of these roles.”


A Wish List for The Female Avengers?

“I don’t know. I don’t know if I can give you a few? I’ve got a hundred. But I don’t feel like I can… No, I can’t. I can’t say. It’s like asking me to pick my favorite kid. I can’t do it. But hit me back after [Phase Five], maybe. Then I can tell you.”


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