In 1998, the casting director Jennifer Venditti traveled to West Virginia in search of locals to include in a W fashion story called “Coal Country.” Photographer Peter Lindbergh planned to shoot the model Angela Lindvall alongside residents of a small Appalachian town, and it was Venditti’s job to find them. Together with the mayor of the town, a woman named Lou who became something of a fixer, Venditti drove on winding mountain roads, sat in church services, and visited mom and pop restaurants, striking up conversations and taking Polaroids of people who caught her eye. At a café, she met a young woman named Melissa, who captivated Venditti’s attention with her “cinematic face,” as she describes it to me, decades later, during a video call from her home in upstate New York. “I never forgot her.”
Back in the ’90s, Venditti spent time with Melissa and her five children, hanging out on her porch, chatting about her life, listening to her hopes and dreams. Melissa was eventually cast for the shoot, and she and her children were able to keep the clothing they wore on set. Melissa, who died a few years later from a brain hemorrhage, came to be a central figure exemplifying Venditti’s life’s work—which the casting director says, in fact, involves much more than just “finding a person, passing them on. There are so many elements there: social work, journalism, photography, film. It’s really an art.”
Venditti’s approach has been enshrined in a new book from production company A24 that catalogs her career and the people she’s met along the way. Can I Ask You a Question?: The Art and Alchemy of Casting contains photographs and stories from Venditti’s projects, which have extended well beyond the world of fashion and into film and television, a development that happened after she directed the independent film Billy the Kid in 2007: She was the casting director for Uncut Gems and American Honey, and continues to work on Euphoria.
Her ability to spot the kinds of unique faces she sought in West Virginia is instinctual. When I ask Venditti to describe how she goes about her work, she falters at first. “It’s really hard to put words to it,” she says. “It’s like saying, ‘Define beauty.’” But as a rule, she says, she’s “looking for something that catches my eye, that’s beyond the surface—that their face, their beauty, their look, will have some type of visual language that will speak to the story that’s being told.” But most importantly, she concludes, “The work speaks for itself.”
Below, Venditti tells the stories behind some of the images included in Can I Ask You a Question, available now.
At the beginning of her career, Venditti worked primarily for fashion brands, casting advertising shoots for Versace and street scouting for Yohji Yamamoto. Soon after that, the photographer Carter Smith was hired to shoot a fashion editorial for W, and asked Venditti to cast it. He told her the magazine’s editors were interested in featuring artists like Philip Lorca Dicorcia and Alec Soth in its pages. “[Carter] knew how I looked at the world, and my frustration with fashion and their limited ideas of how they saw beauty. He said, ‘Do you want to cast the way you see things?’” That opportunity marked the beginning, “basically the genesis of it all,” Venditti adds. The grid above is comprised of Polaroid pictures featuring interesting faces she’s considered for projects in the past.
Just before heading to West Virginia to work on “Coal Country,” Venditti was in Milan, casting one of Tom Ford’s Gucci shows. “The extreme, coming from that world into this one was really jarring. But what I love about this job is that you get to experience all the different ways people live.” Above, an image of Melissa included in the book alongside text that reads “She trusted me for a moment. She had a glimmer of joy, she and her girls. I witnessed it. It was real.”
Venditti says she can’t take credit for putting Julia Fox in Uncut Gems. “She was someone that the Safdies, especially Josh, had been friends with for a while. She had been the inspiration for that character, and really applied to this term they use called ‘sudden star,’” Venditti says. “It’s crazy to see her this year—she’s amped up to another level.” Above, Fox’s original casting photo for the film, along with images from a script reading session.
To find talent for Euphoria, Venditti and her team of scouts tore through many cities, including Los Angeles; Panama City, Florida; Ohio, and Miami. At that time, details of the project—from Sam Levinson’s involvement to the fact that it would stream on HBO—were kept under wraps. “So no one knew what it was,” Venditti recalls. “We had an open call for season one—a real, in-person, open call at a church. It was such a bust. I thought it was gonna be great just because there was something intriguing about it, it wasn’t just a student film. Barely anyone good came. For the second season, we did an online open call [above] and it was 5,000 submissions.”
“Angus [Cloud] was found by my scout Eleonore Hendricks, late at night,” Venditti says. “I remember her saying, ‘I met this great guy last night, but I didn’t get a picture, my phone was dead. I’m hoping he’ll call.’ And he did, he came to my office. I remember thinking at the time that he would be this hard kind of tough guy. But he just had this gentleness about him. I was talking to him the other day and I told him, ‘You really are a person who says yes to life.’ Right after I met him, he had won a cruise to go to Florida with all these retired, older people. And he went! Angus went on the cruise and even took a bus to get there.”
When Cloud first auditioned, Venditti remembers him seeming nervous. “But I think it was undeniable, his cinematic presence,” she says. “He has this ability when the camera is on him—even when he is doing nothing, his face and his eyes are saying so much. His character originally was not a series regular role. He was supposed to die off after season one.”
“I just had a feeling about her,” Venditti says about Hunter Schafer, who had no acting experience before Euphoria. “She had never auditioned before, and she was incredible in the room. She’s a very sensitive, creative person. And I think that’s why you see her in this and it’s like, Wait, is she a trained actor? No, but she is a sensitive vessel who is in it when she’s being present. She’s connecting to something real. I always say, acting is not pretending, it’s being.”