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Zendaya and Hunter Schafer, Euphoria
Zendaya and Hunter Schafer, Euphoriavia Tumblr

How to spot a movie star, by Uncut Gems and Euphoria’s casting director

Jennifer Venditti of JV8 INC has been tapping strip clubs, parking lots, and malls for undiscovered stars that have ended up in the last decade’s best movies and TV series

Often, when we praise a film or series, we praise its casting without realising it. An ensemble had great chemistry? Thank the casting director. A world felt populated by believable characters? Casting director, you’re a real one. Some newcomer you’d never heard of before is your new favourite actor? Shout out to the casting director. More specifically, if you’re talking about Euphoria, Uncut Gems, Honey Boy, Good Time, American Honey, Lost River, Where the Wild Things Are or Heaven Knows What (among others), thank Jennifer Venditti.

Since founding talent agency JV8 INC in 1998, Venditti has become one of the most sought-after casting directors in the business. JV8 is known for their broad and open approach, and are particularly renowned for their work in street casting and online scouting for first-time actors. They have a knack for spotting undiscovered talents — uncut gems, if you will — wherever they may appear, from Tulsa strip clubs and Walmart parking lots to the streets of New York, or, simply, the Internet. 

Venditti doesn’t refuse professional actors — it’s just that she doesn’t limit herself to that pool. Instead, she taps into both mainstream sources and non-traditional approaches to arrive at a wonderful mix of professionals and first-timers. It’s this ‘anything is possible and everyone is welcome’ approach that sets Venditti apart, making her the perfect match for adventurous and ambitious filmmakers like Andrea Arnold, Alma Har’el, and the Safdie brothers.  

Speaking to Jennifer after a long day of Euphoria auditions (“Please say the casting call is closed!” she exclaims over the phone, “I hope we don’t get an influx of British people sending things to us”), Dazed took some lessons from the master herself on how to cast the net wide.


Jennifer Venditti: As a kid, I was an avid people-watcher. I’m obsessed with observing what it is to be human. I never really watched TV or movies, or got into the cartoons that everyone watched, but I loved to go to airports, hospitals, train stations, malls — anywhere there were groups of people. I didn’t set out to be a casting director. Even if I didn’t do what I do, I’ve always loved to observe people. I love to explore what it means to be human; to think about the psychology of it, the visual mannerisms of it — just everything.


Jennifer Venditti: I was in fashion before this, and I was really frustrated by how limited the ideas of beauty were there. Having been such a people-watcher, I was really uninspired in the fashion industry. It was the ‘90s, and it was just one type of person wearing clothes, really an archetype: very tall, white, skinny. It was the end of the supermodel, and then it was all about ‘heroin chic’ — but it was all just a type. It was like one story to me. That became frustrating, and I quit.

A friend of mine was becoming a successful photographer and shooting for W Magazine, and he knew that I loved people — I was always saying, ‘That person’s amazing’ — and he said ‘Do you want to cast it?’ This was before street scouting was a big thing. No one was really doing it at the time, except a few other people. So I went out on the street and found everything from a homeless mom and daughter, to a daughter of a famous artist, to a model, to an older woman – it was very eclectic. I put it together and W Magazine said, ‘Do you want to keep doing this for us?’.

Now that seems normal, but this was 20 years ago. This is the world that I envisioned 20 years ago — where we have these eclectic ideas of beauty, and less ‘You have to fit in this box’ conformity; where Vogue is putting ethnic women of a certain body type on the cover, and there’s real people. Now you don’t even have to street scout, because they have agencies, and Instagram’s filled, and every client’s brief says ‘We want someone that has unique beauty’. (laughs) It’s just funny to me now – like, “Really? Finally?”.


Jennifer Venditti: Fashion photography got boring to me, because I wanted to know the stories behind the faces, so I started filming the people that I was street scouting. I acquired tapes and tapes, and I just had this box full of interviews and films that I had made. My entryway in was the incredible faces, but then as I wanted to know more, I got into documentaries. The first person to notice in the film world was Ryan Gosling. He saw a documentary I made called Billy the Kid (2007), and he was like, ‘I see your eye, it’s so cinematic – I’m directing my first film (Lost River (2014)) and would love for you to cast it’. I never thought about casting as a job — I never set out to do it; I never worked for anyone. It just kind of became what I did through osmosis. The seed of it is that I am endlessly curious about exploring what it means to be human, observing people, and seeing interesting things in them.


Jennifer Venditti: For Lost River, the whole environment of pre-production was so beautiful. We were working out of this old, beautiful place called the Masonic Temple, which looked like it was from a Stanley Kubrick film. Kids would come in to this incredible building and there were all these props, and it was really like play. We would take ideas from the scenes and morph it into play. There’s a scene (in Lost River) where the kid’s sleeping and he’s scared. There was a couch (in the temple), so we would pretend someone was under the couch. There was a phone, and we would pretend the phone was ringing, and see how creative they could get in terms of imaginary conversation and who was on the other end of the phone. Lots of things like that – really getting creative, improvising with whatever was in the room, but using themes that were from the movie.


Jennifer Venditti: I always tell everyone that works for me, when I approach people on the street, it comes with intention. If I’m clear about what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it, then when I approach someone it’s a reciprocal exchange. It’s not just like, ‘I want something from you’. It’s the idea of, ‘I see something in you. Here’s an opportunity to have an incredible experience, to explore another part of yourself, and be part of a collaboration’. 

The alchemy when those two things join is beautiful – for people to experience what it feels like to collaborate and make something, and then see and experience themselves in another way. I hold the intention of that, and whenever I’m approaching someone it’s with that respect, and that reciprocal opportunity. It’s not like, ‘I’m gonna make you a star’. It’s about, ‘What can I bring to you, what can you bring to this, and what can that create?’.

And always with respect, too. Not assuming. In the beginning, when I would meet someone and I thought they were amazing, I would just want to make them do it. If they said no, it would make me so frustrated. But now I really trust the process. If they’re not into it, it’s not right. 


Jennifer Venditti: The difference (in working with non-professional actors) is that you really have to hold that person’s hand. I’m going through this now with the Euphoria casting – we’re seeing professionals and non-professionals, and the non-professionals just need to be walked through it, whereas someone who does this all the time maybe doesn’t need to. But at the same time, sometimes those people are treated like cattle because they are used to it, and it can be good to give that person a little more attention too. I just try to feel the energy of the room and what is needed. But if they’re not used to it, you definitely have to walk them through the steps. Sometimes you need to get them a coach – if I really believe in the person and see something in them, but they’re not able to fully show it in the room, either I’ll work with them, or I’ll find someone to work with them. We do a lot. (laughs) We get very involved.


Jennifer Venditti: In terms of submitting to an open call, my advice is: just be yourself. Read the instructions, bring your best self, be honest, be vulnerable. Don’t be something you think I want you to be. Be completely who you are. Be authentic. If it happens, then it’s meant to be. If it doesn’t happen, trust that there’ll be other opportunities. When there’s a desperation, or a conforming to what someone thinks I want to see, based on what they’ve seen before — like, if someone watches Euphoria and dresses like all the girls who are already on the show, and does their makeup like them – that’s not interesting to me. We already have that. If you’re great and you’re authentic, then we will notice you, and see how to put you in that world. We’re not looking for replicas of what’s already in that world.


Jennifer Venditti: With Honey Boy (2019), the role itself is an actor who is acting in a movie. It’s so dialogue heavy that auditions were mostly just doing scenes with kids. Noah (Jupe), who ended up getting it, is an actor, and was perfect for it in the end. But there were other people – like Javon (Walton), who plays Ashtray in Euphoria, who was actually someone that we found for Honey Boy. Honey Boy was his first audition. He had never learned lines before. He learned them, and did a self-tape, and they loved him, but didn’t feel like he was right for that role. He didn’t get Honey Boy, but then a few months later I ended up calling him for Ashtray, and now he has, like, a full career from that.


Jennifer Venditti: There are so many other moving parts in a production. We can’t really start ‘til a production has funding or a green-light. But people that work with me, like the Safdie brothers, know and respect the process, so they try to get it started as soon as possible. Sam Levinson from Euphoria understands as well, but there’s parameters, and there’s budgets. You can only get things green-lit when they have everything else green-lit. People definitely listen, but they also only have the ability of what they have. You always want more time. You always need more. I’ve had people ask me to work on projects with them, and they want it done in a certain time, and I say I’m not available, and they don’t understand — then they use someone else, and they realise that it really is an art, and a craft, and it takes time.

Especially now, it’s very trendy to do this kind of work. ‘Trendy’ is probably the wrong word – of the moment, it seems. But I’ve been working with the people that I work with for a very long time. You have to develop an eye and an instinct. You have to know how to build trust with someone; how to get a performance – it’s many steps. It’s not just walking up to people. I hope that the craft of casting can be recognised more, and more people can see that it really is an art form. It’s a huge, incredible part of the filmmaking process.


Jennifer Venditti: I met (the Safdies) when I was at a film festival with my documentary. They had a short film, and they’ve made documentaries as well. They used to do these things on their website called ‘Buttons’, which were little snippets of people in everyday life. They were like Instagram stories before Instagram stories existed. So we have a very shared love of people — all the flaws and realness, and all the caught moments of people not performing, but just being. Right there, we have an understanding. We see things in a similar way. They approach their movies almost like documentarians, in the sense that they really dig deep into the world. They do tons of research, spend tons of time with people in the world that they’re writing about and exploring, and do tons of backstory. By the time I meet with them, it’s like an incredible download session where they share everything about it — they tell us about it, all the people, they show pictures, and we just take notes.

With Uncut Gems (2019), for example, that’s what they did. They told us about all the different jewellery dealers on the block, all the different characters, the Bukharan Jews versus the Sephardic Jews, the whole world that made up 47th Street. From there, we dig deeper, and meet these people, or if there are any people that they’ve already met, we see if they would actually be good for roles, and we build on that. We go deeper and more refined – that’s with the non-professionals. Then we make lists for actors with the other people. It’s a big, creative back-and-forth of ideas. For this movie, they were really getting us into something they’d been in for the last ten years. We were continuing from that point to build off of what they’d already done. And it’s one thing meeting someone in person and being like, “They’re amazing,” but it’s another thing to bring them in and see if they can be like that on camera. Everyone thinks, “Oh, I’m just being myself,” but many people can’t be themselves saying words that someone’s written for them.


Jennifer Venditti: Michele Mansoor, who works for me, found Keith (Williams) Richards. He was just on 14th Street on the phone. He came into our office several times — we put him through the ropes to see if he could do it. At first he didn’t have the confidence in himself, and then he was just a natural. We did an improvisation with him and he was so good – he couldn’t believe it; he didn’t know what we were talking about. In his head, he kind of didn’t believe it was true. He came back again to do an improv with another person we were considering, then we had him come back for something else… and then we had him come back and meet the Safdies (laughs). We just kept having him come back and come back, and through that process, I think he realised that we weren’t kidding — that he really has something special. He was just a natural, and he was so professional. All the actors and crew on set were blown away by him — that he had never done it before, and how he was able to take direction. He’s a natural. I’m hoping that you’ll see him in many more things.

And then Mitchell (Wenig) was someone that the brothers had found, or met — I think it was for Daddy Longlegs (2009). They didn’t use him, but it was someone that they had known already. He ended up coming to the Uncut Gems audition with his brother (Stewart), and they were so incredible together. We had a lot of different people that we were auditioning for that role, but in the end he and his brother and were incredible characters. Mitchell wants to do a ton of stuff. Stewart makes music, and he brought music that he wrote that he thought would be good in the film. They’re very ambitious. There was someone else that I really liked for the role, but the boys convinced me that it was (Mitchell and Stewart). And they were right. 


Jennifer Venditti: We’re deep into Euphoria right now, and we finished Mike Mills’ next film, starring Joaquin Phoenix. It’s called C’mon C’mon, and it has another — you’ll see — an amazing young boy, who is the co-lead in that with Joaquin. It’s gonna be a beautiful film. 

For more behind-the-scenes looks at the casting experience, follow JV8 Inc