Casting director Carmen Cuba won two Emmys from her brilliant casting eye on HBO’s Behind the Candelabra and season one of Netflix’s iconic smash hit Stranger Things. With the series now in its fourth season, Stranger Things keeps audiences coming back for the ongoing adventures of a rag-tag gang of Hawkins, Indiana, teenagers as they battle supernatural forces, government agencies, and even the Russians. Audiences tightly connected with these characters on a heavily emotional basis, largely thanks to Cuba’s perfect assembly of young actors who boasted not only the raw talent required for the series but also the chemistry to work together as a seamless unit.
Stranger Things season four brought Cuba her fifth Emmy nomination for Outstanding Casting for a Drama Series. With a series well into its narrative, you may think the more difficult casting choices were largely behind Cuba. Not so. With each new character offered by the creative team of The Duffer Brothers and Shawn Levy, Cuba and her casting team need to ensure that the new faces do not clash with the old ones. She needed new actors that could deliver performances at the same level as the actors several years into their roles. She also needed to find new faces that would fit well into the iconic and buzzy ensemble.
Here, in an interview with Awards Daily, Emmy-winner Carmen Cuba talks about the challenges of casting a series in its fourth season. She also reveals her process in finding new actors that would fit the key roles of Vecna/001, Eddie Munson, and Argyle. Finally, she talks about reaching out to legendary horror actor Robert Englund to fill a brief but memorable role within season four.
Awards Daily: What kind of complications or complexities arise from casting a beloved series like Stranger Things in its fourth season?
Carmen Cuba: The complications are the same each season—how do we find actors as talented as the ones already on the show?! Because they’re consistently written in a way that gives actors a lot to play with but very little information as to what exactly they’re playing, that’s another challenge. Many times, actors are auditioning with material from movies that have already come out, and a very key complication as each season grows in popularity is how to resist putting in the famous actors who are all offering us their services! The show’s success at introducing actors who this audience isn’t familiar with is the most fun for us—the combination of iconic character actors and younger super talented kids who have been doing smaller things up until our show. Of course from a logistical standpoint, my team has to contend with lots of confidentiality hurdles while trying to move at a very fast pace so that we don’t lose out on someone potentially perfect for us.
AD: Jamie Campbell Bower’s role of Vecna/001 was a critical component of season four’s success. What was it about Bower that spoke to you as a casting director when looking at him for this role?
CC: We knew that Vecna/001 needed to become iconic in a cast that already has a good bunch of iconic characters, and Jamie’s energy, even with audition scenes that weren’t from the show yet, immediately felt like he could reach potential icon level. First off, as required for every single actor in this show, Jamie just nailed the initial scenes. He had an intensity but also a playfulness that came through clearly. You felt him relishing of the material, and we needed someone tall and thin for the Vecna stuff so he felt like the perfect package all around.
AD: Tell me about the casting process for Argyle and Eddie Munson. What were your focus points for each?
CC: Argyle we knew needed to feel like our introduction into the California vibe, but we didn’t want him to feel like a stereotype so it was tricky! I think we actually saw the most people for this role and sort of just kept digging until we found our own calibration of this idea. For me, it was also an opportunity to bring in someone whose culture was authentic to the region to help expand that idea of what California is and always has been (and what Indiana isn’t or certainly wasn’t in the 80s), so we were focused on that as well. Eduardo Franco fit all these ideas in his own special very talented package. This might sound crazy, but for me he made the character have its own vibe that approximated a cool weird combo of Dazed and Confused and El Mariachi energy.
Eddie Munson was a great character to find because we knew the material was going to be so fun for whoever played it. This was one of the few who we used actual scenes from the real scripts. He did the scene with Chrissy in the woods as well as the boat house scene where he described Chrissy dying, so it was a real treat to get to see how it would actually feel. The fact we couldn’t come up with scenes from other movies to audition with I think says a lot about how specific we needed Eddie to be for us to see what direction it could go. Joe Quinn nailed it effortlessly with the energy both of the time period and yet with an original spin to it. Having been in high school in the 80s, I realize now that I had a prototype in mind — my slightly older maybe high school dropout neighbor at the time named Hank who I didn’t know at all but made up all sorts of stories about in my head. He was my embodiment of Eddie. It was surprising to me that someone not of that time and not even American found that vibe so easily. Joe is truly incredible.
AD: Robert England has a key role within Volume One. Was he a specific ask from the Duffer Brothers?
CC: He was not. I always try to find an angle for myself when casting any project, and some roles and shows lend itself more to it than others. In this case, what the character was going to be doing felt like it presented us with an opportunity to seek out some actors who are adjacent to the material in some way. I frankly could not believe that Robert would even audition for us! We got so lucky! The Duffers were giddy to get to work with Robert, and I know they are very interested in doing more with him outside of the show. I also auditioned others from various genre pieces, and they really were all thrilling. It’s so fun to get to see actors you know in a very specific role bust out of that and step into ours. They were all really excellent.
AD: How has the casting process evolved in general for you over the course of your Stranger Things involvement?
CC: Honestly, it was really joyful from the very start because of course we had zero expectation of this kind of success. At that point, it was just a really fun piece we were doing together with great roles and great scripts—a lot of freedom came from that. After the first season’s success, it got a little trickier because lots of famous people loved it and became friendly with our cast and team. Suddenly, we were fielding really big names who wanted to join in on the fun. It was then that I had to really explore what I thought the design of the show really was and why it worked the way it did, and we solidified the balance that was natural to the piece’s original success.
It also started to become clear after that first season that guest stars who were smaller on the page would become important in ways that they aren’t on other shows, so we paid even more attention to that (even though the casting of Shannon Purser as “Barb” was a very long one in and of itself since we did instinctively know we needed her pull to be strong). Since then, it’s just been about how we maintain all of these ideas while also helping grow the excitement around our existing characters who are playing opposite all of these new additions. Oh, and casting in Lithuania during a pandemic….that was certainly its own thing too.
Stranger Things streams exclusively on Netflix.