In this installment of Get to Know the Casting Director, we’re highlighting someone with titles such as Wonder Woman, Batman Begins, Children of Men, and Kick-Ass to her name. As for more recent features, Lucinda Syson cast The Gentlemen for Guy Ritchie and Wonder Woman 1984 for Warner Bros. She’s also started venturing into TV with shows like TNT’s The Alienist and the upcoming Apple TV+ series Foundation. Between meetings, Syson took the time to call in from her London home to share with Casting Networks about her journey into casting and some of the memorable moments along the way. Keep reading for a window into the casting director behind the credits.
When was the moment you knew that casting was for you?
I guess it happened in two stages. The first stage sounds silly, but when I saw Spartacus at the age of seven, it blew my mind. And that’s when I knew I wanted to go into film one way or the other. I thought it was never going to be achievable, though, until my life slowly started turning that way. I was doing a little bit of work on City of Joy, and its casting director, Priscilla John, was looking for an assistant. So she took a chance on me, a person with a degree in French and linguistics who was just sort of overly-enthusiastic about everything having to do with film. I realized how much casting intrigued me, and Priscilla took me onto Alien³, which was David Fincher’s first feature, as her assistant. It was a baptism-by-fire sort of moment, and that’s when I realized I had such a love for casting.
What a way to get into casting! Now, if someone were to make a film about your life, which actor would you cast to play the role of Lucinda Syson?
If it were a drama, it’d probably be someone like Robin Wright. You know, if I had a choice of anyone in the world, it would be someone like her. And for a comedy, it would be Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I know there are some big dissimilarities between us, but she is just phenomenal. I have so much respect for her and for Robin Wright, and I know they’d probably turn down the offers. But they come first to mind when I think about it.
Those are two great choices. And before we go any further, I want to acknowledge that you won an Artios for your work on Straight Outta Compton. How did it feel to be recognized for this honor by your peers?
Honestly, I think that being recognized by your peers is one of the greatest achievements you can have because they know how hard the job is. But I have to say that the accolade goes to Cindy Tolan without question of a doubt because she really was the main casting director on that film. And it’s thrilling to know that we as casting directors now have this energy of uniting and helping each other. When I started in the profession, it was very fragmented and we didn’t have a union. All the other main film departments had guilds and societies that gave them recognition, but casting did not. In my opinion, casting is such a vital part of any production because when a film is really good and works, a lot of it has to do with the cast. Obviously, the director and the script are huge elements, too. Without question, they are. But I think it is wonderful that there are now these structures like the Casting Society of America and the Casting Directors’ Guild in the UK that give casting directors recognition for their work.
Speaking of recognizing work, can you mention a few casting moments that you’ll never forget?
I’m incredibly lucky to have so many of them, which makes it difficult to pick and choose. I won’t list all of them, but one was when I helped with the local casting for Seven Years in Tibet, for which Priscilla John and Francine Maisler were the main casting directors. The cast included real Tibetan monks, and I’ll never forget that moment at the airport in Mendoza, Argentina when they arrived from the other side of the world. Many of them had never been on an airplane before, and watching them deboard for the first time was a life experience I’ll never forget. I have to say that I cried my eyes out. And a lot of people were doubtful about Wonder Woman being a big hit because it threw the rule book out of the window with its female lead and female director. But it became such a huge mainstream success and really a fire-starter, an important torchbearer spreading hope and opening a previously-closed gate. Another special moment was when Aladdin hit over $1 billion at the worldwide box office because it was such a hard film to cast. I was also so proud of Children of Men and working with Alfonso Cuarón. And I have to mention the opportunity I got to work with Tony Scott on Spy Game. He put his trust in me and really got me on my way. You know, there are some people you hold in a dear light, and he’s definitely one of them. He was just an incredible human being.
That’s such a tribute to the director and to the person that he was. Thank you for sharing that, and I’ll leave you with one last question. What are you watching at the moment?
You’re going to laugh because I was one of the fools who did not watch Breaking Bad when it first came out. And it’s taken me this long to watch it, which is ridiculous. I think it’s because there are five seasons, which makes it a commitment. But I’m literally down to episode eight of season five, and it’s just beautiful. It has the extraordinary casting work of Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas, and it’s a lovely example of casting people who weren’t very famous at the time. I also recently finished Normal People, which was just absolutely phenomenal and cast by Louise Kiely. Another one I think everyone’s watching over here is Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, which is making waves. It’s extraordinary.
Last year, CSA recognized Syson and her incredible body of work with a special award for excellence in casting. And at such a height in her career, the casting director could have easily dropped a number of names during our interview of actors she’d “discovered” along the way. But Syson instead clarified that term within the context of casting. “We all have our eyes on a lot of wonderful actors, but it’s more about the synergy of the right role and the right actor,” Syson shared. “Then suddenly, they fly. Or when you watch a show and see the cast work beautifully — that’s the buzz.” Syson’s words can remind actors that casting directors are rooting for their success and for their breakthrough roles, too.
This interview has been edited and condensed.