When Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv moved to Los Angeles five years ago, he knew he wanted his American feature debut to be about a group of neo-Nazi skinheads. The idea was inspired by the 2011 MSNBC documentary “Erasing Hate,” about a man named Bryon Widner who, after falling in love, makes the decision to turn his back on the white power movement. But the movement was not ready to let go of him. Widner worked with the FBI to expose his gang and went through an immensely painful process of removing the racist tattoos that riddled his body and defined his identity.
Nattiv’s script about Widner’s journey, titled “Skin,” was well received in Hollywood but no one wanted to step up with funding. So Nattiv and his wife Jamie Ray Newman decided to make a short film of the same name as a sort of calling card to show producers. It worked. Financiers came on board, actors signed on, and the feature film made its big screen debut at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall with Jamie Bell as Bryon Widner.
Rolling Stone called Bell’s performance an “awards-buzzed tour de force.” Movieweb wrote that Bell delivers a “career best performance” pointing out that, together with the actor’s work as Elton John’s Jewish songwriting partner Bernie Taupin in “Rocketman,” one cannot “imagine two more disparate roles.”
If all that weren’t enough, the “Skin” short (based on similar themes but no relation to the documentary) won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short this past March, earning Nattiv not only an Oscar statuette but also an invitation to join the Academy.
Nattiv spoke to Casting Networks about how he put together his cast and what the process taught him.
Since the characters in this film are based on real people, how important was it to find the right resemblance versus the right actor?
It was important to me that the actors look similar to the characters because the characters were somewhat public figures because of the documentary. Jamie Bell and Bryan Widner are the same size and have similar features. My producer Oren Moverman suggested Jamie for the role, and after I met him, I knew that, with the right physical change, he would look like Bryan. Jamie gained 30 pounds, shaved his head, changed his nose, his eye color and got covered in tattoos.
Was Jamie cast first, and then you built everyone around that choice?
Danielle [Macdonald] was the first to sign on because she was in the short. My wife and I put all our retirement money into the short, and so many people came to together to make it happen, including Danielle. She’s our neighbor. The character she played in the short was similar to that of Julie Price in the feature. I wanted her to continue that role in the film because she was so wonderful in the short.
Danielle is known for films like “Patty Cake$” and “Dumplin’,” but unlike those two projects, this film makes no reference to her appearance at all. In fact, it had no bearing on the character at all.
Talent agents were telling me, “Why don’t you cast so-and-so?” And they would mention some hot, female movie star. I wanted this film to be real and raw. I think Danielle is not only sexy, but a real woman. And the actual woman Julie Price did look similar to Danielle in real life.
In the short, Danielle’s character has a husband and son. In the film, as Julie, she is a single mom with three daughters. How did you find those three girls, played by Zoe Colletti, Kyle Rogers and Colbi Gannett?
Julie had three girls so I based the casting on her actual daughters. They looked like angels, every one of them. It was important that in this chaotic, grim hell that was Bryan’s world, these girls would be three little angels that would represent a different type of family for him, something other than what he was used to seeing—an angel’s touch in a way. Our casting director Laura Rosenthal and her team did a phenomenal job bringing in all sorts of girls. It was hard to choose because there were so many amazing kids. With the ones we chose, I didn’t have to do anything specific to direct them. I had to fine-tune them a bit, but they came ready.
Vera Farmiga plays one half of a couple (with actor Bill Camp) as Shareen and Fred, otherwise known as Ma and Pa. They lure disenfranchised street kids and groom them to participate in things like beating up non-whites and burning down mosques. Did this couple actually exist?
Ma and Pa existed but in a different gang. So, I borrowed them and used it to build this gang, this family. The character of Ma was not that layered in the script. Vera brought such an amazing depth to Shareen. She did all the research, she built that character. When she and I spoke, she’d already built in her head who Shareen was. I gave her a background story of what happened to my wife and me when we went through a horrible stillbirth years ago. Vera used that in the script. for the character’s motivation to create the best family that Shareen didn’t have, the sons that she never had and the kids that she wanted to have. She brought a lot of explanation, a lot of depth to her character. I give Vera big props for that.
In an early scene, we see how Ma and Pa bring in their newest “son” off the streets, a teenager named Gavin and indoctrinate him into their neo-Nazi family. This character, played by actor Russell Posner, was a composite of so many young men who are vulnerable and susceptible to these types of recruiters. Did you have more freedom in casting that character because he was not based on one particular person?
For me, Gavin represented the young Bryan. I asked the real Bryan to show me photos of himself as a 14-year-old, the exact moment he was kicked out of the house and became a street kid. That’s how I built Gavin. Also, it was important for Laura Rosenthal and me that we shape Gavin as someone who was naïve but still with a tendency to be curious and go for it and be willing to shave his head and change from the geeky guy we first meet to the violent racist he becomes.
“Skin” is your first American feature film. What did you learn from the casting process?
I learned that it’s a long process to find your people. It takes time. You cannot rush casting. We worked so hard on “Skin” to really build the right family, putting those photos on the wall and seeing how this family came to life. You have to have time and patience to find the right person. Even if you have the budget and there is an actor who says yes, it doesn’t mean they are the right person. I also believe in breaking the cliché, breaking the typecast. Danielle Macdonald and Jamie Bell are not the typical go-to Hollywood actors for “Skin.” That’s why you need to have guts, and you need to have producers with guts. Then you can make ballsy decisions about casting and your producers will support you. I feel like we did that. I had that support.