At a number of different points in Netflix’s Stranger Things, a fantastic new drama that builds upon a nostalgia for 1980s science fiction films, the viewer is asked, for one reason or another, to suspend their disbelief. Why does Wynona Rider’s distraught mother character own so many desk lamps? How does a supernaturally gifted 11-year-old devour five double-sized boxes of Eggos in a single afternoon? There is one thing that the show never asks of its viewers, though, and that’s to pretend 30-year-old actors are high school students.
These aren't thirtysomethings playing kids
Unlike 90201, The OC, or any other TV shows in which adults play teenagers, Stranger Things’ kids are, by and large, actually kids. Credit goes to casting director Carmen Cuba, who managed to not just find great actors, but great child actors. Millie Bobby Brown is the stand-out example. The actress was 11 when she shaved her head for the role of Eleven, the gravitational center of both the show and its poster art. Brown delivers one of the Stranger Things' best performances with less dialogue and greater emotional demands than her grown-up castmates.
Stranger Things is just one of Carmen Cuba’s many successes. The casting director has established herself, in part, by filling the rosters of Stephen Soderbergh’s more recent films. Installing professional wrestler Kevin Nash alongside comedian Donald Glover in Magic Mike XXL? That was Cuba. She doesn’t make obvious choices; she makes great ones.
More recently, Cuba’s handled Sense8, The Knick, and the Starz TV adaptation of The Girlfriend Experience — the two former series featuring exceptional ensembles, and the latter being the breakout role for Riley Keough.
But casting kids is, as you'd expect, a uniquely difficult responsibility. In a 2015 interview with Movie Plot, Cuba spoke about her particular experience with auditioning children:
"I've had young actors leave auditions and later be told that they were very upset. Being a mom I am extra sensitive to kids--it's a very hard thing to do, to go into a room and really be tested on hard material--but other people in the room aren't always in tune with the fact that these kids are really putting it on the line for them and that it's hard emotionally. But it's a business, unfortunately, and kid actors are a tricky thing on lots of levels."
Cuba’s work, like the work of all great casting directors, can make an impact bigger than any one film or show. It’s not a struggle to imagine Stranger Things doubling as a launchpad for the careers of its bundle young stars, just as Freaks and Geeks did for the Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, James Franco, Linda Cardellini, and John Francis Daley. All of these stars were comparably unknown teen actors before that short-lived one-hour drama, coincidentally also set in a 1980s high school. Of the Stranger Things crew, Finn Wolfhard who plays Mike Wheeler, the young boy who leads his friends on their search for a lost buddy, has already been cast as Richie Tozier in the upcoming remake of It.
I think what makes Cuba’s casting for Stranger Things so potent, beyond the decision to seek out actual kids, is this general sense of empathy. These aren’t junior models stylized by their doting parents for a spot on the next Disney Channel sitcom; they are vulnerable, sometimes awkward, regularly fearless kids. If they compose part of the next generation of movie stars, we’ll have Cuba and good casting teams to thank.