By Jim Frye
Eleven years. 23 films. And Super Heroes (and villains) from every corner of the galaxy! The ever-expanding cast of characters—both super-powered and “mere mortal”—of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a powerhouse of talent and charisma that has forever changed the way we watch movies. At the center of that universe is Sarah Finn, the casting director who assembled the Avengers and all their counterparts, beginning all the way back with 2008’s Iron Man.
“Avengers: Endgame is the culmination of over a decade of my work,” says Finn. “The scope of the cast is something we haven’t seen before—it really is a historic moment in movie history. But lucky for me, I had many years to cast this film.”
She continues: “When we first started with Iron Man, Downey wasn’t known as an action star. That wasn’t necessarily an automatic ‘yes,’ but obviously there’s no one else who could have played Tony Stark. Thor had to be somebody completely believable as an Asgardian—which had an almost Shakespearian tone—and completely relatable on Earth. For Captain America, finding the right person like Chris Evans who could embody the moral compass but also have the acting range, the comedic chops, the humor, the heart, was so important.”
And even though filling each role is a heroic accomplishment in and of itself, three of the most difficult roles to cast were Star Lord, Peter Parker, and—surprisingly—Valkyrie.
“Casting Chris Pratt for Star-Lord was famously difficult,” says Sarah. “James Gunn (director) has been very generous in giving me credit, because he didn’t feel Chris was right at all [at first]. We searched and searched, we did tests, and after several months I had approached Chris twice, but he didn’t see himself as the character. I finally convinced him to come in and audition and James said, ‘No, I don’t want to see him, he’s totally wrong.’ Coincidentally, Chris happened to come in while James was at the office, and I said, ‘Why don’t we just do this.’ So within 20 seconds of Chris speaking the words as the character, James turned to me and said, ‘We have our guy.’”
Filling the role of Spider-Man was just as difficult, if not more so. “It’s so often very nerve-wracking because I’m working closely with the director and Kevin Feige and the filmmakers—I understand what their vision is, and sometimes that doesn’t always mesh with what the audience’s expectations are,” says Sarah. “But with Tom Holland, I knew how beloved the character of Peter Parker was to people all around the world, and I knew there had already been two other versions in recent history. I knew that there was pressure that—if we were going to do it again—we had to do it very, very well.” Her gut instincts paid off—Tom Holland, and his portrayal of Spider-Man, have been embraced by fans the world over.
The third challenging role to nail was Valkyrie, as played by Tessa Thompson in Thor: Ragnarok. “There have been characters where we found it along the way, we found it as we were going through the casting process,” she says. “For Valkyrie, we knew we needed somebody incredibly talented, and bold, funny, relatable, and with a lot of humanity, because even though we’re talking about Super Heroes in a lot of these cases, I think what the audience really connects with is their common humanity. So Tessa is someone who knocked it out of the park. I’ve known her for a long time. I knew her comedy chops. I knew her dramatic side. I knew she was right for it, but she wasn’t as well known then. So, like some others, she was willing to fight for it. She was doing eight performances a week in a play in New York, and she got strep throat, but she still got on a plane and tested for the role and got the part!”
Sarah says that Marvel films work when the actors are enthusiastic and passionate about playing their characters. “In Phase One, I had no idea how broad Kevin’s vision was,” she says, “but as we went on, I became aware that these actors needed to have the broadest possible range. Humor is important, wit, intelligence, passion, commitment. We’ve been increasingly aware of what might be required of these actors for the future—we’re always looking for a great talent.”