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May 22, 2017

Casting Michael

 Kimberly Hardin looks for the essence of the character she’s casting.

Matt Powell
  • Kimberly Hardin

  • Navi

Kimberly Hardin brings characters to life.

The veteran casting director has amassed over 50 credits in her 25-plus year career, including Hustle & Flow, 2 Fast 2 Furious, and Cadillac Records.

Recently, Hardin was tasked with casting legendary pop superstar Michael Jackson in the television biopic, Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland, airing May 29 on Lifetime.

The art of casting requires a subtly different approach for each project. “Every casting director has their own style, their own pace,” says Hardin.

One of the greatest challenges for a casting director is balancing competing interests. Which is more important for the role - a physical resemblance, or capturing the essence of a character? “I cover all of that - that’s my style,” says Hardin.  

Biopics present an altogether unique set of challenges when it comes to casting. “It is a little more detailed and complicated when it’s a biopic,” says Hardin, “It’s not just telling a story now - it’s telling a story from actual events, while also finding someone who favors the person to make your story more believable. But it can be exciting because of the transformation.”

Hardin is no stranger to casting legendary musicians. “When I did Cadillac Records we wanted some special actors in various roles,” says Hardin. These included casting Beyoncé as soulstress Etta James and Mos Def as the inimitable Chuck Berry. “Some of the actors favored the talent and some were just really good actors,” says Hardin, “Jeffrey Wright, for example, didn’t really favor Muddy Waters, but he captured him.”

Those challenges are heightened when the subject of the biopic is an icon like Michael Jackson. This wasn’t Hardin’s first time casting Jackson. Hardin also worked with Neverland producer Suzanne de Passe on the 1992 ABC miniseries, The Jacksons: An American Dream.

“That was a challenge finding [someone to play] Michael before all his surgeries, before the transformations,” says Hardin, “And the person we found was not really an actor. He was a performer on a cruise ship, and he did a phenomenal job. I wanted to look as wide as possible, you never know where you’re gonna find that gem.”

Neverland is based on the bestselling book Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson in His Final Days, by Jackson’s former security guards, Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard. It is not a traditional biopic, with a sweeping lifelong arch. Instead, Neverland focuses on Jackson’s final years, as told from the point of view of the reclusive superstar’s real-life bodyguards.

“This one was different because it was such a leap from who Michael was as a little kid, then as part of The Jackson 5, and then branching off and doing his own albums. Now we’re looking for Michael Jackson as Michael Jackson,” says Hardin, “Who he was aside from all the court hearings and the allegations – and this story has nothing to do with any of those things, it’s just solely about how he had to deal with that in his life.

"He couldn’t afford to pay his staff. That speaks volumes right there. So it’s a whole different transition, a whole different look.”

To find Michael Jackson the man, Hardin conducted an extensive worldwide search, looking at actors as well as impersonators. Hardin found Jackson’s essence in London-based Navi, who bills himself as “the world’s number one Michael Jackson impersonator.”

Navi, who had never acted before, confirmed Hardin’s gut instinct. “I shared this with everyone going into the project, that finding someone with the pure essence of spirit of who Michael really was would probably come more from an impersonator rather than an actor, because they live Michael. This is someone they are already portraying on a daily basis, which gives them a connection to the character.

"That’s what stood out to all of us with Navi. Of course I kept looking, just to see, but in my heart I knew I wanted it to be him.”

Hardin knew the right impersonator could go beyond the surface level of physical resemblance and dance moves. As a tribute artist, Navi has lived with the character of Michael Jackson for considerable time, allowing him a unique ability to get to the heart and soul of the man behind the legend.

But Navi’s greatest compliment came from the real-life Jackson, who had seen Navi perform and even hired him as a body double to throw off the press and public. Navi’s experience being the King of Pop, circled by unsuspecting mobs of fans, provided a crucial element in the makeup of Jackson in his sadder, later years.

“It’s what every actor does for every role,” says Hardin, “The actor either has to learn how to develop their interpretation of who their character is, or study someone who is of that nature already. I’ve seen actors playing crack addicts that will go and hang out at a crack house. I have heard of actors doing it all to dive in and make it as real as possible.

"But if you’re portraying someone you don’t know, where do you go as an actor? I think that was the biggest challenge for a lot of the actors who came in to audition.”

Even though Navi makes his living performing as Michael Jackson, it was his insight into Jackson’s essence that stood out to Hardin. “This story is not about Michael as a performer,” says Hardin, “It’s about Michael as a man. But we as the world don’t really know who Michael the man was, we only know the performer.

"So there were a lot of people who knew how to dress like him, and be like him, and dance like him but that was not really what was required for this particular job.”

Beyond the physical resemblance and carefully studied mannerisms and movements, Hardin saw in Navi a genuine affinity for his character. “Michael was such a gentle soul. I think Navi wanted to dedicate this to Michael, so that the world knows what really happened with his life,” says Hardin, “And I feel personally honored that I have been able to tell Michael’s story, through different projects, from his childhood now through to his death.”

Hardin’s keen insight has brought not only characters and films to life, but entire careers as well. She was instrumental in nurturing many stars’ early roles, including Halle Berry, Terrence Howard, Cedric the Entertainer, and Channing Tatum, who Hardin first saw in a Mountain Dew commercial. “I’m always happy for the talent when they succeed, because I knew they had it,” says Hardin.

Ultimately, however, the casting director’s job is to serve the director’s vision. “Every project is different because you have a different creator,” says Hardin, “We just present the paint for the director to be able to put their array of colors on the canvas. I have my creative ideas of who I think is right for the role.

"I share those ideas with the director, then the director chooses who she wants and then takes it to the producer, who chimes in, and then we present it to the network. Every process is a committee.”

And while capturing the essence of a character is essential to the art of casting, at the end of the day Hardin’s role is one part of the process of making a product for sale.  

“As a casting director, we also have to keep in mind marketing and sales,” says Hardin, “This is nothing new. If you go back and look at some old movies where they got Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra, you’re going for who has a fan base.”

Aside from a built-in fan base, Hardin has found that musicians in particular can transition into acting seamlessly.

“They may have a bit more of that swagger or style of that character,” says Hardin, “But I can’t begin to tell you how nervous they are when they come in to audition. You’ve performed in front of thousands of people and now you’re nervous about being in a room with a couple people doing a scene? Sometimes they need a coach, but they get there.”  

With Navi, Hardin found a performer who is not a celebrity, but who is highly accomplished in his world. “That’s what makes him special,” says Hardin.

As a casting director, Hardin gets to work with fresh faces and old friends. For the challenges of casting Neverland, from Michael down to his children, Hardin was an obvious choice. “I just got a phone call one day and they wanted to hire me,” she says, “I was ecstatic once I found out that [director] Dianne Houston and Suzanne de Passe were involved. It was like family.”

Casting is an essential stage in the production process, and one of the earliest. “My job is done when they’re ready to start shooting,” says Hardin, “Then I’m off to my next one.”

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