"I think it's important to be part of a professional community," says Angelique Midthunder. "You have the support and respect of your peers,."
Midthunder, a casting director whose company operates out of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Los Angeles, has been a member of the Television Academy for more than a decade. The relationships she has formed through the Academy's casting directors peer group have had a significant impact on the way she approaches her profession.
"I have a network of people with whom to have deeper conversations about what it means to do the job of a casting director," she says. It's nice to have that community and to be recognized as part of it."
Midthunder experienced another type of recognition when she received an Emmy nomination for casting the 2009 Lifetime movie Georgia O'Keeffe, along with fellow casting directors David Rubin and Richard Hicks. The telefilm starred Joan Allen in the title role of the iconic artist and Jeremy Irons as her mentor and husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
The opportunity to work on a project so close to her heart with ties to New Mexico home — O'Keeffe lived out her life there — was momentous for Midthunder.
"It was just a tremendous honor to be in the company of David and Richard and to be recognized by your peers as doing an outstanding job," she says. "We really worked hard on it. It was a period piece, a biopic, and everyone cast represented a real-life person. That's when you go above and beyond — so to be recognized [for that] is tremendously rewarding."
Throughout her 20-year career, Midthunder has been committed to Indigenous populations and ensuring that they are fairly and accurately represented.
A recent example, which he cites as a career highlight, was casting dozens of Indigenous performers for Reservation Dogs, the new FX comedy about a group of teens living on a reservation in Oklahoma, where the series was shot.
At venues across the state, she and showrunner Sterlin Harjo saw thousands of potential cast members, including many people who had no previous acting experience but who emanated the right aura.
Midthunder has cast several films that are currently in post-production, including The Manson Brothers Midnight Zombie Massacre. She also did the New Mexico location casting for the recent comedy feature Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar.
Angelique is not the only Midthunder in the industry. She is married to David Midthunder, an actor whose long list of credits includes Westworld, Hostiles and Longmire. Their daughter, Amber Midthunder,is a key cast member of the CW's Roswell, New Mexico and was recently seen on the big screen alongside Liam Neeson in the action drama The Ice Road.
Midthunder spoke to us by phone from Santa Fe.
How did you get started in the entertainment industry?
That was a happy accident. I was in a gap year after college and had no intention of working in film. I didn't know what I was going to do, but I read a job description in the newspaper [looking for] a horse-riding female in her 20s who could bareback. I assumed it was a job at a stable or a racetrack, and I knew if it had to do with horses, I was going to pursue the job opportunity.
I got the part, and it introduced me to the world of filmmaking. I quickly learned acting was not for me. I found myself bonding with the casting directors more than with acting. One offered me as a job as an assistant, and so I never pursued an acting career.
Yet you obviously took away some major lessons from your experience.
Yes--in the short time I found myself in auditions, maybe about 10 of them and getting one or two little roles, it was so harrowing that to this day 20 years later, I always keep the actor in mind. I always am aware to be good to the actor. That means giving them plenty of time to work on character, and if I'm giving redirection, I give them time to process, because it's not a flick of the switch.
I always see actors as real people with emotions and feeling and I make sure they have everything they need to put their best foot forward.
How does it work to split your time between Southern California and Northern New Mexico?
I work two jobs. I work out of LA with Indigenous casting. That's my main thing. And I do lots of work in New Mexico doing location casting. They'll take a script, budget, name actors from the larger markets, which is less than 50 percent of the cast, and the rest from the regional or local market when they're doing films in Southwest.
It's no secret that New Mexico has always been a popular place to shoot.
When I relocated to Santa Fe in 2005, that was when New Mexico was putting its incentive program in place. Since then, there's been a tremendous boom in the industry.
Because it was one of the first states with incentives, it immediately became a top market after LA and New York. Louisiana and Georgia soon followed suit. New Mexico has had a thriving industry for a long time. We have longstanding infrastructure, and a lot of people have relocated and that means department heads are local and know the landscape — and it's a financial incentive to hire locally.
Although we cannot say yet that we are post-pandemic, what changes did the lockdown and coronavirus protocols do to your business?
The whole self-tape phenomenon started before the pandemic but became the only way to go, which opened things up to not have to get on a plane and show up in the room. It also opened up space for casting directors to see more people. That's the main logistical pivot.
The other thing is more profound: there is now a lot of awareness of diversity, equity and inclusion when casting. Since the Black Lives Matter movement, I think everyone has representation at the forefront of their minds.
As someone who clearly carries the mantle of getting underrepresented voices in the room, what do you see as your biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge of all our combined efforts goes into getting it right, doing representation right. I focus on Indigenous populations and that's almost a new concept to a lot of filmmakers. When you work with a tribal population, there's been a lot of mixing, and there are a lot of self-identity issues. Someone gets a 23 and Me and sees they are a certain percentage Indigenous, and they go on a soul-searching mission to learn more.
That's the type of thing you don't necessarily get when casting other types of roles. At the same time these are living, viable cultures that still speak their own languages and live in communities together.
For a long time there's been much discussion — and controversy — about non-Indigenous actors playing Indigenous roles. What are your thoughts?
I think it's important for Native Americans to represent themselves on screen, and it can be extremely detrimental or damaging to the psyche of an entire population to see themselves as invisible because they're mispresented.
You look at history and what's been done to Native Americans in this country and it only makes sense we do the right thing moving forward which includes respectful, accurate and dignified representation.
What about taking ethnicities out of casting equations?
I'm always thinking outside the box and looking for the best actor and open to giving opportunities to those who may not have been on the radar initially because they're not the typical type.
Wes Studi in [the 1995 film] Heat is the type I've always aspired to. He's an incredible actor holding his own with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. We need filmmakers with open minds to see all types, and we're seeing more of that coming out of 2020, filmmakers who are actively seeking to cast with as much diversity as possible. I think the landscape of America is changing so what we're watching onscreen will adapt and change with it to capture the attention of mainstream audiences.
Tell us about Reservation Dogs.
I feel like it is groundbreaking, innovative TV with an almost entirely Indigenous cast and writers room, including co-creators Sterlin [Harjo] and Taika [Waititi] and all the series regulars. It's like nothing we've seen. They're regular people, humanized characters. The writing is witty, funny and heartbreaking. You laugh, you cry in a setting where everyone is Native American but it really shows a commonality between cultures.
Before I watched the pilot, I asked, "Is everyone going to get this?" But it's all relatable to the human condition and not specific to Native Americans. We all suffer heartbreak, and that's a really cool thing to see about a show. You anticipate differences but it shows how similar we all are. It's comedic but heavy, serious content. You have to make light of some things or else it's too heavy.
What was the casting experience like for you?
It was a complex process, but we did it pre-pandemic. We had open casting calls across Oklahoma with thousands of people, and we came across people where we didn't know where exactly they might fit but we bookmarked them. We opened up the entire series from that original casting trip. We almost never engineered the casting.
Sterlin would say things like, "Remember that guy outside Tulsa, where we can we fit him in?" FX is outside the box anyway so that style was perfect for the offbeat FX genre.
I have to give it up for Sterlin. There is no showrunner like him. He was involved in casting all the series leads. You would never in normal circumstances go on reservations to find leads, but Sterlin and Taika knew it was feasible to find kids.
A lot of that is Taika. A lot of his earlier work was with non-actor kids and that made us very comfortable with the process. You knew when you see a kid who has something special and is comfortable in his or her own skin and brings their own light. You see it pretty instantly. Already some of the kids are on to other shows and that's pretty exciting.
Reservation Dogs is a career highlight. Whatever comes afterward may not hold a candle to this experience.
What has your day-to-day been like lately?
With more opportunity comes more work with shorter deadlines, with everyone getting caught up on films we didn't make in 2020. We're trying to fill the space that was 2020, and we're still self-taping and not seeing people in the room. I watch two to three times as many tapes and that's a lot more opportunities for actors. It gives us less time but more work [gets] done.
But when we get back in the room, there's nothing like that human connection. There's people you see on TV and you meet at an event, and there's an instant charisma. There's definitely a quality when you see it live, a magical chemistry that is a necessary part of the process and we all crave it. It really helps in the casting process and it's visceral when they walk into room. You can see the skill set on tape, but to feel that chemistry, I don't think the industry is going to go without for long.