Little bothers casting director Carla Hool more than watching Latinx characters speaking with the wrong accent—or not looking like the person they’re meant to be playing.
“It doesn’t feel good,” she said. “The Latin world is so complicated and so diverse. There are so many countries, so many accents in each country, so many different looks. People say Latin and they think brown. No. You have all sorts of Latinos. You have Afro-Latinos. You have very light-skinned, blond, blue-eyed Latinos. You have Asian Latinos.”
Carla, who became an Academy member in June, has worked on films including Sin Nombre (Cary Fukunaga’s debut feature), A Better Life, Coco, and Miss Bala. She also cast the hugely popular Netflix show Narcos. But with every project she takes on, she carries the same critical mission: to fight for authenticity and to open up possibilities for all kinds of Latinx actors.
“I’m Latina—but I can cast anything.”
Born in Mexico, Carla was raised between there and Los Angeles. Her father and uncle were producers, but growing up, filmmaking was never on her radar as a potential career. “I got married very young, had kids very young, and got divorced very young,” she said. That’s when her father invited her to join him in Mexico for a film shoot. Knowing that she was good with people, he placed her in casting.
“The film industry in Mexico is certainly not as organized as it is here. Back then, there were two casting directors,” Carla recalled. “A lot of American films were shooting there at the time, so we needed something professional.” The experience led Carla to remain working in Mexico for five years, eventually running one of the country’s first official casting agencies before moving to Los Angeles in 2007.
In L.A., the competition was brutal. “I remember my agent saying to me, ‘In Mexico, you’re a big fish in a small pond. Here, you’re going to be a small fish in… an ocean.’” Apart from getting her name out there, Carla had to overcome ignorance at every turn.
“People would turn to me and say, ‘Well, you’re Latina so you only cast Latinas.’ And I’d say, ‘I'm Latina, yes, but I can cast anything.’”
“Casting internationally is so much harder than casting American actors here,” she added. “That’s easy. What I do is way more complicated, so it’s insulting when they say I can’t cast American roles or any other roles.”
International casting, Carla noted, requires extensive research and watching a lot of foreign titles. “A show like Narcos is cast all over the Latin world. I do casting in Spain, in Portugal, in Mexico, Central and South America, the U.S. and Canada, and even the U.K. Anywhere in the world where there are Latinos.”
In the U.S., an organized network of agents and managers make the process easier. “When I find actors in Mexico or Latin America, there’s only one rep—when they have a rep. Basically, you need to track down actors every way you can because they don’t always keep the same phone or email.”
But when that research pays off, it’s the most rewarding part of the job. While working on Sin Nombre, for example, Carla was tasked with filling the lead role of a gang member. She led open calls in Honduras until she found the perfect fit for the character of “El Casper.” “He was the real thing,” she said of Edgar Flores. “He hadn't really done anything before, and he absolutely nailed it.”
The gardener, the cook, the maid
“When I moved to LA, there were barely any Latino roles,” Carla recalled. “The ones that you would find were the gardener, the cook, the maid, the cholo, the gangster, or the immigrant crossing the border. That was it—and there weren’t many.”
“Now you have a lot of projects that are all Latino and a lot of projects that mix languages in a very organic way. For example, if the grandfather is from Mexico and moved here, he doesn’t really speak English with his family, but his children and grandchildren speak English. So the grandfather will speak to everyone in Spanish and the grandkids will answer in English. In the real world, that’s the way it works.”
That type of nuance is new, Carla explained. “Before, people didn’t really care whether the actor was speaking the right accent or not. They didn't care if a Cuban person looks different from a Mexican person. Now producers and directors care. They’re looking to be more respectful to the characters.”
“I think there’s still more work to be done. But it’s changing.”
One of the movies that gives Carla hope for the future of Hollywood is Coco, which she helped cast. “They did such an amazing job at representing the beautiful Mexican tradition in an absolutely authentic way. They really did the work.” Carla noted that Pixar has two great casting directors in-house, so they rarely hire anyone outside of the company. “This was the very first time they hired someone outside to work with them because they wanted it to be so completely authentic,” she said. This meant searching for not only great Mexican actors, but ones whose English accents were distinctive but easy to understand.
Coco went on to gross $800 million at the box office—and became Mexico’s top-grossing film of all time. “It was all Latino,” Carla said, “And it showed that the Latino market is huge and it hasn’t been tapped into fully.”
A spotlight on Afro-Latinos
Carla is optimistic about Latinx-focused and Latinx-led projects, but she still believes there are areas of the population that have been sorely overlooked. Like Afro-Latinos, for example. “It’s very shocking that we need to break down an Afro-Latino role. People won’t know what that means. They will say that there are either Latinos or African-Americans.”
Another community that Carla looks to support is those Latino actors who look too “American” to land roles. “I have a lot of Latino actors that want to work here, but they’re too white-looking. People say, ‘You don’t look Latina. You need to be brown.’ So they end up having to go back to their countries and are not able to work because they don’t look the way people think Latinos need to look. And because they look white but have an accent, they can’t play American either.”
For her, it’s also personal. “People look at me and tell me, ‘You’re not Mexican.’ My family on my dad’s side are Dutch, but that’s the case for many people in Latin America. Argentina has a lot of Italians. Mexico has a lot of Spaniards. It’s all out of ignorance, I think, and not enough knowledge. Latinos need to be represented as all the different people we are.”
Change, she believes, begins by opening up opportunities to more actors who are not being represented and having faith that the viewers will come.
“Many times, people say, ‘Well, Latinos don’t go watch Latino films.’ Maybe not because they’re tired of watching themselves as the gardener, the immigrant, the drug dealer.”
“Where are all the successful people that exist?” she asked “Where are they in the stories that are being told? When you stereotype everything, that’s when you’re limited.”