Update: In a statement provided to HuffPost, Jolie explained that the information in Vanity Fair was taken out of context and that the casting process described was not a scenario, but in fact, a scene from the actual film. The money used was not real, and parents/guardians as well as medical professionals were on hand to care for the children throughout the process, said the actress. Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh, a producer on First They Killed My Father, also weighed in explaining the great lengths that the crew went to in order to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the children involved.
Angelina Jolie recently graced the cover of Vanity Fair, but it isn’t just the carefully worded details about her divorce from Brad Pitt that have readers talking. The actress-humanitarian-mother of six spoke to the magazine about her latest film, First They Killed My Father, and social media users were quick to question the casting methods used to find its young lead actress.
For the film, which details the horrors a Cambodian girl witnessed during the violent rule of the Khmer Rouge, Jolie explained that the crew specifically sought out Cambodian children from orphanages, circuses and slums. Rather than have these children read from the script, the Vanity Fair article describes a game that the casting directors would play. They would place money in front of the child auditioning and tell them to think of something they needed the money for before grabbing it from the table. According to Vanity Fair, the casting directors would then pretend to “catch” the child, who was instructed to lie about why they had stolen the money.
Angelina Jolie is crazy. What a cruel psychological game to play with impoverished children. pic.twitter.com/iAEUhINBui
— Denizcan Targaryen (@MrFilmkritik) July 26, 2017
“humanitarian” angelina jolie cast her new movie by giving poor cambodian children money and then taking it away https://t.co/fnGuKi1T2e
— Anna Silman (@annaesilman) July 26, 2017
She’s probably one of those people who views people’s pain as “beautiful”
— Arnette (@reread4sarcasm) July 26, 2017
Toronto casting director Jenny Lewis—who has worked on 39 TV and film projects including crime thriller The Whistleblower, starring Rachel Weisz, and the U.S. version of the racy British teen drama Skins—says that this type of casting is unusual, but not unheard of.
“There will be times where you need to see a particular action, or reaction, from an actor of any age, not just with children, so you might use some technique like that,” she says, adding, however, that in her experience, casting directors typically work off a script.
The controversial casting reminded Lewis of an experience early on in her career where a child actor was required to cry in a scene. In order to elicit authentic emotion during the auditions, Lewis recalls the director speaking to children about upsetting aspects of their life—such as asking a homeschooled girl why she wasn’t able to be in ‘real’ school—in order to make them cry.
“It was almost like a little psychotherapy session, but these were little kids so making them relive these moments was upsetting for them,” she says. “I have to admit, it made me personally uncomfortable to watch these four- and five-year-olds going through that.”
Lewis remembers feeling like she never wanted to put another child through a similar experience.
Jolie’s film, which has been adapted from writer Loung Ung’s best-selling memoir, ultimately ended up casting Sareum Srey Moch for the lead role because of her unique response to the casting scenario.
“Srey Moch was the only child that stared at the money for a very, very long time,” Jolie told Vanity Fair. “When she was forced to give it back, she became overwhelmed with emotion. All these different things came flooding back.”
The quotes in the Vanity Fair piece are compelling, but Lewis cautions readers not to jump to conclusions because we likely aren’t getting the full picture.
“I don’t feel like we know enough of the story about how it was done and how the children were treated before and after,” she says. While many reacted to the description of the casting, Lewis highlights the section of the Vanity Fair article where Jolie talks about having a therapist available on the Cambodian set every day, because of the disturbing and emotional material involved.
“[It’s] hard to ignore that kind of attention to emotional realities of all those working on the project. I can’t imagine that the same concern for the emotional well-being of the kids wasn’t present when holding the auditions,” says Lewis.
Outside of the Vanity Fair article, Lewis also says it’s important to consider Jolie’s work as a United Nations goodwill ambassador, a mother and vocal humanitarian. In fact, Jolie’s oldest son, Maddox, was adopted from Cambodia and was one of the main reasons why she wanted to take on the project, which involved 3,500 Cambodian cast and crew members. With all of that in mind, Lewis says her gut feeling is that Jolie wouldn’t allow a child to be manipulated in a way that would be damaging. “That doesn’t add up,” Lewis says. “She’s not that type of person.”