Crafting the language of cinema is an intricate art form. A great film evokes the senses, allowing us to tap into our souls and examine who we truly are. The alchemy happens in many ways through brilliant direction, meticulous editing, costuming, and production design. But one area that often gets overlooked is also one of the most important: casting.
Forty-year-old David Rapaport grew up far from Hollywood. On the opposite coast, the Boston-bred grandson of Holocaust survivors, thrived. Rapaport has earned a solid reputation casting for a number of Warner Bros’ series, including Riverdale and Gossip Girl. Rapaport has also teamed up with gay producer Greg Berlanti, casting nearly all of The CW’s Arrowverse projects, including Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. He also cast Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which was renewed for a second season last fall.
Rapaport, who is married to Entertainment Tonight supervising producer Ron Glines, has cast a variety of superheroes and actors who are straight and queer alike. In fact, he cast the first gay superhero to headline a TV series, Russell Tovey, who voiced The Ray in Freedom Fighters: The Ray. He followed that milestone with casting a slew of out queer actors like Ruby Rose as the lesbian superheroine Batwoman; one of The Advocate’s cover stars, Nicole Maines as the first transgender superhero on TV in Supergirl; Andy Mientus in The Flash; and Matt Bomer in Doom Patrol.
“LGBTQ characters are like any other characters, they can have complexity and heartbreak. They can be good, evil, a mix of both,” Rapaport says. “I feel a sense of responsibility to cast with a sense of inclusion to accurately portray the world as it is, still within the confines of the tone [and] artistic direction of a project.”
Though Rapaport was a huge Superman and Batman fan (Michael Keaton’s version of the latter), he admits he’s not as well-versed in the comic world as most of the writers and directors of these shows. But, he says, that’s actually his greatest strength.
“I come to the table with a clean slate when it comes to expectations of who is most right for the role,” he explains. “This allows me to approach a project without any expectations based on a previous notion of how a character should look or what their sexuality or ethnicity is. I’m therefore less tied to a specific idea and then open to really finding an actor to match the essence of the character written on the page. But I look to the director to guide me and together we shape the world of a pilot episode.”
Rapaport’s eye for talent was finessed by Hollywood giants. Early in his career, he was fortunate enough to land an internship with the late casting director Mali Finn (Titanic, The Matrix, L.A. Confidential). Of course, Finn knew the power of having a mentor. She herself was a protege of the famed casting director Lynn Stalmaster (Superman, Tootsie, Mommie Dearest). It was under Finn’s wing that Rapaport really learned to fly, as they did over 40 films and TV shows together.
Still, the reputation of casting directors hasn’t always been stellar.
Not long ago they were still denied title credits on films which might take months, even years, to cast. The Academy Awards refuses to honor their work with a specific casting category despite numerous protests by Hollywood A-listers. Some folks consider casting a thankless job because of this lack of respect, and indeed, many casting directors quit before finding their niche. But the great ones stick it out. Sure, there’s power in wielding casting decisions but Rapaport argues there’s a calling to the job that can’t be overlooked.
It’s the casting director’s job to find an actor with enough courage to bring a character to life in their truest, believable form. That comes from understanding the essence of the person, which is often buried beneath anxiety and nervousness. If done well, the rewards are plentiful.
“I see stars I’ve cast, like Blake Lively (Gossip Girl) and Penn Badgley (Gossip Girl, You) shoot to stardom and it’s such a thrill because when I got to know them they were just starting their careers and they were so young,” he shares. “I remember guiding them through the sometimes challenging audition process… To watch them continue to take challenges in their careers—start families—it’s heartwarming.”
There’s no formula for putting together the perfect combination of actors. Casting directors filter out hundreds (sometimes thousands) of applicants, whittling down the worthy candidates down to only a short few, actors who are then presented to a film or show’s director to begin a grueling process of workshops and character development. Then, the casting director navigates a system that includes other writers, producers, studios, networks. Together as a group they decide on who ultimately gets the role.
“I’m in the trenches with them, working scenes with them, directing them, nurturing them, and fighting with them for the role,” he says of working with actors. “I want these people to succeed, not only in the role I’ve cast them in but in the long-term as well. I want them to learn from the experience and I want them to grow.”
It’s almost fate that Rapaport would end up working with gay producers Greg Berlanti and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Berlanti created Dawson’s Creek, which debuted TV’s first passionate gay kiss (a scene that Berlanti reportedly threaten to quit over if it didn’t air). It was a moment Rapaport will always remember: “I had never seen myself, my struggle, my dreams realized on television in that way,” he says, adding of queer visibility in film, “Hopefully the next generation will live with a little less fear and little more hope about their own lives and futures.”
Without a doubt, Rapaport is building a legacy for queer creators. He might not know it yet, but for a very special young person reading this, to them, he is a superhero.
“I fought against myself for so long, I never wanted to be me,” he says to LGBTQ youth with their own Hollywood dreams. “I’ve struggled with depression and self-hatred, things I imagine a lot of gay men suffer from. But I wouldn’t be who I was today without the struggle. I suffered, like many, but I persevered and I had patience and I worked hard and found success and love and I know, I trust, that if can have that kind of happiness, it’s out there for anyone. Do not wait for a superhero to save you, be your own hero! Lean on your friends, your family, your community and most importantly find the love in yourself. No one can take that away from you. And with that strength, you can inspire someone one day too.”