Given the unique, intimate filming style of “Cloverfield,” the filmmakers sought out actors who were not instantly recognizable faces. Reeves and Abrams assembled a diverse group of gifted young actors: Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T. J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel and Odette Yustman. It was a strategy Abrams had used with great success before when he helped spark the careers of such actors as Keri Russell, Jennifer Garner, Scott Speedman and Evangeline Lily.
“The key to casting this movie well was to cast really great, talented, likeable people that you hadn’t seen before,” Abrams says. The main reason, says director Matt Reeves, is that “even though we were doing a very large-scale monster movie, we were doing it in a very independent way. And that necessitated us purposely bringing in people we didn’t recognize.”
Cast in the pivotal role of Rob in this unique project is Michael Stahl-David, who last appeared on the critically acclaimed series “The Black Donnellys.” Stahl-David immediately struck up a rapport with director Reeves. “What attracted me to the project was that I haven’t really made a lot of movies.
But I really got excited about the prospect of working with Matt during the audition process. I got the sense that he was somebody interested in character and nuance. He got very animated when he talked about the dynamics between the characters. He seemed to appreciate the 'try this and see what we find' approach, which made me feel very free."
The unusual, heard-but-rarely-seen character of Hud fell to T.J. Miller. “I had a meeting with the casting director and we talked about the fact that I’m a comedian,” says Miller, a Second City native.
Though the specifics of the project were kept under wraps during the auditions, Miller was assured he would be allowed to filter his humor into the film. His audition material, however, was anything but funny. "I came in to read and they gave me the material and it was this really heartfelt, serious monologue," he recalls. "So I was completely confused. The casting director stopped at the end of it and said 'That was awesome, but it’s definitely the wrong script. My assistant gave you the incorrect monologue. We're going to get you the right sides.' They gave me sides that were a little more appropriate to my character – who is an excitable, funny guy you only see for three minutes."
It was important for the filmmakers to find someone with humor and compassion to portray the film’s narrator. He is an “everyman” in a sea of sophisticated, upwardly mobile Manhattan-ites. “T.J. is us,” says executive producer Clark. “When you watch the movie you are T.J. because the character of Hud has humanity and emotion and a sense of humor. He’s totally relatable. He’s not only the voice of the movie, he’s the heart of the movie.”
“Everybody’s got a friend like Hud,” says producer Bryan Burk. “He’s the guy who’s missing the self-edit button. But he’s also the person that is always there for you when you need him. He’s insane, and you love him.”
Adds director Reeves, “We thought, ‘Okay, well, if you feel that presence behind the camera, that’s something you’re going to remember.’”
Jessica Lucas describes her character, Lily, as “the bossy one. She’s the older sister living in control all the time. She’s the only one of the group who really has her life together. That’s why she’s the organizer who instigates this whole night.”
Vancouver native Lucas, who recently joined the “CSI” team on CBS, had an unusual path to “Cloverfield.” “I got a call from my agents saying that I had an audition for a J.J. Abrams movie. I had no script, no character description, no sides, nothing. There was no way I could prepare for it. And I went on tape for it. I didn’t hear anything and after six weeks I went back on tape for them again. Two weeks later I flew down to meet with J.J., Bryan Burk and Matt, and we did a reading, and they actually told me in the room that I got the part, which was very exciting.”
Executive producer Clark explains the six week silence: “Jessica sent in an audition tape and we overlooked it at first. We had gone through hundreds of actresses and couldn't find anyone who just had everything we wanted for the role. Our unit production manager said he had just worked with this great actress named Jessica Lucas – and for some reason that rang a bell. So we found her tape, called her and flew her down that day. She auditioned and we cast her in the room and sent her to wardrobe. We started shooting just a few days later.”
Clark’s experience with Lucas during production further solidified her confidence in the young actor’s abilities. “She possesses true star quality. She’s beautiful, charming and she’s got heart. She’s everything we wanted for Lily because she’s in the movie almost more than anyone.”
Odette Yustman had a similarly serendipitous journey to “Cloverfield” portraying Beth, Rob’s love interest. As Clark remembers it, “Matt Reeves, Bryan Burk and I were walking out of another meeting and we decided to stop by the casting office. Odette was sitting in the waiting room, and Alyssa, our casting director, said, ‘Do you mind sitting in? There’s this girl and I think she’s great.’ We were blown away. We saw her and we knew she was Beth. She’s lovely and so talented and bright.”
The two more recognizable faces in "Cloverfield" belong to Lizzy Caplan (Marlena) and Mike Vogel (Jason). Caplan has had no problem disappearing into roles such as the Goth-like, cynical Janis Ian character in "Mean Girls" or as Kat Warbler in the critically acclaimed series "The Class." She tackled the role of Marlena with similar gusto. "The thing that attracted me to this movie was J.J. Abrams. I've always been really impressed with ‘Lost,’" she admits. So she wasn't thrown by the veil of secrecy surrounding her audition. "We didn't know anything about the movie other than that J.J. was involved. What we read were not scenes from the movie, but from TV shows like 'Alias.'"
Caplan speculates that Abrams and Reeves were perhaps returning to their roots – the two had first collaborated on “Felicity.” The actors’ first taste of the script was from the early part of the movie, scenes in which six 20-something characters are involved in various unrequited crushes and friendships. “At first I thought it was a coming-of-age movie, sort of like ‘Reality Bites,’” Caplan recalls. “But then they gave us a second audition scene at the last minute in which I had to stab T.J. Miller in the heart with a shot of adrenaline. The producers were just laughing and loving the fact that we had no idea what was going on.”
The chemistry between Miller and Caplan was critical, says Reeves. “Having T.J. and Lizzy play off each other was what sold us on that relationship. So it was critical that we cast them and develop that relationship.”
Vogel previously starred with Kurt Russell in “Poseidon,” with Jennifer Aniston in “Rumor Has It…” and opposite Jessica Biel in the recent remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” “Mike has a lot more movie credits under his belt than most of the rest of the cast,” Clark says. “He was probably the most familiar actor when he came in and read with Michael (Stahl-David). We were trying to pair actors and look for chemistry. There’s a scene in which these two brothers are talking and having a beer. He brought in two beers, and they drank during the audition and it was sort of charming, and real. We just fell in love with Mike, and felt like he really was acting kind of like that older brother. We hired him based on that audition.”
For these six talented actors, the excitement of being cast in a huge science fiction thriller produced by J.J. Abrams came with a proviso: they were forbidden to breathe a word about the movie to anyone, and even had to sign non-disclosure forms.