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    On-Screen Chemistry: Casting Profile

    Taking the specific Screenlife format of Profile into account, Bekmambetov made the unorthodox choice to cast the film entirely online, via taped submissions and Skype. “It was important to see how actors would look on a computer screen,” he explains. “I decided to cast actors without meeting them in person because that’s how the audience will see them.”

    Casting director Jon McClary organized a multi-step process that took about two months. The online procedure made it possible for hundreds of actresses to read for the part of Amy. Among those who made an impression on Bekmambetov was Valene Kane, who had been lauded for her work on the Netflix series “The Fall.” Kane was a compelling yet subtle presence onscreen, and the director felt she would be entirely credible as a struggling young journalist. “Valene, for me, looks like many young women in the UK,” he comments. “She could be the girl next door but at the same time she’s very special. She’s vibrant and elegant and open and smart. But it’s not flashy. She doesn’t look like an actress.”

    Valene Kane

    Amy Whittaker

    Shazad Latif quickly emerged as a front-runner for the part of Bilel, “Bilel must be charming because it’s his business,” says Bekmambetov. “Shazad is so charming that it was almost impossible to imagine somebody else playing that role after I saw him.”

    Shazad Latif

    Abu Bilel Al-Britani

    Once the field of candidates was winnowed down, McClary arranged Skype readings for pairs of actors, as well as Skype meetings with Bekmambetov and the individual actors. Bekmambetov knew he liked Kane and Latif, but he couldn’t be certain that they would be well-matched as a screen pair. “Filmmaking is a kind of witchcraft. You cannot really explain logically when and how chemistry will happen between actors, and between you and the actor,” Bekmambetov observes. “When I saw Valene and Shazad Skyping with each other, that’s when I made my decision.”

    Kane was excited about working with Bekmambetov in the nascent Screenlife format. “I love Timur’s work,” she affirms. “After I got the part, he told me, ‘You should watch Unfriended, so you know what you’re going to be doing.’ I felt very calm after watching Unfriended because this was a medium I understood. It’s how we communicate now, via Skype and FaceTime and text messaging and so on. We see the characters in Skype windows having actual conversations. They feel like actual people rather than glossy actors.

    She describes her character as an ambitious young woman who seizes a golden opportunity. Whatever fears she may have are outweighed by her drive to learn what no one else yet knows. “Amy is very much a reporter who’s hungry and wants this story,” observes Kane. “She constructs an entire persona for Melody and uses different tactics to make Bilel fall in love with her. And she’s fighting all the time not to fall in love with him, which makes it a complex role to play.”

    For Latif, Erelle’s book was a valuable tool in preparing to play the ex-Londoner who goes by the name Abu Bilel al-Britani. He was also able to view a couple of videos of the actual person who was the basis for his character. “There was one video where he’s playing with a gun in a car and you get the sense that he’s sort of a big kid. He’s very dangerous, obviously, but you see that young mind. He’s into these cars and guns and showing off. It showed what he was like.”

    Kane and Latif had approximately a week of rehearsal time with Bekmambetov and Kharina in London. It was a thoroughly collaborative effort that allowed them to build on their characters and the overall narrative. Remembers Latif, “We sat for a good three days and had long, deep conversations about what the story was, what it meant and who these people were. After the first rehearsal, Olga asked us both to write something. Val and I both wrote scenes and then we improvised. I wrote a scene about Bilel’s childhood candy shop, which became part of the story. It was a very rare and beautiful experience, where we really felt part of the creative development of the film.”

    The actors delved into the contours of their characters’ online romance and the attraction that can’t be dismissed as play-acting. When Amy embarks on her masquerade as Melody, she’s able to joke about it with her boyfriend, Matthew. She doesn’t see Bilel as anything other than a pathway to a staff position at the news network and greater financial stability. “Amy’s in a relationship with Matthew, who’s a great guy with a well-paying job but not very exciting,” says Kane. “And here comes this guy, Bilel, who is horrifying but also very charming and attractive. He’s passionate and warm and is saying all the right things – he loves her, he wants to marry her and create a life for her. She’s being pursued by this alpha male and as Melody, she’s allowing herself to go there.”

    Morgan Watkins


    Bilel’s proficiency as a recruiter is partly due to the pleasure he takes in the process. Says Latif, “On a basic level he’s very good at his job. He’s a master seducer and knows exactly what he’s doing. But I do think he enjoys having the conversations. He’s always surrounded by men so it’s quite nice for him to be able to talk to a lot of these women who make him think of back home. Even if he doesn’t like London, or hates it now, he’s still attached to it in some ways. And it’s nice for him to open up. There’s no one he can talk to about his childhood sweet shop and all that kind of stuff. So it does get a little confusing for him but at the end of the day, he knows what’s always going to happen.”

    Christine Adams


    Sharing personal stories is one technique in the recruiter’s arsenal; frequent contact is another. And that creates even more confusion for both Bilel and Amy. As Latif describes it, “It’s easy for them to get into a pattern. We’re creatures of habit so once you start calling someone and that’s the thing you do every night, it suddenly becomes, ‘oh, sure, I have to call them.’ So you end up needing those conversations, just naturally. Amy and Bilel get almost addicted to it and feel a sense of ownership. It’s very interesting.”

    The intense rehearsal period was key to helping the actors prepare to take on a dialogue-heavy film shot in an unconventional way. Their characters’ Skype conversations would take place in real time, without cuts. Says Bekmambetov, “Some scenes might be 15 pages long. To be able to play that whole time in close-up, Val and Latif needed to rehearse it like a play in the theatre. I can give directions but once they start talking, I cannot comment on every beat. Val and Latif had to be able to lead, to flirt, to improvise. That’s the only way it would be believable.”

    Amir Rahimzadeh


    Once production got underway, the actors would be separated by thousands of miles to simulate the distance between their characters. Kane would stay in London, and Latif would travel to Cyprus, where Bazelevs has a production office and a local team that could organize the innovative shooting process. Explains Bekmambetov, “I wanted Val and Shazad in two different countries, far from each other, to make their communication process feel absolutely real: Skyping with each other, suffering from sound issues and screen glitches. And Cyprus had the right look for the Middle East.”

    Emma Cater


    With those circumstances in mind, Kane and Latif made every effort to maximize their time together in London. Though rehearsals could last 12 hours, they tried to have dinner together every night so they could discuss the work and run lines. “We believed that it was a very special project and we wanted to nurture it and do our best with it,” Kane affirms. “Things like this don’t come along very often.”

    Cover image: Bazelevs

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