A photo of a man in a suit standing in front of a black and white photo of a party

Before David Rubin ’78 was elected president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, before he became a major Hollywood casting director, and even before he arrived as a student at Amherst College, he was a New York theater fan. As a teenager without much money—the son of a widowed preschool director on Great Neck, Long Island—Rubin would travel to Manhattan and occasionally engage in “second-acting”: he’d sneak in among the paying members of a Broadway audience after intermission, find an empty seat and catch the second act.

Or sometimes he’d write a note, which he would hand to “some gruff old guy chomping a cigar” to pass on to the star of the show. Dear Angela Lansbury, I’m about to see your performance tonight, and I’m a student of the theater, and it would be a tremendous honor if you would leave my name at the stage door so that I could meet you following the performance, he recalls one such note saying. And “at least 95 percent of the time,” he says, it worked: “I would be ushered into the star’s dressing room, and I would have an audience with all of the great leading actors of the day.” This was how he met Lansbury, Tony winner Elizabeth Ashley and two of the singing Andrews Sisters—plus young up-and-comers Marilu Henner, Treat Williams and John Travolta.

“I don’t know what gave me the courage to do it,” he says, “other than my own passion for the theater.”

Rubin followed that passion to Amherst, where he joined the Chi Psi frat, sang with the Zumbyes and majored in dramatic arts and English. Drama professor Walter Boughton became his “mentor in all things theatrical,” casting him in the lead role of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and inviting him to do summerstock productions at the Weston Playhouse in Vermont. And English professor Benjamin DeMott would prove an enduring influence: “His course in Shakespeare set me on a path of reading scripted material with rigor and a deep understanding of how characters interact and advance the narrative in playwriting.”

After Amherst, he returned to New York, where fellow Zumbye Don Howard ’74 hooked him up with a job as an NBC page (yes, just like Jack McBrayer’s character Kenneth on 30 Rock). “The page program at NBC has been for decades, and still is, a kind of training ground for people interested in production work,” says Rubin. It enabled him to usher at Saturday Night Live and to serve as a production assistant on the show’s “Weekend Update” segment.

The departure of SNL’s original cast sent Rubin and many colleagues searching for new jobs. He began working for Mary Goldberg, who had chosen actors for New York’s Shakespeare Festival, the sitcom Rhoda and the film Alien, and had just risen to head of casting at NBC. Until then, Rubin says, “I truly did not know that the job of casting director existed.” He quickly realized, though, that all the time he’d spent getting to know actors onstage and backstage, and all the hours analyzing scripts in DeMott’s classes, meant the job was “an amazing fit” for him—or perhaps it’s more accurate to say he was amazingly fit for it.

“But I wasn’t at NBC in the casting office for long,” he says, “because Mary Goldberg got a phone call from a great film director, Miloš Forman, who asked her to cast his film Ragtime. And she decided to leave the network and asked me to go with her.”

A man standing at a podium next to a giant Academy Award statue
Rubin at the November dinner gala for the Academy’s Governors Awards. © AMPAS

So began Rubin’s ascent into his own leading role in Hollywood. In the coming decades, he would fight for his fellow casting directors to gain union representation and their own branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And in 2019, he would become the first casting director to serve as president of the Academy, elected to guide the nearly-century-old institution through the contentious era of #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite.

Along the way, Rubin has cast well over 100 TV series and films, from Spaceballs (1987) to Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) to Lars and the Real Girl (2007). He cast Marisa Tomei and Renée Zellweger in their respective Oscar-winning roles in My Cousin Vinny (1992) and Cold Mountain (2003). He worked with Goldberg on Amadeus (1984), which won the first-ever Artios Award for Feature Film Casting, and with legendary casting director Lynn Stalmaster on projects like the crime comedy The Big Easy (1986).

“Just like an actor doesn’t want to be typecast, I don’t want to be typecast in casting,” he told PBS in 2016. “So, on the wall of my office, there’s a poster of The English Patient very near a poster of Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.” That office is in Los Angeles, where, in addition to his unpaid work for the Academy, he heads up a small company called Firefly Casting. He lives in the Hollywood Hills with his husband, Matt, and their Goldendoodle, Barnaby.

“He’s one of the most respected casting directors in the industry,” says screenwriter Susannah Grant ’84 of Rubin. For the 2005 comedy-drama In Her Shoes, whose screenplay Grant adapted, Rubin chose Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette, Shirley MacLaine and Ken Howard ’66, and Grant particularly appreciated his casting of then-octogenarian character actor Francine Beers in a small role. “All my actor friends adore him,” Grant says—which is a sign that he respects the actors, too.

Just like an actor doesn’t want to be typecast, I don’t want to be typecast in casting.”

I ask Rubin about his process. “It begins with reading a script and having a conversation with the filmmaker about the tone of the piece, about the major characters,” he says. “Then it’s about creating lists of ideas that foster a conversation about not only who might be right for each role but how the choice of a particular actor might affect the story.”

He goes on to reveal a counterintuitive secret to great casting: “Part of that process is to, in some ways, ignore the description of the characters that the screenwriter has written. And I say that with all great respect for the screenwriter.” In order to appeal to studio executives and get financial backing, Rubin explains, a screenwriter has to paint a vivid and straightforward picture of each character—say, “an overweight man in his 50s.”

But once the film is greenlit, the casting director can and should consider different possibilities for the character. “It’s our job to say, ‘Does this need to be a man? Could it be a woman? Could it be a person of color? Does it need to be that particular age?’”

Rubin cites the 1996 adaptation of Romeo + Juliet, set on the modern-day California coast. Rubin and director Baz Luhrmann chose African-American actor Harold Perrineau to play Romeo’s friend Mercutio and Colombian-American comedian John Leguizamo to play Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, “which I think were unexpected choices—racially diverse, and also actors who were not at all classically trained to play Shakespeare,” Rubin tells me. “I think, as a result, it gave that film a contemporary feel and an accessibility to young audiences that a more traditional mode of casting might not have given.” (I’m happy to confirm this. I was in middle school when that movie came out, and it was my first exposure to Shakespearean tragedy. To this day, I think of Mercutio as a black drag queen, and the name Tybalt calls to mind Leguizamo hissing, “Thou art a villain.”)

“There are certain areas of authenticity that may preclude diversity for a very specific storytelling purpose,” Rubin says. “But otherwise, there’s no excuse not to represent the world as it is on screen.”

From the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, Rubin broadened his work. “I had become a bit frustrated at working so intensely on the earliest stages of a film,” he says. “Everybody else went off and made the movie, and I would show up a year and a half later to a screening to see if they messed it up or not. And I felt the desire to be further engaged with the entire process.”

Director Sydney Pollack hired Rubin as a producer at his company, Mirage Enterprises, and later partnered with writer/director/producer Anthony Minghella, many of whose films Rubin had cast. “So I had these two very important and influential creative figures in my life, and close friends, as employers and collaborators,” he says. During those years, Mirage produced such films as The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain. In 2008, though, both Pollack and Minghella died, and the company was no more.

“When I returned to casting,” says Rubin, “all that I had learned about screenwriting and character development and narrative made me so much of a better casting director than I had been.”

“Here’s the thing about casting directors,” Susannah Grant says: “When they do their job really, really well, they’re invisible, because you can’t imagine anyone else playing those roles; they feel completely organic to the piece, and it doesn’t feel cast at all.”

This irony may be one reason that, as closely connected as it is to writing, directing and acting, and as crucial as it is in shaping audiences’ experience and understanding, casting isn’t always appreciated or supported in the same ways as other major elements of filmmaking.

Both the 2012 documentary Casting By and Rubin himself point out another reason, rooted in Hollywood history. “Casting directors did not really exist before the mid-1950s,” he tells me, “because actors were under contract to individual studios, and they were exclusive to a particular studio.” A film’s director would pick from a list of a studio’s available actors based on previous performances and outward appearances. Not until the studio system collapsed in the 1950s and actors became freer to roam did casting directors emerge as experts needed to sift through the new abundance of possible players for each role.

Casting directors have thus lagged behind other movie-making professionals in labor union representation. “Unlike directors, who have directing guilds, and actors, who have the Screen Actors Guild, casting directors had not ever been unionized, and as a result, had no medical benefits and no pension fund for retirement,” Rubin remembers. So he helped advocate for a casting directors’ union. (His father, who died when Rubin was 2, had been a union leader in New York—a fact that gave this work “a very personal resonance,” he says.)

No one ever said this was the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.”

A 2019 IndieWire article summarizes: “With Rubin as one of the movement’s many leaders, casting directors made a stand against the AMPTP [Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers] in 2005 by forming an unlikely partnership with the Teamsters and threatening a work stoppage. That led to its first collectively bargained contract with Hollywood, along with healthcare, welfare, and pension benefits.” In the same article, fellow casting directors describe Rubin as a master of behind-the-scenes politics, “a voice of reason” and “a beacon of gracious light.”

Casting directors also get relatively little love at major award shows. The Creative Arts Emmy Awards have categories for Outstanding Casting—Rubin won for HBO’s Game Change (2012) and Big Little Lies (2017) and was most recently nominated for Sharp Objects (2018)—but, the Casting By documentary notes, “Casting is the only main title credit without an Oscar category.”

Until recently, this comparative lack of respect toward casting was apparent in the very structure of the organization that bestows the Oscars. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a board of governors, with three governors representing each branch. There’s an Actors branch, a Directors branch, a branch for Make-Up Artists and Hairstylists, and many more—but when Rubin joined the Academy in 1991, he had to do so as a Member-at-Large. “Casting directors were the only film collaborators credited in the main title of every film who did not have a seat at the table,” he says, “because they did not have a branch.”

So Rubin led a group of casting directors to create one, with the help of “influential directors and producers with whom we had various relationships and who understood very personally the importance of our collaboration on the films,” he says. In 2013, Rubin stepped up as one of the three inaugural governors of the Casting Directors branch.

He didn’t stop there. Three years later, the rest of the board of governors elected him Academy secretary, charged with overseeing membership and governance. And on Aug. 6, 2019, they chose him as the 37th president of the Academy. Previous presidents, starting from the organization’s founding in 1927, have included Douglas Fairbanks, Frank Capra, Bette Davis, Gregory Peck and Karl Malden. David Rubin is the first casting director on the list.

“The Academy is a year-round operation that does so much more than put on an Oscars broadcast for one night a year,” says Rubin.

Its other endeavors include annual Scientific and Technical Awards; a yearly international student film competition, among whose past winners are Robert Zemeckis and Spike Lee; the Nicholls Fellowship “to identify and encourage talented new screenwriters”; and the Academy Gold summer internship program. The organization holds a deep archive—much of it browsable online—of more than 10 million photographs, plus thousands of movie posters, filmstrips, videos, production design drawings and other pieces of cinema history.

Slated to open on Wilshire Boulevard this year is the long-planned Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. “Los Angeles has never had a museum devoted to its primary export, motion pictures,” Rubin says. “We have an incredible collection already of artifacts which include Dorothy’s ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz,” the tablets from The Ten Commandments and the typewriter on which the Psycho screenplay was written, to name a few. (Rubin calls himself “an inveterate museumgoer” and gallery visitor. He credits Amherst professor Joel Upton with educating his eye and inspiring him to appreciate and collect contemporary art.)

The most important and complex project of the 93-year-old Academy is maintaining its “relevance,” in Rubin’s phrasing: “being responsive to changes in our profession and in the world at large.” Many of these changes are about opportunities, representation and respect for women and people of color.

It was 2006 when Tarana Burke first promoted the phrase “Me Too” on social media as an expression of solidarity and support for survivors of sexual violence. The words caught on as a hashtag in 2017—thanks to a tweet from actor Alyssa Milano—at the beginning of a wave of high-profile allegations that numerous men had been using their powerful positions in show business, among other industries, to commit harassment and assault. The following year, more than 300 of Hollywood’s most influential women formed a coalition called Time’s Up to promote safety and equity for women in the workplace.

In light of this movement, during Rubin’s tenure as Academy secretary, he helped to develop the organization’s first official Standards of Conduct for members. “I sought the advice of ethicists around the country, professors of ethics and all the major universities,” he says. He was invited into the Hollywood Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace, chaired by lawyer and Brandeis professor Anita Hill. Since 2017, Harvey Weinstein, Roman Polanski and Bill Cosby have been expelled from the Academy for their widely publicized histories of sexual misconduct.

#MeToo isn’t the only rallying cry that has prompted a response from the organization. Activist and cultural commentator April Reign created the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in 2015 to draw attention to the lack of diversity among Academy members and Oscar nominees. At that time, membership was 92 percent white and 75 percent male. When the hashtag went viral worldwide in 2016, the Academy launched the A2020 initiative to diversify its governing bodies and to double the number of nonwhite and female members by 2020—an effort of which Rubin is vocally supportive and proud.

“We’re also making a big push in outreach to international filmmakers to become members,” he says. He likes to point out that “no one ever said this was the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.” In 2019, the Academy invited 842 film industry professionals from 59 countries to join its ranks; half of the invited new members were women, and 29 percent were people of color. (Exact total membership numbers aren’t made public, but Rubin says there are about 8,400 current voting members, plus 1,100 retired or associate members who do not cast Oscar votes.)

2020 has arrived, and the Academy is now 84 percent white and 68 percent male. Though these numbers are evidence of steps toward diversity, they clearly do not yet “represent the world as it is,” to echo Rubin’s thoughts on casting. This year’s batch of Oscar nominations drew criticism for including only one actor of color (Cynthia Erivo, for portraying Harriet Tubman) and zero women in the Best Director category. “#OscarsSoWhite resurfaced when the Academy honored many of the acting and filmmaking veterans they’ve been nominating for more than 30 years, snubbing the exciting work of directors like Greta Gerwig and Lulu Wang and actors like Song [Kang-ho], Awkwafina, Jennifer Lopez and Zhao Shuzhen,” wrote Robyn Bahr ’10 in a Hollywood Reporter article titled “Oscar Noms Shed Light on Academy’s Fears About a Rapidly Changing World.”

An Asian and Caucasian man standing in front of a black wall
Rubin with writer/director Bong Joon-ho, whose film Parasite won four Academy Awards this year. ©AMPAS

I ask Rubin to respond to this criticism. Though he trusts that Academy members take their voting duties seriously, he would like them to “watch and consider an ever wider group of films throughout the year,” he says. “I believe the rewarding of excellence will be enhanced when we widen the lens of the movies we watch, as we’ll be exposed to more and more stories that reflect and include the world around us. That may have an impact, going forward, on the nominees we see at the Oscars.”

What did viewers in 225 countries and territories see this year? The awards ceremony telecast on Feb. 9 was the first in Academy history to have two women as producers—Lynette Howell Taylor and Stephanie Allain—as well as a woman, Eímear Noone, conducting its orchestra. Janelle Monáe opened the show with a shout-out to black queer artists and Black History Month. Natalie Portman wore a cape embroidered with names of female directors who weren’t nominated, while director Carol Dysinger, in her acceptance speech for Best Documentary Short Subject, alluded to the Student Academy Award she won in 1977. Māori filmmaker Taika Waititi dedicated his Best Adapted Screenplay award “to all the indigenous kids in the world who want to do art and dance and write stories,” and later delivered the Oscars’ first land acknowledgement: “[T]onight we have gathered on the ancestral lands of the Tongva, the Tataviam and the Chumash.”

The night’s biggest news, though, was that Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite—a genre-crossing tale of the brutalities of socioeconomic inequality—became not only the first Korean film ever to receive an Oscar, but the first film not in English ever to win Best Picture. I watched on Twitter as critics immediately began recommending other movies from Korea for newly curious non-Koreans to check out (and Angie J. Han ’06, deputy entertainment editor at Mashable, tweeted a stunned series of exclamation points and South Korean flag emoji).

Like many fans, David Rubin sees Parasite’s win as “an encouraging sign of a cultural shift in the Academy toward a more inclusive and global view of movies.” And like the Academy presidents before him, he had his own role in the ceremony: he came out toward the end to announce the opening of the Academy Museum. Rubin’s speech was brief and low-key enough that Tom Hanks, before revealing the museum’s exact opening date of Dec. 14, 2020, drew a laugh by referring to Rubin as “Mr. Excitement.”

But, of course, Rubin really was excited—he calls this Oscar night “an experience I’ll never forget.” There he was: a lifelong lover of the theater, once again standing onstage and backstage among the stars, many of whose careers he’s helped to shape, and raising the curtain on the Academy’s new act.

Katherine Duke ’05 is Amherst magazine’s assistant editor.

Photos by Amanda Friedman