There is no Ariel, the Mexican film industry’s highest honor, for casting. But Las Elegidas (The Chosen Ones), the new movie about child sex trafficking in Tijuana that debuted to audiences at the Cannes Film Festival and will be released widely in Mexico on Friday, has been nominated for almost everything else — 13 nods in total from this year’s Ariels.
But two nominations in particular speak to the quality of the work casting director Luis Rosales’ did on the film: Las Elegidas‘ Nancy Talamantes and Óscar Torres are up for Breakthrough Male and Female Performance.
Before working on the film, neither had been on a movie set in their lives.
“I had to invite all her friends to get Nancy into a casting,” Rosales told The News. He first saw Talamantes when his talent search at her middle school failed to attract a single participant. He took his camera and left the library where he had been waiting in vain for potential actors, headed for the school’s playground.
He was struck by Talamantes, who was with a group of friends. “She did not want to come,” he remembered. “But she did, and it was amazing. Her intuition for working with the camera is totally natural, very special.”
Bargaining with teenagers is not a part of every movie casting, but it was for Las Elegidas. The film’s director David Pablos, who Rosales has known since their days growing up in Tijuana before they both moved to Mexico City, wanted non-actors for all three leads in the film.
This was complicated: all three roles would be played by teenagers, and they’d have to be capable of acting through mature situations — kidnappings, rapes and sexual slavery.
Rosales has been an actor himself since the age of 15 and spoke with Pablos for awhile about what would be Rosales’ first casting director credit before Pablos told him about the film’s exploration of Tijuana child sex slavery industry.
“I got scared,” Rosales said. “Really scared. I didn’t know how I was going to find this cast.”
“But something told me I had to do it — I couldn’t say no.”
He started by arming himself with credentials, letters of recommendation from Baja California’s film commission and from Pablos and Las Elegidas‘ producers, which included famed Mexican actor Gael García Bernal.
“I pitched to the schools, one by one,” he said. “Most said no thank you, but a few said yes.” In many cases, he had to rely on personal connections to get access. Rosales’ sister, for example, had taught at Talamantes’ school and negotiated an ‘in’ for her brother.
“I was lucky to have all the support that I got,” he said.
His search started with inner city Tijuana middle and high schools and found nothing. Then he expanded his search to the periferias, the neighborhoods that ring the border town. He had to get permission from parents before students could participate in the castings.
There was no physical profile that Rosales was looking for. More importantly, he needed kids who “had good emotional intelligence, a very alive, palpable sensibility. It was more about being able to enter into situations, that they have imagination that we could work with.”
After two months of hard work, he found them; Talamantes outside the library, Torres in a game of pick-up basketball, and the luminous Leidi Gutiérrez as she was paying a fee in the school office.
“He was at my school and he was watching me!” Gutiérrez, who was 17 when she was cast and said she had no plans of becoming an actress before she met Rosales, told The News. It was only creepy for a second. “I turned around, and he gave me the flyer. I was like ah, interesting.”
At Gutiérrez’s casting session, Rosales knew he had one of his main characters. “There were sparks,” he remembered.
The shooting process presented a different set of challenges. Rosales was casting and coordinating extras, so he was present on the set past the traditional clocking out point of a casting director.
Talamantes, who was 14 when she was cast to play the film’s main character of the same age, was never given a copy of the script (the actors’ parents all received copies of the script before they gave their permission for their kids to participate). Instead, Pablos would sit down with her each morning and explain the scenes that would be filmed that day.
“David never told me look, you have to say this thing, in this scene,” she told The News. “A lot of the dialogue we came up with ourselves. It wasn’t that difficult for me.”
In the final week of shooting, Pablos sat down with Talamantes. Soon, they’d be filming her scenes in the casa de citas (brothel). He shared stories that he had learned firsthand from sex trafficking survivors he spoke with before making the film.
“I think it would be really good if they showed this movie in middle schools,” said Talamantes. “Many girls are like ‘that’s not going to happen to me.’ But I think that’s pretty ignorant, it could happen to anyone.”
Now the film is premiering and the two young women have traveled to film festivals on other continents, seen their work critiqued positively by global press.
“I feel truly proud of all of them, as if I was family,” said Rosales of his young actors. “The nominations they’ve received for their work don’t surprise me at all.”
Talamantes won a scholarship from the Baja California state government to take acting classes for the next year. Gutiérrez is already attending Mexico City casting sessions for her next prospective film.
And they helped tell a story that needed to be told.
“A couple weeks ago, we had a meeting with an organization that advocates for sex trafficking victims,” said Gutiérrez. “There was a person who came up and said thank you because [she said] so many times, [sex trafficking survivors] lose faith that there’s a solution. That the police are in on it, all this. She told us, you’re giving us a voice.”