In order to faithfully interpret the effervescent writing in We the Animals – the acclaimed novel by New York-born Puerto Rican author Justin Torres – for its cinematic adaptation, director Jeremiah Zagar and his team concentrated on casting the story’s beating heart: the young brothers whose bond is tested as one them slowly becomes aware of his burgeoning sexuality.
In Torres’ deeply personal debut novel, three boys live in upstate New York with an abusive father and a mother suffering from mental health issues. The dysfunctional environment often forces them to rely on each other for comfort. The protagonist, 9-year-old Jonah, expresses his frenetic emotions through drawings and finds solace in the riotous playfulness of boyhood – until those he loves the most reject his newfound identity.
Zagar wanted the movie and the performances to have a raw feel, so the production staff launched a quest to find non-actors to play the brothers. They opened up the opportunity to regular kids in New York and Philadelphia which required a grassroots casting approach.
Marlena Skrobe spearheaded the search in Latino neighborhoods such as Spanish Harlem and the South Bronx. She focused on schools, organizations like Centro Civico Cultural Dominicano and El Puente, arts programs, and popular street fairs and cultural events like the Puerto Rican Day Parade, Three Kings Parade, and the Bronx Sports Extravaganza.
Handing out flyers, setting up auditions at community centers, sending out social media blasts, and developing relationships with local residents and leaders were all part of Skrobe and her co-workers’ strategies to scout talent wherever they could find it. They repeated this operation on multiple occasions for almost two years and saw nearly 1,000 kids by the time it was all over.
Originally from Veracruz, Mexico, Robbie Vicencio – who worked with Skrobe – was in charge of updating and maintaining a database of all the kids that came in. His contribution to the project, however, was even more significant as the only Spanish speaker on the team who could communicate with many of the children’s parents who were not comfortable with English. “It made all the difference to speak to them in Spanish, first because that makes communication clear, but also because it provided them with a sense of comfort,” he said.
For the vast majority of families taking their sons to audition this was their first encounter with the entertainment industry, thus many were skeptical when first approached. Such was the case with Evan Rosado’s mother, Carolyn Ramos, whose son was eventually chosen to portray the lead part of Jonah. “I was thinking, ‘This can’t be real. Why wouldn’t they hire some professional kids?’” explained Ramos, who was born in Puerto Rico but has lived most of her life in the Bronx.
Prior to meeting Marlena, Evan and his twin brother Ivan had never shown interest in the performing arts. Like many other Nuyorican boys in the Bronx, they played baseball in the Taíno Little League. But in the summer of 2015, when the boys were 8 years old their fate collided with Skrobe while she handed out flyers in their neighborhood and asked parents, ”Does your kid want to be in a movie?” Ivan, the more extroverted of the two brothers, stood outside their home alongside his mom when they were approached. Skrobe took Ivan’s photo, and Carolyn mentioned she also had another son who was inside being a homebody, per usual. She brought Evan outside to get his picture taken. A few days later, Carolyn and the boys ran into Skrobe again at the Puerto Rican Day Parade where the team was still scouting. Soon after, the boys were asked to come into the Brooklyn office for their first audition.
Everyone involved, his mother included, describes Evan as a shy and reserved boy who at first glance might not appear interested in acting. But as the callbacks kept on coming and the group of candidates became smaller, he proved that his introverted personality was actually a remarkable strength that translated into depth on camera. In the summer of 2016, Evan (who was nine by this point) began filming his first movie in upstate New York.
During the arduous casting process and the film’s shoot, acting coach Noelle Gentile worked with Evan and the other boys selected to play his siblings (Josiah Gabriel and Isaiah Kristian) to create a dynamic that would allow them to navigate the narrative’s twists and turns in a safe space. Their sessions weren’t about memorizing lines, but about playing games in which they would create stories and act them out.
Through the making of We the Animals, young Evan exhibited the marks of a committed performer by learning how to swim, learning how to scuba dive, and – for a climatic scene – getting pulled up into the air using a harness. Furthermore, as Ramos explained, he showed precocious maturity by understanding that he was giving voice to a gay character on the path towards self-discovery.
Ramos, like the rest of Evan’s family, is still processing the improbable but rewarding journey her son has taken from hanging out at the Puerto Rican Day Parade to premiering a movie at the Sundance Film Festival. “Now that the movie is being exposed all over the world my son’s picture is everywhere, and I feel so happy. Who would have known that a Puerto Rican kid like my son would be on the cover of a book now too? It’s so magical,” added an emotional Ramos. Little Evan’s face is now featured on the reissue of Torres’ novel.
We the Animals hits theaters in Los Angeles and New York on August 17, 2018.