'It's very special to do projects in Belfast, about Belfast, and get some great roles for local actors ... Game of Thrones is the best TV drama ever and it was made here'
Carla Stronge is a double Emmy award winning casting director with many hit shows to her name, not least Game of Thrones and The Fall. She tells Una Brankin about her Belfast childhood and why she's grateful for growing up with parents from 'both sides of the divide'
She is an Emmy award-winning casting director, with Game of Thrones, The Fall and Derry Girls on her list of credits, yet Carla Stronge still gets starstruck when she runs into Hollywood royalty.
The 38-year-old company director, From east Belfast, won another high-profile accolade on Thursday night, when she received the Brian Waddell Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Creative Industries at this year's Royal Television Society (RTS) NI event in Belfast.
While she may have been at ease in the company of colleagues and home-grown stars at the ceremony in the MAC, Carla admits to feeling slightly overawed at her first Emmy awards bash, as part of the Game of Thrones casting trio, in Los Angeles in 2015.
"My colleague Nina Gold from Thrones didn't let on that Warren Beatty and Annette Bening would be sitting at our table," she recalls. "It was my first time in the States, and it was strange, surreal. Warren Beatty was his usual charismatic self and Annette Bening just a goddess -she glows.
"Another time, when I worked on City of Ember (the 2008 film starring Saoirse Ronan), I met Tim Robbins and Bill Murray - and one day Tom Hanks came on to the set. They were extremely nice, as was Pete Postlethwaite. I worked with him on something else - I don't think it ever saw the light of day - and he used to help us get lunch for everyone on set and he would eat with the extras. He was such a gent."
The RTS Award comes at the close of another illustrious year for the mother-of-two. Her 2018 casting work includes series two of Derry Girls, the final series of Game of Thrones, the crime drama Doing Money, Dave Allen At Peace, and Come Home, the BBC drama starring Christopher Eccleston and Paula Malcolmson.
Carla cast Belfast actress Kerri Quinn as Eccleston's brassy lover in the bleak and racy saga, a role which led to Kerri's casting in Coronation Street as the mother of a juvenile delinquent who lands a job in the Underworld lingerie factory.
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Previously best known for her stage work at the Lyric Theatre and MAC, Kerri is now at the centre of a major storyline in soapland.
"As soon as I saw the Come Home script, I knew that role was completely her (Kerri)," Carla says. "She's had an incredible stage career, but it takes the right role at the right time to climb the ladder in screen drama. She fits in so well in Coronation Street. I'm delighted for her."
The RTS Brian Waddell Award now sits alongside Carla's 2015 and 2016 Emmys for Outstanding Casting in Drama Series (for Game of Thrones). She also received an Artios Award nomination in 2017, after becoming a member of the Casting Society of America. It's a very different world to the one she was born into in 1980 at the Royal Victoria Hospital's Jubilee Unit.
Carla is the only child of Hugh, a civil servant, and Pat Mercer, a children's clothing designer. The Mercers divorced when Carla was relatively young, and their different religious backgrounds and relocations led to a varied education path for her. She attended various convent primary schools, as well as St Michael's on the Ravenhill Road, before enrolling in Methodist College, Belfast, where she did her GCSEs.
Growing up, she lived with her mother but maintained contact with her father.
The family's life was adversely affected by the Troubles but - as this is her first national press interview - Carla is wary of going into details.
Putting her nose in a book became her main diversion from the outside world.
"I always loved reading, but I did become obsessed by a couple of movies when I was younger - Flash Dance and Dirty Dancing, I'm embarrassed to admit. But as I got older, in my late teens, I got into arthouse movies, like Blue Velvet.
"I originally wanted to be a writer. I had a love for English and I had some really inspiring English teachers. One of them advised me, if I wanted to write, to go and study other people's writing for a few years first. I decided on screen and filming writing - something practical."
That advice came from a teacher at Brockwood Park, an alternative school in Hampshire, founded by a philosopher.
"Mum was very into new age philosophies, and she'd visited the school on an adult retreat," Carla explains. "She told me about it and took me to visit it when I was 13. I wanted to go to it right away, but my dad wanted me to do get a good education here first, so I agreed to wait until after my GCSEs at Methody.
"I was dying to get away at that age, so it was a good thing it was to an academic institution. We were given daily chores and taught life skills, freedom and responsibility. It was just after the Good Friday Agreement, and there was the feeling that anything was possible, that change was finally happening.
"It was brilliant to leave Northern Ireland and meet students from about 25 other countries. It was a real eye-opener. I hadn't encountered that much diversity until then, although I had the advantage of coming from a mixed family, from both sides of the divide, which gave me insight into differing views."
She went on to graduate from Westminster University, London, with a degree in film and television, making ends meet by directing advertisements and music videos for various acts, including Bangor's Foy Vance, who went on to have a video directed by actress Courteney Cox.
However, after a stint as a floor runner on The Bill at Talkback Thames Television, and having realised directing wasn't her passion, she returned home in 2004. Career-wise, her timing was golden.
"I loved London and all the opportunities it has to offer, but having been skint there, I realised I could have a higher quality of life back home," she recalls.
"I juggled being a second assistant director on locally made drama with being an extras co-ordinator on larger feature films. I began street casting for those and, as a result of that, in 2007, I set up Extras NI, which was Northern Ireland's first background casting company."
Rebranded as The Extras Dept on its 10th birthday last year, the firm has become the first port of call for international casting directors arriving here for filming.
Carla's first official casting credit was HBO's Game of Thrones in 2010, after having had the opportunity to assist Nina Gold and Robert Sterne in their epic, countrywide search for local talent for season one.
"That was the last time I would co-ordinate the background, instead focusing entirely on working as casting director," she says. "From then on, I became office-based, which means getting home at a decent hour, although I have to call or email agents in the States from home in the evenings sometimes.
"Not having to hang around on a set all days means that I'm not put off watching whatever it is on television. I do watch Game of Thrones - I'm a fan. It's the best television drama ever and it was made here."
Her first casting director credit was BBC 2's The Fall, starring Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan, the controversial thriller series that aired in May 2013 to record audiences.
She recalls Jamie Dornan's audition for another role in the drama, as a policeman, and director Alan Cubitt immediately seeing him as the serial killer, Paul Spector.
Carla was instrumental in choosing the actresses to portray Spector's victims.
"Laura Donnelly had been cast as the first victim, so we knew from that point that these women would have dark hair and be petite," she recalls.
"It was a conscious decision to make Bronagh Waugh's character, Spector's wife, very different, very maternal - the qualities we could understand he loved.
"It was implied, rather than directly stated, that the small, dark-haired women reminded him of his mother. I think you can safely assume that."
Internationally, Carla's credits include The Frankenstein Chronicles, The Woman in White with Gary Davy, The Lost City of Z, and High Rise, which starred Tom Hiddleston. She also cast The Secret for ITV with James Nesbitt (as killer dentist Colin Howell) and Genevieve O'Reilly, as well as Derry Girls.
"I've yet to find anyone who can't understand the Derry accent," she says. "It's part of the humour in the show. It's very emphatic and the writing's so brilliant. I find a lot of Northern Irish people are worried about seeing themselves represented on television for some reason, but audiences found it funny. English people get it. Fair play to Channel 4 for taking it on."
Carla's looking forward to watching the second series of the show at home with her husband, Khris Stronge, a partner in Keeney & Stronge Ltd, a small Bangor company specialising in the creation of music and audio for television and film internationally.
The couple have two children, Evie (10) and Thom (5), named after Thom Yorke of Radiohead and given that extra 'h' in his Christian name to echo his father's - "He wanted to pass on the burden," Carla jokes.
Meanwhile, 2019 is set to be as busy as 2018 for the casting director, with a new branch of her company opening in Dublin. She could, however, do without the launches and red carpet events that go with her job.
"I'm not into the parties, but I do love working on contemporary local drama," Carla admits. "Yes, it's amazing to work on the huge period stuff, but it's very special to do projects in Belfast, about Belfast, and get some great roles for local actors.
"In my work, I do have to be a people person, although I've become a bit more reserved as time goes on. I do try to tune into people to get a sense of what they can bring to a character and how they could work in an ensemble, and how good a match they'd be for the director.
"Directors aren't all the same. Some are control freaks, some are very single-minded, some are more collaborative and open to possibilities."
So, for any budding local extra out there, what - in Carla's expert opinion - makes a good one and what makes a bad one?
"Well, a good extra will be reliable, self-sufficient and eager," she concludes. "A bad extra is the opposite, plus impatient (there's a lot of waiting around all day on a set) and impolite.
"What we really need in the industry across the board now is a lot more diversity. We've made progress, but there's still a long way to go. I'd like to help make that happen within my own career."
For more information, visit www.carlastrongecasting.com
Screen queen: Carla Stronge and
(right, from top) Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington in Game of Thrones, Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan in The Fall, and Bill Murray in City of Ember
Prize night: Carla Stronge receiving her award from Bronagh Waugh at the Royal Television Society event on Thursday night. Right, Nina Gold (left), Robert Sterne and Carla with their Emmy Awards for Outstanding Casting for a Drama Series for Game of Thrones in 2015
Prize night: Carla Stronge receiving her Emmy Award for a Drama Series for Game of Thrones in 2015 from actress Bronagh Walsh at the Royal Television Society event on Thursday night