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Serialized Dramas Put Casting Directors To the Test

Casting directors must convince actors to sign deals without knowing future plotlines

‘I think there is still a little bit of mystery about what casting directors do and what part they play in the creative process,” says Carrie Audino, casting director for “Mad Men.” “We don’t just slap a few actors into the roles.”

Casting highly serialized dramas with multi-year arcs presents challenges different from those of traditional episodics or feature films. Thesps going into such dramas have to really want to do a series (not all do) and be prepared for a long run. Producers count on casting directors to make sure the actors understand what they’re getting into and are in it for the long haul.

Robert Sterne, casting director (with Nina Gold) of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” says the show’s popularity and its schedule have helped avoid such troubles.

“Luckily the show has become such a phenomenon that lots of actors really want to do it,” Sterne says. “There is the luxury of it being a relatively short shooting period — about five months, so the actors have at least half a year each year to do other stuff and keep variety in their work.”

The show had to cast children, knowing they might have to look the appropriate age for close to a decade. “It’s pretty hard to be certain how kids will age,” Sterne says. “We were careful not to cast them any older than the on-screen age at the outset.”

AMC’s “The Walking Dead” series casting director Sharon Bialy has a method of determining an actor’s commitment to an opportunity. “You know an actor really wants to do the show if they are willing to go ahead and test at the network for the role,” Bialy says. “Before they test, their deal must be completed and signed. An actor will rarely break their contract to do movies because if they do, they could be sued by the studio.”

Actors aren’t generally hard to find, but when the role calls for a specific ethnicity or look, that’s another challenge. Judy Henderson of Showtime’s “Homeland,” which won the 2012 Primetime Emmy, says, “The most challenging thing we’ve faced is finding the Middle-Eastern actors who can bring a lot of range and depth. In America, we don’t have a huge pool of them to cast from, especially the older characters of that ethnicity.”

Trust is essential for casting directors — not just trust from their own producers and directors but also with outside players, like talent agents. This is especially true on such shows as “Mad Men,” whose plot details are kept under lock and key.

“We knew where the character of Megan was going but she didn’t,” Audino says. “We called her agent and said you got to trust us, she’ll want to do this part. She was going to be Don Draper’s next wife but you can’t pitch that to any agent because we couldn’t have the storyline out. It’s important to have a good reputation with people in town otherwise it would be way more challenging.”

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