Like the Actors They Pick, TV Casting Directors Vie for Emmys

Inspired decisions create the cast chemistry that puts shows in the running for the ultimate prize

TV Casting Directors Creative Arts Emmys
Brittany Christine for Variety

We can learn many things about TV trends just by looking at the shows chosen for this year’s Emmy nominations in the three categories of casting: drama, comedy, and limited series.

First, broadcast is challenged. Just two network series (PBS aside) were nominated and both were from ABC.

Second, the traditional Hollywood casting couch is on the outs — most nominations source out of New York, the U.K. or both.
Third, it’s a small world after all, with multiple nominees gracing multiple categories.

Then there’s the fourth: Just try asking casting directors what they’re looking for when deciding if a show’s casting is “outstanding.” They can be a little, well, vague.

“Casting in some ways is very complicated, and in some ways it’s very simple,” says Jill Trevellick, who was nominated for the fourth time this year for PBS Masterpiece’s “Downton Abbey.”

Meredith Tucker, who has one win (“Boardwalk Empire”) and seven other nominations, including two this year for HBO’s “Veep” (with Pat Moran and Allison Jones) and Netflix’s “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (with Jennifer Euston), echoes the sentiment: “It’s so ridiculously subjective.”

Yet there are some commonalities. Looking back at her 2011 win for “Boardwalk” (with Ellen Lewis), Tucker says she thinks the show had a leg up because it featured actors new to television, and the period nature of the story meant “we could go with a more unusual-looking cast, not your normal pretty people, which for a casting person is wonderful.”

Finding new types of roles for familiar faces will also earn casting directors brownie points. Jeff Greenberg, who has a 2010 Emmy for ABC’s “Modern Family” and 12 other nominations, including this year’s for “Family,” says casting Ed O’Neill and Julie Bowen on the show was an example of “fresh casting.” “That’s the ultimate compliment you can give in casting,” he says. “Someone who’s either new, or someone you’ve seen before but you’re using them in a different way.”

One of the toughest things about parsing the best and brightest in casting is that a good job stands out when the actor fits in. “Casting should be invisible to the viewer,” Trevellick says. “When you are aware of the casting, it’s because the people are miscast.”

Notes first-time nominee Kim Coleman, nominated with Beth Sepko-Lindsey for ABC’s “American Crime” (pictured above). “Good casting to me is when the actor disappears and all I see is the character. Because I know the majority of actors submitted, I will judge them on their performance or role they are reading for only. Their past work is a non-factor.”

Yet a great acting performance cannot be divorced from a great casting job, says three-time Emmy winner Euston, nominated this year for the pilot of “Kimmy” and the entirety of Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” (the show that earned her latest prize in 2014). “I don’t think you can separate (acting) from casting,” she adds. “You don’t want to see anything but story, or characters who take you out of the story. These people need to seem as if they were born as these characters.”

Characters that interact well with one another, particularly in ensembles, can also be signs of great casting, but giving credit for actors’ chemistry is tough, because it’s virtually impossible to plan for. “It’s definitely a matter of luck,” Tucker says. “There’s a lot of handing things over to the casting gods and hoping it will work.”

“It’s very faith-based,” Euston agrees. “It’s a very instinctual thing. You just have to pray and hope you’re right.”

No surprise, then, that outside of the Emmys, virtually no one offers a prize for great casting decisions (drama and comedy casting prizes have only been around at the Emmys since 1999; the miniseries/movie/special category has been around in various iterations since 1989).

“What makes a show work is an ineffable thing,” says Nina Gold, who has one Emmy (“John Adams”) and five other nominations, including ones this year for PBS Masterpiece’s “Wolf Hall” (with Robert Sterne) and HBO’s “Game of Thrones” (with Sterne and Carla Stronge). “The Emmys are the only (organization) that even acknowledges we’re worth considering for an award. They’re way ahead of everybody else.”

For many casting experts it really may come down to just what show sells itself best. “The truth of the matter is, a lot of things I think were brilliantly cast were not nominated (this year),” Tucker says. “I tend to vote for things I actually watch.”

“It’s about lightning in a bottle,” says Greenberg, the man originally behind pairing David Hyde Pierce with Kelsey Grammer on “Frasier,” one of TV’s magical feats of casting. “You put the best actor with the part and hopefully you get that alchemy. To me, it’s about the writing and the acting. And if you find the writers who support great actors and great actors who support the writing — you’re halfway there.”