Casting director Jennifer Euston is responsible for finding the faces for some of the most unique ensemble casts on television. From “Girls” to “Orange is the New Black” to “GLOW,” the multi-Emmy award winner has one specific goal: to populate the TV landscape with reflections of what she sees on the streets and stages of New York.
“All I want to do is tell it as it is. That’s the bottom line. I just want to be as authentic as possible in everything I do,” Euston says.
Here, Euston tells Variety how she translated her childhood hobby of studying film and television into a successful career, the importance of apprenticeship in her line of work, and how she almost turned down the job that got her her first solo Emmy.
How did you get into casting?
I was working on Howard Stern’s movie “Private Parts” as an office intern, and the production coordinators would get calls from their colleagues saying they needed help with open calls or rehearsals or a table read. They just needed someone there who was trustworthy, and they would send me. They just happened to all be casting jobs, but after I came back from an open call, I told my mom, “I’m supposed to do casting!”
Did you know much about it before you started?
My parents loved movies and TV. That was our family thing. We didn’t have a lot of money, so we weren’t going on vacations or anything like that. What we bonded over was film and television, so I [always] loved it. It wasn’t just a casual thing, and I knew I wanted to work on it when I grew up, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. At that time — in the ’80s — people’s jobs on film or television weren’t really known to the average person. You knew the director, and you knew there were people called producers, but that was maybe it. So I taught myself. I studied films from the ‘30s and ‘40s all through high school. I gave myself assignments! My library had an amazing movie section — it was VHS tapes in those days — and you could get five every week, so I would get five, and that would be my weekly “homework.” If I found an actor or somebody I loved, I would go read their biography. I decided when I wanted to go to college that I wanted to go where Martin Scorsese went, so I went to NYU, and I studied film history. It was great because I had already seen all of the movies that they were teaching. By that point I knew there were other positions besides directors on films, but I still didn’t know if I wanted to be a script supervisor or [what], so I interned in everything from film, television, and radio.
Once you decided you wanted to go into casting, what was your next professional step?
I went out to Los Angeles for a semester, and I interned at Universal Television Casting, and Megan Branman, who’s amazing, just taught me everything about casting. I was there for four months — she taught me all of the basics — and when I got back to the city and I graduated, she called Universal for me. This was 1997, so the only show that was shooting in New York at the time was the original “Law & Order,” and that was a Universal show, so she told that casting office she had somebody who was training if they needed anybody. They did need an assistant, and they hired me. Doing “Law & Order” was great because it was like trial by fire. They cast like 40 parts a week. It was amazing. It was a great training ground. You can’t learn it in school; there’s no books; you have to have somebody teach you. It’s an apprenticeship.
How long did it take before you moved up to casting director and struck out on your own?
I did “Law & Order” for a year, and then Ellen Lewis and Marcia DeBonis, who are both casting directors, asked me if I wanted to work with them on a movie. I said yes and worked for Ellen and a few other casting directors when she would go out of town for about eight years, and we worked on amazing movies, and then I decided I wanted to go back to LA. I went out there and lasted about a year, working on television, and I loved it, but I missed my nephew too much. He was just a baby, and I was coming home too frequently. I had to make a decision between a job in LA — it was 2005, there was more work in LA — and this baby. And I chose the baby. But when I came back to New York, I knew I wasn’t going to go back to being an associate. It was time for me to go out on my own. At a certain point you can’t accept associate positions anymore. I had to turn down great associate jobs just to establish to everybody who knew me in the field that I was a casting director. It was scary.
What was your first job as a casting director?
A sketch group called “Human Giant” with Paul Scheer and Rob Huebel and Aziz Ansari. MTV gave them a deal to do their sketch UCB show as a series, they hired me to do it, and that’s when I started doing stuff on my own.
At that point did you know ensemble television was your strength?
I didn’t know until “Girls.” I just wanted to cast people that didn’t look like actors– people who looked like people that I would see on the street every day. They could be people who never had a big opportunity before but were still trained actors. At that time it could still be hard to cast people of color or people who were not conventionally beautiful or weren’t the skinniest people or the youngest people. And those people were my wheelhouse because I live in New York, and I go to theater, and those were the actors that shined on a stage. Those were the actors I loved and the actors I saw.
How did you get involved in”Girls,” a show for which you won your first solo Emmy?
About four or five years into just being on my own, I got a call from HBO, who I had worked for [before] on “The Pacific,” and Kat McCaffrey, an executive there, said, “I have a show I want you to cast.” I said no because I had just quit a TV show where the people were awful. I loved watching TV, but I was done because it didn’t make any sense to me. There were too many cooks in the kitchen! When you do a film, you have the director, and that’s the person you have to answer to, but then in TV you have the studios and the networks. Even on day players, the smallest parts, and that was infuriating to me, because it could feel like not only that they didn’t trust the showrunner but that they didn’t trust me. So I said no. But [McCaffrey] said, “It’s Lena Dunham.” I had seen “Tiny Furniture,” and I thought it was great and she seemed cool, and she just kept asking me. So I said, “Okay, she can come to my office if she wants. But tell her I don’t want the job because I don’t want her to come in and [be on a different page].” I met with her, and we ended up talking for two hours, and she’s so smart and wise and charming, I was enamored of her. We really liked each other, and she said she wanted to cast the show with me. I said I would think it over and I [decided] I was only going to do the pilot. Usually they want to option you, but I said to my assistant, “We’re going to pretend this is a half-hour movie.” So I did it, and it was Lena’s first ever casting session because with “Tiny Furniture” she cast her friends and family and people she knew in it. We had a great time, but I thought I was done, out. And then they sent me the DVD of the show, and I was like, “Uh oh, this is good. What do I do now?” And Lena called me up and said, “We should do this together.”
And you stayed for the series.
I kept looking at it like, “Oh, it’s only nine more episodes” [that first season]. And I really didn’t know if anyone would watch it. And then it came out, and it was right around the time that people started really writing think pieces online. It was a polarizing show, and people we talking about it and talking about the cast — and they wanted to know who did that. I had gone into this job because of the anonymity of it. I kind of love, in a lot of way, that in casting you get to work on a movie or a TV show, but you don’t have to worry about people knowing who you are. And with “Girls” the anonymity went away. It was really weird, I have to say!
How did your experience with “Girls” affect other shows you worked on?
A year after “Girls,” Jenji Kohan wanted to interview me. She had seen “Girls;” she had seen my aesthetic. She gave me so much freedom in terms of ethnicity. Basically she let me loose, and “Orange is the New Black” is what happened, and then they let me loose again on “GLOW.”
How has newer technology and social media affected the way you cast?
It’s definitely given me more resources to explore, but in terms of new media and finding new talent, if I have to find something specific I’ll do a Google search, but I’ve never been one to find somebody on YouTube and hire them. There are people who do that, and people have gotten careers [that way], but I want to present trained people — actors who truly want to do this as a profession, not somebody who just wants to get famous. That should be the last thing you think of when you pursue this! I believe work begets work.
How important is the relationship between casting director and show creator?
That’s the most important thing to me — that I jive with the person that I have to cast for. It’s not just about the material; it’s about the people. That’s my number one rule. Life’s too short, and there’s no reason to work for bad people.
What is your advice on how to break into casting today?
What I recommend is to really find out what casting is. Watch the movie “Casting By” — it’s a documentary that was made a few years ago and gives a look at our history, how we came about out of the studio system as independent people. That will be the first step — see if that fits into what you want to do. If then you really want to get into casting, start watching classic films and television shows. And watch every movie that comes out now — and every TV show you can — and know those actors. Because part of working in a casting office is generating ideas. If you’ve never seen these things and these people, how can you generate ideas? Give yourself a lesson in film history or television history. I think interning is still the key, but now you have more resources to find out who you’d want to intern for — what kind of material does this person do that would attract you? Whatever show or movie you love, wait for the credits, see who the casting director is, and look them up. There is no specific path.