Call it peak tv, another golden age of television, or even the evolution of home entertainment. Whatever the favored term, marquee stars from Julia Roberts to Jennifer Garner to Jim Carrey are the center of small-screen casts in contention for SAG’s coveted ensemble awards.
Creating television series ensembles around A-list talent often sets an immediate expectation for the type of performances about to be turned in. The task then becomes to flesh out the cast with other actors who are equally talented, if not yet as a big a name, so they complement, and don’t get overshadowed by, the big name. But in terms of attracting that top talent, having a notable star at the starting line can also lead to a welcomed snowball effect.
“Having somebody like Jennifer Garner on board makes [the process] easier,” says Jennifer Euston, who headed up casting on HBO’s “Camping” and has been in charge of casting such ensembles as “Orange Is the New Black,” “GLOW” and “Girls” in the past. “It definitely changes where you can go with the other characters. Having worked on shows that have ensembles with no names and then going to a show where you have somebody like Jennifer Garner and David Tennant at the helm, you definitely get more yeses than noes. It makes [the project] more attractive to other actors.”
Amber Wakefield, who cast Showtime’s “Kidding” with Carrey as the lead, echoes the sentiment, noting that having him attached, as well as an “incredible story and scripts,” made her job a lot easier and had “people really excited about the project early on.
“We were casting a family so it’s got to work like that,” she says. “This is the story of Jeff Pickles [Carrey] and, of course, it centers around him, but it didn’t really feel that much different than casting an ensemble because the family dynamic is so important.”
Another benefit of casting a headliner and subsequently attracting other notable stars to the project is that it often eliminates the need for chemistry tests. In the case of “Camping,” Euston approached the project as though she were casting doubles to play each of the show’s couples, with the team putting out some offers, such as to Tennant, without auditions.
“You’re taking a chance, but I’ve never thought of it like that. Good actors will be good together and will improve each other and raise each other up,” she says.
In the case of “Camping,” the characters were “damaged people who are forced into [a] weekend” trip, Euston says, so forgoing the audition process and ending up with actors who didn’t have natural chemistry was not a scary thought. “The awkwardness actually helps tell the story,” she says.
For “Kidding,” Wakefield relied more on research than chemistry reads, although she points out that reads can often be helpful “just to see what the energies will be and how the actors mesh.”
Wakefield wanted bold actors to round out the dark comedy. Ultimately casting Judy Greer, Frank Langella and Catherine Keener, she took deep dives into the ensemble’s past body of work in order to better visualize how “Kidding’s” characters could come alive.
“It was important in this case to cast really strong actors — people who make strong choices and can hold their own in any setting,” Wakefield says.
This is the quintessential part of a casting director’s job for ensemble series: populating the world with people who can perform character studies at any point in the show’s run.
“There’s a difference between a big ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Orange Is the New Black’ ensemble where you have an hour-long show and go from story to story to story, and a small ensemble, which ‘Camping’ is,” Euston says. “Because it’s a small ensemble you can go deeper into the characters’ internal struggles and idiosyncrasies, especially since it takes place over a weekend.”
With the quality of TV scripts increasing on a growing number of providers, actors have a greater chance to spend more time bringing to life complicated characters and challenging their craft, which is why Euston so many are eager to play in the medium.
“I was trained in film and that’s all I did for almost nine or 10 years when I was an associate assistant,” Euston says. “The TV thing was just random for me about eight or nine years ago when I went on my own as casting director, but then people started writing think pieces on television and the quality of the material was getting better than what these actors were reading for film.
“I’m sure these people get movie offers every day, but now, TV is what appeals to talent.”