When casting a series in which real-life events or a best-selling novel provides parameters for what characters should look like, a casting director’s goal is to find that ensemble’s “essence.” “You’re not going to match people, and I don’t think that’s the important part,” says Rachel Tenner, casting director of Showtime’s limited series “Escape at Dannemora.” “The important part is the story that these actors are going to tell honestly and beautifully.” Whether it’s finding an actor with the ability to channel a famous Broadway star or getting the accents of an international cast to appear uniform, this year’s nominees for limited series/TV movie/special casting were all about achieving authenticity.
In trying to re-create the nuclear disaster in 1986 Ukraine, casting director Nina Gold says she drove her colleagues crazy with the phrase, “But do they feel Russian?” To Gold, that Slavic quality was more a feeling than something that could be articulated. “We tried to get people to not be people-pleasing,” says Gold. “There was no need to make the audience like you.” With the three main actors hailing from England and Sweden, one of Gold’s casting concerns was finding an accent that sounded uniform. “Stellan [Skarsgard] sounded a tiny bit different from everyone else, but we figured that his English is so good that it would be almost imperceptible,” she says. While nearly every character has a real-life counterpart, the only person Gold had a true template for was Mikhail Gorbachev. “There’s a lot riding on that character because it’s easy to turn that into a caricature. [David Dancik’s] physicality was nothing like Gorbachev, but we kept thinking, a look-alike can’t be what makes it interesting: it’s more about depth and spirit.”
“Escape at Dannemora”
As she started work on the prison-escape series, Tenner was acutely aware of the real-life community she was portraying. “The town thought it was going to be an over-the-top story making fun of everybody,” she says. But, “that was the last thing we wanted to do.” Tenner’s goal for convicted murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat and their ally, Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell, was to hire actors who would ground the material. “You really needed somebody for Tilly who was uninhibited and would not bring any vanity into it,” says Tenner about Patricia Arquette. In Benicio Del Toro, Tenner knew she had someone who could turn on a dime. “Matt was handsome and charismatic,” she says. “You feel like you know him, but at the drop of a hat, he’s a totally different person.” For Sweat, Tenner anticipated that Paul Dano would be able to flex a new muscle: “We haven’t gotten to see him be an alpha in his own right. We were really excited to see his transformation.”
With Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and Verdon (Michelle Williams) already in place, casting duo Bernie Telsey and Tiffany Little Canfield had the unenviable task of re-creating a world of theater icons to surround them. “Many of our roles in the pilot were just a few lines and you didn’t know how big parts were going to be,” says Canfield. “Luckily, to get to play these iconic humans and the chance to work with Tommy Kail and Sam and Michelle, I feel like the actors signed on without truly knowing what they were signing on for.” The toughest shoes to fill were those of Ann Reinking. “Not only did we need to find an actor who could sing and dance, it had to be someone that broke up an entire relationship,” says Telsey. Their extensive search resulted in triple threat Margaret Qualley. Says Telsey: “Once we cast Margaret, I think they even put more of Ann in, which was amazing.”
“I believe no film adaptation should be slavish to the novel,” says casting director David Rubin, who consulted author Gillian Flynn before populating the small Southern town of Wind Gap, Mo., in the limited series. “To me, the chief influence of a novel is as inspiration. There’s an essential DNA in the novel that you absorb and try to infuse into the screen adaptation.” There were puzzle pieces, including Louisiana-born Patricia Clarkson, that quickly fell into place, says Rubin; the toughest part to cast was Amma, the menacing youngest daughter of Clarkson’s character. “Eliza [Scanlen] has a mercurial nature on screen that was perfectly suited to that role, and the ability to volley with Amy [Adams] in a provocative way,” says Rubin.
“When They See Us”
In assembling the nine actors that portray the wrongfully accused Central Park Five, casting director Aisha Coley knew she was in for a long search. “You take a big group of kids and narrow them down to match the real people,” she says of finding the young ensemble. The only actor to portray a character in both timelines was Jharrel Jerome as Korey Wise, a decision that ultimately rested on director Ava DuVernay. While it is a significant challenge to find actors to match a person’s spirit as well as appearance, Coley found it important to do her best for the five men who were convicted and exonerated 12 years later. “You want to know that when they watch it — because you know they will be — they feel like they’re watching themselves,” says Coley.