As the amount of premium content continues to steadily grow across the small screen, so too does the demand for casting directors to fill new roles with the best performers, be they big names or fresh faces. But because of the high volume of series in production at the same time, tying up actors’ availability, this often requires extra collaboration, especially when casting SAG Award contending ensemble series.
“Casting is like triage. You have so many characters; you’re fielding so many things at the same time,” says veteran casting director Alexa Fogel. She has dedicated herself to the art of ensemble casting from the days of “Oz” and “The Wire” and has more recently been responsible for building the worlds of Netflix’s “Ozark” and “The Politician” and FX’s “Pose.”
For such a show as “Pose” or even “The L Word: Generation Q,” the continuation of the beloved “L Word” series for Showtime, authenticity in casting LGBTQ characters was key. Since these performers have been historically underrepresented in Hollywood, finding the right people meant throwing a wider net in the early search.
“We had two trans male characters that we released a search for, and that search went global,” says “Generation Q’s” casting director John McAlary. “Nick Adams, who is over at GLAAD, was super helpful getting word out. It spread almost instantaneously over social media and was picked up [by other media].”
This resulted in more than 500 audition tapes — from as far away as China, England and Australia — for these roles. These were in addition to the submissions from agents and direct messages from actors on social media who wanted to be a part of the show. “The brand name really helped here,” McAlary says. “It was really, really eye-opening and cool to see how important the show was to people.”
Sifting through so many submissions is a time-consuming process. McAlary says he had about 13 weeks to find the ensemble players who had to work as complements to the returning actors from the original series.
Similarly, the fourth season of NBC’s “This Is Us” introduced a visually impaired character, who, casting director Josh Einsohn says, had to be played by a visually impaired actor but still “feel like one of the Pearsons.” Starting the casting process early was essential for Einsohn to be best positioned to find this actor — who also needed to have some musical talent, complicating matters more. Relying on breakdown services, self-tapes and schools across the country aided in the search.
Once the show found the actor, Blake Stadnik, Einsohn points out it was equally important for production to build in more time to let him get used to the sets so that they were setting him up for success on all ends.
Fogel, too, stresses the importance of time needed to ensure everyone can not only be seen in an audition but also worked with to tweak the performance. “We’re always trying to set them up for the best possible outcome,” she says. “You have to put your head down and look at reels and resumes and not be distracted by the noise. There are going to be a lot of people that you don’t know well, and you have to focus and not listen to all of the hype.”
“This Is Us” built a core family ensemble in its first season, with Einsohn finding actors to play the same characters at different ages. Now in its fourth season, the show has expanded beyond the central Pearsons to other present-day families, requiring Einsohn to create mini ensembles within the larger show.
“There’s a style and ability and a tone that needs to fit the music of the show. I think what we’re looking for is somebody who knows how to bring a different instrument to the orchestra of the show so that it sounds like a piece of a greater whole, even with a different energy to it,” Einsohn says.
Most casting directors admit they don’t have a specific rule about how many actors should be recognizable versus newcomers in the ensemble they are putting together. And in fact, for Netflix’s “When They See Us,” the four-part series about the wrongfully convicted men who became known as the Central Park Five, the right formula was “new faces that we hadn’t seen, mixed with folks we might have seen but didn’t quite know their names, mixed with full-on legends and just really great character actors,” says writer-producer-director Ava DuVernay. DuVernay’s long-time casting collaborator Aisha Coley scoured many locations looking for the different performers.
“When They See Us” had a unique challenge in that Coley had to find actors to capture the essence of real people and, in the cases of four out of the five men, she had to find two actors who shared enough common physical traits and emotional commonality that an audience would believe one grew up to be the other.
“We started with the kids first for this, because kids take more time, generally, than adults,” Coley says. “We reached out in an open call kind of way to the resources we could — just any place we could think of. And when we got the kids we started thinking about who was playing the adult versions of them, 10 years later.”
(It should be noted that the SAG Awards still don’t have a limited series ensemble category, though, so unlike the other shows in this report, the “When They See Us” cast members are only eligible for individual awards.)
Meanwhile, “The Politician” was “a little bit like casting a Noel Coward play,” Fogel says, in the sense that “the material demands a certain level of dexterity.”
When an actor is well-known, such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Lange or Judith Light, who not only have a deep body of work, but also pre-existing relationships with executive producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, it is easier to know how they can handle such intense dialogue. When casting the younger cast, who were playing high-school-age kids in the first season, Fogel admits it helped to lean on “where people went to school” and whether they had theater training to know who could “handle that amount of language and that pace.”
And then it is about putting the group that works best together, together. For this, chemistry reads can come in handy, but are not often imperative.
“I’m not a big believer in chemistry reads. We do them sometimes, and we do them judiciously. But I think you have to be very careful about it because people are nervous. So when I do them, I always try to insist that they get to read with me first and then they can do it together after they’ve already met. But it’s an audition — it’s not a performance, it’s not a rehearsal — and auditions are different, tricky things,” Fogel says.
For “This Is Us,” chemistry reads are often done if new characters have a big arc after their first episode. This fourth season, Asante Blackk was cast as a love interest to Lyric Ross’ character, Deja, and because they are young, Einsohn wanted to make sure they had a chemistry read. “[So] that once we actually put them next to each other they felt age appropriate and got along well.”
Still, the most important element to ensemble casting in this overcrowded landscape is not simply finding the right players anymore: As the amount of content grows, so too does the number of performers looking for an attention-grabbing role, so the biggest piece in the puzzle has become liaising with line producers to work out the schedules of actors.
“In the last few years it’s gotten harder and harder to manage the schedules of people who are not contractually obligated to us, but want to recur for us but have other things they’re recurring on as well,” says Einsohn. “For the most part, producers are willing, especially because so much of the content these days is not a full 22-episode season anymore, so even actors who are series regulars don’t make as much money because they’re not making as many episodes. But more and more of the job has become [figuring] out how we can have them when we need them and working out the sharing. That is many more pieces of the puzzle than it used to be.”