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‘Catch-22,’ ‘The Act’ Casting Directors Talk Finding Christopher Abbott and Calum Worthy

While Hulu drew attention to its most recent series by casting A-listers such as George Clooney in its “Catch-22” adaptation and Patricia Arquette in “The Act,” it was the younger actors in both of these series, Christopher Abbott and Calum Worthy, respectively, who took center stage and became breakout stars in the process.

During Hulu’s “Art of Casting” panel at Variety’s TV Summit Wednesday, casting directors Sharon Bialy (“The Act”) and Rachel Tenner (“Catch-22”) both admitted that casting the leading roles in their respective limited series was more streamlined than usual.

Tenner, who was responsible for finding the right man to portray the iconic fictional character of Yossarian, noted that Clooney and Grant Heslov are both extremely decisive and knew that Abbott was the right man for the role immediately.

“We wanted someone grounded, funny but also a leading man – all these great qualities,” she said. “And I was like ‘Oh, it’s Chris Abbott.’ He came in and auditioned, we had like two days of auditions, and we did our whole process but the guys knew right away —  when they see it, they see it. And that was it. And it’s not always like that.”

The process was similar for Bialy, who was tasked with finding the right guy to play Nicholas Godejohn, the real-life boyfriend of Gypsy Rose Blanchard who convinced and helped the young girl kill her mother in the Dee Dee Blanchard case. Because the role was so nuanced, Bialy said the casting team didn’t even consider making preemptive offers, but instead decided to go through a traditional auditioning process. Ultimately, Bialy said Calum Worthy was the only actor who was able to find the simplicity and humanity of a character that was villainized in the media, and was immediately cast for the part.

“He was so extraordinary, I literally said, ‘We have the producers and directors coming this afternoon,” Bialy said. “Normally I would say, ‘Go home and think about it.’ I said, ‘Don’t go home, don’t think about anything. Just come back in again in an hour.’”

Finding the humanity in Godejohn was the most important aspect of playing him on-screen, Worthy said. Because the real man, who is now serving a lengthy prison sentence for his role in the murder, struggled with autism, Worthy said he felt a lot of pressure getting the character right.

“The process of being in the press dehumanized him, so my goal with this character was to find the humanity in him and to find who he was the rest of the time,” Worthy said.

In order to do justice to the infamous character, the young actor said he worked with specialists, read real letters written by Nick, and studied the smallest aspects of his character, such as what he ate and liked to do in his spare time. Michelle Dean, the investigative reporter who wrote the original breaking news story for Buzzfeed in 2016, was also a helpful hand on set, answering any questions he had about the case.

Abbott also had to find redeeming qualities to latch onto while playing Yossarian, the trapped WWII bombardier from the Joseph Heller novel known for his attempts to be relieved from his duties.

“Yossarian, at his core, is an existentialist and just questioning his higher-ups and asking ‘Why? Why this mission? Why this mission? Why this mission?'” he said. “And so in that sense, I can relate. I can justify it.”

Tenner noted that Abbott’s empathy for the character was apparent in a way that it wasn’t for most of the other actors she judged for the part. “Sometimes you have a visceral reaction when you read it or see it or you get in a discussion and you flip on,” she said. “It doesn’t happen all the time but it did for Chris.”

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