During the most recent season of MTV’s competition program “The Challenge,” subtitled “Spies, Lies & Allies,” the competitors initially had to work in pairs, despite major language barriers among them.
In these games, veteran players from past seasons of “The Challenge” compete against vets of other series including “Survivor,” “Big Brother” and “Love Island” from around the world. Everyone must speak at least a little English, casting director Skye Topic says, or it wouldn’t be fair, since host T.J. Lavin gives them the rules of each challenge in English. But because “we envision the show as a place where it’s an intersection of societies,” she says, they are leaning into bringing in global players, including those from Germany, Turkey, Romania, Spain and Nigeria in this season alone.
“When we first started having international cast on ‘The Challenge’ and I was doing pre-casting interviews, I would be very hesitant if I felt like I was struggling with them because the game is very, very hard. It’s not a joke; it’s very mentally taxing and that extra language thing can be very difficult,” Topic says. But now, “I will just push through a few more questions to see if they can get to their point because our vet cast will be on-boarding these cast members and they are here for it and are ready to step up. People will find their people.”
That sentiment is true of the audience as well. As the rate to which streaming platforms allow engagement with local-language content from around the world grows, so too does the size of viewership. This is opening the door for multilingual programming in scripted series, as well, and continuing the discussion around the importance of authenticity in the casting process.
“I am a stickler. If someone’s written that they speak Korean, then I don’t look for a Chinese person who speaks Mandarin,” says veteran casting director Avy Kaufman, who most recently worked on “The Chair” for Netflix. “I don’t assume that because we don’t speak it, no one knows the difference.”
“The Chair” stars Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon Kim, the new head of the English department at a fictional university who is also a single mother that often relies on her immigrant father, Habi (Ji-Yong Lee), for childcare. When Ji-Yoon and Habi speak to each other, it is in Korean, a language Kaufman does not speak. When she held auditions, it was not only to watch a performer’s comfort with the words and ability to drive home the right emotion, as in any audition, but she also wanted to learn a little bit about the people themselves to see if there was anything in their own lives that could be added to the characters.
Kaufman found Lee while auditioning another actor. “I could tell she was reading with someone,” Kaufman recalls of seeing that footage. “I called the agent and asked who she was reading with. It turned out it was her father.
“There’s always a character in everything we do that you have to look outside the breakdown [to cast],” she continues.
Similarly, casting directors Susan Vash and Alejandro Reza scoured many countries to find the ensemble they would end up casting in Apple TV Plus’s bilingual comedy “Acapulco.”
Told over two timelines, the show follows Máximo (Enrique Arrizon in the 1980s storyline and Eugenio Derbez in present day) as he recounts the tale of getting his dream job at a Mexican resort. Although Vash and Reza were primarily looking for Mexican actors who would speak Mexican Spanish as well as English, the character of Hector was adjusted to be from Spain when they found Rafael Cebrián, while Julia was adjusted to be Colombian when they thought Camila Perez was best for the role.
“Sometimes for us here [in the U.S.], I can tell he speaks beautiful Spanish, but somebody who is from Mexico would say, ‘No, he’s not from Mexico,’” says Vash. “Alejandro would help us — ‘How does this person sound? Is this the right accent?’”
“We had to call the actors to do the [scenes] in Spanish and if it was good, then we’d try the English. That was just part of the process. It’s not just like a normal casting where you have to judge the acting; you have to do that plus the accent, and that makes it more complicated,” adds Reza.
Although it has often been common for English-speaking actors to embody characters of different nationalities than their own and just learn a new accent, the creators of “Acapulco” wanted it to be as authentic as possible, in part to highlight the nuance of cultures that are not often explored on domestic television. The second season of Peacock’s “Saved by the Bell” also dives into this kind of storytelling when Aisha (Alycia Pascual-Peña) is told she is speaking Spanish incorrectly because her high school curriculum has one specific dialect it is trying to impose on all students.
Many times, shows with characters speaking more than one language feature characters who are not fluent. This adds another layer of complexity to casting those roles. On Netflix’s “Emily in Paris,” for example, it is a plot point that the titular ex-pat (played by Lily Collins) struggles to communicate in French and ends up taking classes to improve in the second season. Sometimes casting someone who doesn’t speak the language is easier in this situation, at least according to Kaufman.
“You need an exquisite actor who can do that,” she says of putting on a bad accent or purposely mispronouncing words. “It’s easier to find an original French or whatever language speaker and have them break it down, versus an American pretending they can’t.”
In the case of “Emily in Paris,” that is what the show did: Collins had learned French at a young age. “Acapulco” took a different approach with characters including Diane (Jessica Collins) and Chad (Chord Overstreet), who own the resort and are making “very little effort to learn the language,” notes Vash.
On scripted series, productions can and often will bring in language coaches to help their actors finesse the nuances of language, but with the high stakes of a $1 million prize on “The Challenge,” the players had to navigate their communication on their own.
“They’re definitely on not as equal footing. But it’s not in the vets’ interests to not help them. You can get far by having a good social game,” Topic notes. “It’s in everyone’s best interest for their own personal game to be or try to be cool with everyone, even if they’re struggling with their language.”
Although all these shows are very different, one thing all these casting directors agree on is that if you want your show to reach a global audience, you should be casting that way.
“Thanks to the internet, we’re pretty good at the deep-dive snoop on Instagram. You can’t always ask these questions to the reps, but if you go on certain sites, you find out, ‘Oh the mother is from Spain, the father is from Mexico.’ We do that all the time because more and more, shows wants authenticity — whether it’s accents or sexuality,” says Vash. “Those are questions for casting to be asking.”