Amid gripes from American actors about the lack of diversity in TV and film, as well as the industry’s penchant for selecting British and Australian thespians for prolific roles, the casting directors at FX’s “Casting 101” TCA panel assert they’re just looking for the best person for the part – and often it doesn’t matter how famous the person is.
Cami Patton, the casting director for Justified said, “Producers, showrunners and studio executives are used to looking at tape from other actors in other parts of the world. You don’t need an actor with an entire history (of credits).” One candidate, as pointed out by the group, was Matthew Rhys who plays the lead Soviet undercover spy Philip Jennings on FX’s The Americans. Largely known to U.S. audiences through his turn on Brothers & Sisters, Rhys bowled casting directors over with his Broadway performance in Look Back in Anger. Patton added that when she cast a fresh-faced British actor by the name of Damian Lewis in the role of U.S. Army Lt. Richard Winters in 2001’s Band of Brothers, “We were trying to match actors with the photos that we had of these real people. At the time he was doing Hamlet on stage with Ralph Fiennes. That’s how he got on our radar.”
For the role of Fargo police officer Molly Solverson, actress Allison Tolman came to casting director Rachel Tanner’s attention through her agency contacts in Chicago. Tanner saw over 600 women for the role and kept coming back to Tolman’s tape “as a palette cleanser” at the end of the day. “I would rewatch her tape to laugh and recenter myself,” said Tanner. Tapping global pools of actors and casting directors is just a means that makes casting directors’ jobs easier.
“Fargo wasn’t going to be heavy in the ethnic mix, just because of the types of regional people we were portraying,” said Tanner who cast Asian actress Susan Park as the second wife of Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) on the show, “But we wanted to bring in some different ethnicities aboard (whenever possible). Again, it boils down to whoever is better in the role.”
The Screen Actors Guild provides some production incentives to low budget films that demonstrate diversity in their casting, however, doesn’t grant similar perks to larger budget films and TV series. When the group was asked about the latest controversy with the casting breakdown for Straight Outta Compton which called for A-Girls of any color and C and D girls who were overweight and African American, Patton said, “That was shocking to read because we try to be sensitive to groups, not to mention, we don’t want to limit ourselves to the talent that could be out there. We try to keep our descriptions as mild as possible. If the script calls for someone to be ‘morbidly obese’, we’ll ask the producers to take that description out and use something along the lines of ‘heavy-set.’”
In regards to why there are so many female casting directors; whether they have a better eye then men when it comes to choosing actors, Patton expounded on the origins: “For years, it was the secretaries who were casting. It wasn’t the most respected job in the world. It took the industry 20 years to realize that it’s a big job. Everyone realizes now we have to have a business mind, that it takes a specific skill, that it’s about taste and working within a budget, especially when certain actors won’t work at certain rates.”
Also on FX’s panel were casting directors Rori Bergman (The Americans) and Wendy O’Brien ( Sons of Anarchy/It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia).