After laying the foundation for Netflix original series Master of None in its first season, casting director Cody Beke joined forces with Italian native Teresa Razzauti for Season 2, the first two episodes of which are set in gorgeous Modena, Italy. Taking a few months to live in the small European city before heading into production, creator/star Aziz Ansari was heavily involved with the casting process per usual, making an effort to portray modern Italian life as it really is—as opposed to a collage of cinematic stereotypes—something Razzauti greatly appreciated.
Below, the Emmy-nominated casting directors describe Ansari’s contributions to their process, including his effort to bring local friends made in Italy before cameras.
Cody, can you outline the process of casting for Master of None Season 1 and how things changed, going into the second season?
Cody Beke: I think over two seasons, the approach is basically the same. The way Alan and Aziz set up the season is they’re basically 10 short films, and all the characters that we see come in and out of his life, we never get an episode that explains where this person came from, what their relationship was, or how they met. They’re all just sort of there, and you have to believe that there’s history there—a relationship of some sort.
When he wrote the first season, all these characters were just vague ideas, outlines, and he started to tailor the script towards the actor after getting to know them. Alessandra [Mastronardi]’s character, Francesca, was always in the script, but once Aziz met with her and they clicked, the character took on a lot of the characteristics that Alessandra already has. That’s the way he writes.
Can you expand on the process of finding the right actress for that part?
Beke: My office came on a little earlier in the process to begin the search for the female lead of Season 2, Francesca. We had been researching and setting up meetings with Italian actresses that we knew from New York, and took meetings in L.A. Then, he went over to Europe for a spot, and was in Italy meeting actresses.
He relies very much on the energy he gets in the room. It hadn’t quite clicked yet, and he had a layover in London, on his way back to New York. Alessandra had always been someone who was on my radar, someone who checked off all the boxes that we were looking for with this character. She had done a Woody Allen movie a few years ago; other than that, I think she’s very well known in Europe and in Italy.
Teresa Razzauti: In Italy, she’s been a very well known actress for many years. She started when she was 14, 15 years old. She always has been very good, and she speaks very good English. She’s very professional, and she’s fantastic.
How did you go about casting Italian locals for the first two episodes of Season 2?
Razzauti: I had the script, and I knew that [Aziz] had been in the region of Emilia-Romagna many times. I started looking for actors after conversations with Cody because it was very important that we could collaborate together.
He gave me the lines and explained everything about Aziz, the way he worked, the way he liked to cast. For the boy, [Mario], I looked all over Italy because he was a very important character. I found him in Naples, in the south of Italy, and he was amazing. I sent all the materials to Cody and Aziz, and then he met him and chose him. But the casting for the little one was huge—I saw a lot of children. I actually saw 200, and they [needed to be able to] understand a little bit of English.
Aziz didn’t want someone who could speak perfect English. He really wanted the real Italian things. He wanted a real boy, and this helped the process a lot. Then, every time I found someone that was interesting, I showed them. We did the shortlist, and at the end, this fantastic little boy came from Naples, and he was the one.
Was that Nicoló Ambrosio’s first job as an actor?
Razzauti: Yes, yes.
Would you say he was the biggest discovery in casting the show, this time around?
Beke: Yeah, that role, Mario, was the great white whale for both Teresa and I. I think the episode was going to live or die based on being able to find a kid who could go toe-to-toe with Aziz, who is quite a presence himself, and is so dynamic. We needed a kid who could match that, and really go above and beyond that, because the whole time, the kid is sort of giving it to Aziz’s character. Also, it was important to find a kid who matched the scrappy energy that the kid from Bicycle Thieves had, because that’s mainly what the episode was marrying.
Teresa, what was your level of familiarity with the region of Italy the series was shot in?
Razzauti: I’ve done at least four other projects in the region of Emilia-Romagna. In each region of Italy, you really have different attitudes towards people. When we were looking for a kid there, and it’s the first thing they’d done, we didn’t find the soul that [Ambrosio] has, the purity of his talent, because children are sometimes not very natural. You can find them all over Italy, so even if he wasn’t from there, he was all right. Emilia-Romagna is a region of working-class people. They built Italy, so he was okay. A bambino, a child from Emilia-Romagna, which is of country, working-class origins, is not different from another kid.
Can you explain what it’s like, working with Aziz Ansari in casting the series? He’s suggested that he’s very involved with the process.
Beke: Ultimately, a good factor was that it didn’t really matter what was on the page for some of these characters. What matters is the feel in the room and whether Aziz can engage with somebody. I think that goes for the entire cast. Aziz isn’t in the room for every single co-star role but he has a very good sense of what he wants. He’s very focused, and that’s a great thing to have in a showrunner.
There were several roles in those two Italian episodes where they’re just his buddies that he hung out with when he was in Modena for five months, making pasta. One of the guys in the cafe scene, Giorgio [Pighi], is just some dude he met out there, because he wants it to feel like these people have been part of his life for a while. What better way to do that than to cast someone who you actually already have that connection with? I’m not sure she’s a professional actress, but the woman who runs the restaurant, that’s her restaurant. She runs that place. He just knows her from the town there. In that particular episode, those are instances of people just filling in the space where they would actually exist in his real life, which is cool.
In a broader sense, when it comes to directing the show, the actor who played his producer, Lawrence, that character was a million different versions. It was a woman, it was an older man, it was a young kid who didn’t know anything. I met Leonard [Ouzts] on a general, and he just had this really funny energy, and I’m like, “I think he and Aziz would really get along. I think they could make something of it.”
Overall, when Aziz is casting, he’s very open-minded, and whatever the character is on the page, by the time we’re done with the process, more often than not, it’s a completely different variation of where it started out, which is fun.
What has the process been of bringing high-profile talents like John Legend and Bobby Cannavale into the series?
Beke: Aziz is a very well connected individual. He has a lot of friends, and he’s perfectly fine with shooting a text to John to see if John would be down to do a favor for him. A lot of it comes from that—I think that’s how they got John.
With Bobby, it was a process. It was a huge role, a lot of days. He needed a huge presence, and it wasn’t a thing where someone could just come in for a week and shoot all of his episodes, and we’re done with them. It was over a spread, and we got lucky with Bobby. He was shooting Jumanji in between, he really wanted to do this, and he accommodated the schedule. We got so lucky because I think in the beginning, when I read the scripts, he was the guy I had in mind who checked off all the boxes for who Chef Jeff was. He has that energy, he had the look, he had the charisma, and I couldn’t have been happier that we ended up with Bobby. He did such a phenomenal job with that role.
Having cast projects across the spectrum of television, is there a notable difference to working on a project for a streaming series like Master of None?
Beke: Working for Netflix is great, and I’m lucky with Master of None, and a lot of other shows now. They do give you a lot of creative leeway, and they give the showrunners a lot of creative leeway, so they can make the show they want to make. They’re really good about that. I can’t think of one instance, at least on the casting end of things, where there was a lot of creative pushback to the direction we wanted to go with these characters.
It’s a stressful enough job to do what Teresa and I do, and it’s nice not to have that extra hurdle in our way, where you’re getting unnecessary pushback. They let their showrunners run the show their way, which gives you freedom to get really creative with some of the casting.
Razzauti: I have to say that sometimes, during production in Italy, everybody’s got a stereotype in mind. Aziz knew exactly how Italians are, which is not really the usual stereotype. So what he was looking for was really the real thing, the real people.
I think that he found it, even when he cast actors. For a casting director, working with stereotyping is not creative, and you feel frustrated sometimes. But this time, we really had such fun, and we could do a really good job, going with the reality, how real Italians are—not in the common way you usually see in movies.
That’s a very good thing. From the very beginning, I understood that this was a modern way of seeing how Italians are, even in a rural place. But it wasn’t a stereotype. It was real. A Nonna [“grandmother”] was a real Nonna. She wasn’t singing stupid songs. She was an amazing actress, but she was a real person. Aziz loves people. He loves the reality of them. It was a very beautiful thing for me to work in this way.