Essential collaborators for scrambling showrunners, and feared arbiters of actors’ worth, casting directors are responsible for identifying talent, unpuzzling ensembles and launching careers. As the actors they cast enjoy the lion’s share of the Emmy limelight, we put three questions to the people responsible for leading them to the stage.
The Casting Directors
John Papsidera — Casual (Hulu)
Christopher Nolan’s go-to casting director since Memento, Papsidera’s previous TV credits include Prison Break, Carnivale and Reaper.
Carla Hool — Narcos (Netflix)
Hool worked alongside Carmen Cuba on Netflix’s Pablo Escobar series, specializing in casting an ensemble of Latin talent while Cuba cast the show’s lead roles.
Barbara Fiorentino — UnREAL (Lifetime)
Fighting her own distaste for reality TV, Fiorentino worked with co-creators Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro on the satirical dark comedy.
Mark Saks — Mercy Street (PBS)
Having cast everything from Elementary through The Good Wife, Person of Interest and Medium, Saks has been behind many of TV’s biggest hits.
Susie Farris — Mr. Robot (USA)
Alongside Kim Miscia and Beth Bowling, Farris was instrumental in casting the USA Network hit, finding Rami Malek for the lead role.
Cody Beke — Master of None (Netflix)
Responsible for the casting of such acclaimed contemporary comedies as Broad City and Difficult People, Beke assisted show creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang in assembling their versatile comedic ensemble.
Which has been the hardest part to cast in your career, and why?
Papsidera: It’s always the small things that inevitably get put under a magnifying glass. On The Prestige and Inception with Chris Nolan were two Asian roles. One was a magician and one was a soldier. We looked forever for those roles. The smaller roles are the hardest thing to do because they need to be alive in a moment, and then leave.
Hool: There aren’t a big list of name Latino actors. The same ones always come up—Salma Hayek, Javier Bardem, Antonio Banderas, Benicio Del Toro. That’s something I’m trying to change. In Narcos, Juan Pablo Raba is a great Colombian actor—he plays Pablo’s cousin, and I’ve known him for years but nobody would want to cast him because he was not a name. And now, after somebody gave him a chance, he’s working like crazy.
Fiorentino: One of the toughest roles that I had to cast—it was getting the actor that we wanted cast—would have been Alex O’Loughlin in his first series regular role on a show called Moonlight for CBS, in the role of Mick St. John. It was only on for one year, but he was an unknown from Australia. It was incredibly challenging to get the studio and network to sign off on him. It went all the way up the ranks to Les Moonves, who, I’m told, when he saw his screen test, within fifteen seconds said, “Cast him. He’s a TV star.”
Saks: I would say that on Elementary, Sherlock was very difficult to cast because we needed to find somebody who took you away from the preconceived notions of Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch. Jonny Lee Miller was my single choice. If he hadn’t fallen into place, I’m not quite sure what we would have done.
Farris: Obviously, Elliot (Rami Malek) in Mr. Robot was a huge challenge. He had to be complicated and cerebral, and a loner, yet interesting enough and talented enough to carry the whole show. That was really tricky.
Beke: In Season 1 of Master of None, we had an episode that flashed back and forth between the adult parents of Dev (Aziz Ansari) in present day America and their life growing up as children in India. It was a very personal episode for Aziz, as it mirrored the real life story of Aziz’s actual parents. It was important for all involved in creating the episode that we stay as culturally authentic as possible. Part of that would require casting a small army of young Tamil speaking actors to portray (Ansari’s father) Shoukath and his family growing up in 1950s India. Now, Tamil is a language that something like only 6 percent of the population of India speaks. The idea of finding young actors in the New York City area who spoke the language was incredibly daunting. We soon realized that we’d have to cast non-professional actors to fill these roles.
How long does it take to know an actor is right for a role you’re casting?
Papsidera: Once in a while, somebody will surprise you with a choice, but most of the time I think you know pretty quick when they come in the room. I’m a big believer that you get a sense of somebody’s essence most of the time—it’s a natural, instinctive thing that I really try and rely on.
Hool: I usually know pretty fast. Usually with the first scene. It’s just a gut feeling—I’ve been doing this for a while, so you just know when someone’s right for the role.
Fiorentino: A lot of times when someone comes into the room in that first audition, you just know. That being said, especially when you’re casting a television pilot, a lot of people have to agree with that. Sometimes it’s more of a struggle to get everyone who makes those decisions on board with a particular actor.
Saks: It can vary, and it’s dependent on the size of the role, and how much the character has to do in a given script. For series regulars, where you’re looking for someone to either carry a series or be part of an ensemble, I usually know after hearing them read for about ten minutes, and speaking with them. But callbacks are revealing as well. Sometimes in a callback we’ll give them additional material to read, or we’ll give them some direction, and things can snap into place.
Farris: Casting is pretty instinctual, so I feel like I have a sense pretty quickly if the person is wrong for the part; that’s always the easiest to discount. Knowing that they’re perfect for the part generally takes a bit longer. You certainly know if they’re in the realm. I would say after the first couple of scenes that show various emotions, I’m pretty much there.
Beke: By nature, I’m over-analytical in most aspects of my life. I typically need to weigh all options on the table and re-watch an audition at least a few times before making up my mind. And often there are intricacies you pick up when watching an actor perform on video that you miss live in the room – for better or worse. It’s hard for me to imagine how anyone did this job before the video camera was invented.
After the Oscar controversy shone a light on a lack of diversity, what’s the role of a casting director in ensuring equal representation?
Papsidera: For me, it goes back to writers, showrunners and producers, because ultimately, we can open up that box, but they have to take the present. A lot of it comes down to what’s on the page. It has to start there for it to really change.
Hool: I mostly do diversity—I do a lot of Latin projects. In my case, sometimes I give my opinion and say, “What if this role was Latino?” But at the end of the day, it’s going to be the producers and the director who are going to decide who they want to cast. We do give our opinions and bring in actors who would fit the role, even if they were considering the role to be white.
Fiorentino: The very first television show that I cast was The Shield, and that was a beautiful landscape of diversity, so lucky for me, I kind of came from that place anyway. And when shows are either set in Los Angeles, especially, or New York, the reality is that these are melting pot cities of all kinds of people from all different ethnic backgrounds. You also want to be true to that.
Saks: Color-blind casting, all the time. Saying, “Why can’t this role be African American? Why can’t this role be East Indian?” I find most of the producers, studios and networks I work with are extremely accepting of that, and have been for a long time. I’m always questioning my producers: ”What are the boundaries here? What would work best? What can we do, what can’t we do, and why?”
Farris: I think the casting director is just one of many who need to be cognizant of this. Certainly, we’re on the front lines. There is a really huge push for diversity by all the networks these days and I think it’s good. But it’s best when it’s organic, instead of shoehorned in.
Beke: Every show I work on takes place in New York, arguably the most diverse city in the world. It’s vital that I help build a cast that accurately reflects the great diversity we have in the city. With a show like Master of None, diversity is a central theme of the show – it’s a great example of a show that comments on the issue, not only with the cast we’ve built, but also the stories it’s telling. A show like Broad City deserves so much credit for breaking down the antiquated preconceptions of what gender roles in TV should be. I feel very lucky that I have the chance to work on shows at the forefront of the discussion, shows that tackle these issues with both humor and sincerity.