When casting a television series, there can be few tasks more daunting than piecing together a believable TV family—as any viewer of NBC’s hit series This Is Us can surely tell you, family is complicated. This is the task casting director Tiffany Little Canfield took on, alongside her New York partner, Bernard Telsey, playing a critical role in the series’ success in bringing together one of the most beloved families on television.
Canfield’s assignment was particularly challenging due to the unusual nature of the series, which operates on multiple timelines, centering on the Pearson parents and their adult children—Randall, Kate and lsevin—while flashing back to younger versions of these characters, at important moments in their lives. Speaking with Deadline, Canfield discusses the process of casting child actors for the series, Sterling K. Brown’s rise to the Hollywood stratosphere and her philosophy in casting roles requiring a specific physical type.
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As a casting director, what was it that compelled you about This Is Us?
I had never had the pleasure of meeting Dan Fogelman, but I am a huge fan of his work. However, I had worked on several films with John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, who directed the pilot and introduced me. They brought me and my New York partner, Bernard Telsey, in on the project.
When I read it, I really felt I’ve never read anything like this. It was so exciting because there were so many twists and turns in the pilot that you didn’t anticipate, and yet it still was filled with heart. Usually, twists and turns, you expect in a mystery, in science fiction, or some darker subject matter. I was really drawn to the cleverness, and how the relationships felt so real.
What was conveyed in your initial conversations with Dan Fogelman, as far as an approach to casting? I’m sure it’s no easy task to assemble a believable family ensemble for television.
Each character was so specific, I think even more than in a traditional family casting—like, the quality of Kevin being that actor who is sort of objectified as a hunk, and being an artist who wants more than that. Then also, Chrissy’s character, her struggles with her weight; obviously, that requires a physical requirement from the actor. It wasn’t really as difficult in the pilot as you would imagine, but I would say the casting of the kid versions [of the adult leads] throughout the season, that was much more tricky.
You do have a sort of Moonlight effect here, casting two sets of children in different age groups against their adult counterparts. What was the process of casting these child actors for the series?
Basically, we would put out the breakdown. Luckily, we had an idea of who the actors were already who were playing the adults, so we could send that as help to the agents. Then, we really just tried to take a look at the actors who were submitted, or actors that we knew from other projects, who were in the age range, and then bring them in and read.
With Dan, John, and Glenn, and all the directors and executive producers on the show, what has become clear is the best actor for the part wins, and you can use styling and production support to help with the physical storytelling a bit more. Like, one of the kids might have blue eyes, and the character had green eyes. We didn’t let that rule out an actor who might be excellent.
In terms of the adult leads of This Is Us, you’re bringing in actors of a certain stature who may not typically be asked to come in for the standard audition. In this case, did you have each actor come in to read for the part?
We did, actually. We did. I think we were in a really wonderful timing where agents and actors were really drawn to this script. They felt similarly as I did when I read it, so actors that you wouldn’t expect, who might normally not audition, did actually come and audition.
Sometimes, it was like the perfect fit, but you had lots of options. Milo [Ventimiglia] was a little bit different type than the way the part of Jack was originally conceived, but he, as an actor, really responded to that role, so when he came in and read it, Dan actually said, “I see the entire series. It was different than I was thinking but his performance in this audition actually inspired where the story might go.” Which is the most exciting thing, when you’re in casting, and you try something slightly outside the box.
In casting Milo and Mandy Moore as the Pearson parents, was the notion of aging the actors up for the show’s current timeline something you thought about?
It was actually something that came more in once we were picked up to series, because it wasn’t really a huge part of the pilot. That wasn’t actually part of the discussion, but there was some discussion about whether we would hire actors of different ages. There was a lot of brainstorming about, what could we do, including hiring actors of various ages to play Milo and Mandy.
Everybody really felt, because of characters we see—especially I would say Mandy’s character, because she’s such a presence in the present of the show—that it would be ideal if she could make it work. And she really does. She really delivered, and also the tech support that she has had, the production support there is so fantastic.
You had cast Sterling K. Brown in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot before the release of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story—before the actor won an Emmy for his role on that FX series. Brown had been working as an actor for over 15 years prior, but seemed to rocket to the A-list around this time. From your perspective, how do you explain this kind of trajectory?
Well, it’s very exciting, you know? I think it’s the dream, because we all have known Sterling in New York, because he was a theater actor forever—since he graduated school. He’s always been a tremendous actor. That’s the thing—it’s not like his talent has just come into play.
He has always been a special actor, but I think that just this art form, it’s a game of timing. It’s a game of being recognized, getting the opportunity to be recognized. He was one of those lucky New York actors who booked a television series early on, but that did sort of take him out of New York and Los Angeles, because he was down in the South shooting Army Wives for so many years.
I think that him being freed up from that show ending, and him now being back in play…And also, I have to be honest—the part in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was not a big part. John and Glenn and I and Bernie had to really argue to say we really want to bring this actor from New York to play it.
John and Glenn are the kind of [directors] who recognized what Sterling had, even in a small part. There are no small parts to a good director, and they really knew what they had there. And luckily for us, he had shot American Crime Story, but it hadn’t come out yet, so we didn’t know how much 20th Century would know about him, but they did.
They knew how talented he was, so it all kind of worked perfectly. For a casting director, that’s your—the actor that you have loved for decades getting their shot, and then not only taking it, but killing it, as Sterling does each and every week. It just is why we’re in the business, I think.
Ron Cephas Jones is another interesting actor to look at who has made a huge impact in television in the last several years, between Mr. Robot, Luke Cage, The Get Down, and his essential role in This Is Us.
With him, it was actually funny because Dan was describing what he wanted in the role in our very first meeting, and all I could think of was Ron Cephas Jones. I just moved out here [to New York] from Los Angeles, and This Is Us was the second show I cast out here. So of course, I have some knowledge of New York actors—especially New York theater actors, because our office also casts a lot of theater.
He was describing Ron Cephas Jones—he didn’t know Ron, but he was describing him, so that was one of our first actors to put on tape in New York. I think the reason Ron and so many brilliant New York actors are being discovered this late in their career is because the opportunity is there. Those shows, with the exception of This Is Us—those are all casting out of New York, and anyone casting out of New York will know Ron Cephas Jones. But it’s still relatively new that there’s that much production going on.
There’s a strong musical through line in many of the projects you cast—was music, and the musical side to Ron’s character, something that came into play in casting him?
It actually didn’t come into play that much on this one. It’s come into play a lot. But actually, he was describing the essence of the character, that sort of sage wisdom of someone who has incredible vulnerability. If you hear Dan Fogelman say “sage,” and the word “wisdom,” and vulnerability, how do you not imagine Ron Cephas Jones?
That is his ability, to have that strength of character, and then also that natural fragility that is so unique to him. We saw wonderful actors for that role, but in my mind, I would’ve really been broken-hearted if it hadn’t been Ron, because he was the essence of the character that Dan had written.’
It would seem that casting must require a certain degree of sensitivity and tact, particularly when you’re casting a role like Kate, given that a critical component of her journey revolves around her efforts to lose weight.
You know, I’ve had the opportunity in the past to cast characters that might be described in a way that some people might view as negative, whether it’s that they’re heavy, or whatever it is. Whatever it is, I get that maybe culturally, it’s viewed as something that should be handled sensitively. I really think that when an actor who is heavyset reads a breakdown that says the character is heavyset, they are thrilled. Because the issue isn’t their heaviness—it’s a lack of opportunity for heavy actors.
How often do we see a breakdown of a great role where the requirement is that physical type? We see it all the time for skinny or hot bodies; like, I’m sure, if you look at like a Baywatch breakdown. That also has a physical requirement, doesn’t it? But that’s viewed as somehow more positive.
I actually don’t feel that way at all. I think that when I get a role like this, that has one of these physical types, I think this is America, and there are going to be actors who are waiting for this moment. They are ready and waiting, and this is them.
We also did Hairspray on Broadway, and that was certainly a role that…You didn’t see, when we had open calls, lines of people who were upset, or embarrassed, or uncomfortable with their weight. You saw people who were beaming with joy and excitement to get the chance to perform, and do what they do.
I felt similarly in this. It was really fantastic. I think there were certainly some actors who are heavyset who read it and thought, “I don’t want to play this part, because I don’t want to play a part that the weight issue is a big part of it.” And I totally understand that. But I would say most actors that we reached out to to audition were very excited to come in for it, because the role of Kate is not just about her weight. She’s a sister, a daughter, a lover. She’s really a multi-faceted character.
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