When casting a project based on real life figures, directors tend to place primary importance on an actor’s interpretation of a character, rather than any physical resemblance, recognizing that it’s not always possible to find an actor who can embody a character, both spiritually and physically. In the final moments of Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette and Joan, when stills of Murphy’s cast are juxtaposed with images of the real persons represented, it becomes clear that the actors selected embodied their characters in all regards.
Working with Murphy ever since his first television endeavor in 1999, casting director Eric Dawson has received eight Emmy nominations for his efforts. Dawson didn’t do it alone—partners Robert J. Ulrich and Carol Kritzer have shared in the labors and the spoils. Sitting down with Ulrich—recovering from an illness, and thus silent here—Dawson discusses the strengths of Murphy’s approach to casting and the process of securing a John Waters cameo.
Having a longstanding relationship with Ryan Murphy, what were the elements of Feud that were attractive from a casting perspective?
We’ve worked with Ryan for almost 19 years, from Popular to Nip/Tuck, and Glee and American Horror Story. We love Ryan’s zeitgeist approach to television making.
We love the Hollywood history of it. We’re both big fans of the movie, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? It was just a dream. He called us about six months before we went into production—there was no script, but he started walking us through it, and we knew it was going to be one of the best things we’d ever worked on.
It’s great because people want to work for Ryan, so when you’re doing a Ryan Murphy project, you know you’re going to be getting the best of the best.
What is the process when casting a project involving an ensemble cast of high-profile actors who typically operate on an offer-only basis?
I think it’s different on every project. This project had over 150 actors that we hired. Some were offers, most were readings. Even Dominic Burgess, who played Victor Buono was a reading. Alison Wright was an offer, but Kiernan Shipka, who played B.D., was a reading. Jackie Hoffman, who was Mamacita, was a reading. So it’s a combination.
A lot of times with Ryan, we start with lists, and he doesn’t need to see a 20-page list. He wants to see a one-page list of the people who are best for the role. After that, a lot of times he’ll say he’s not quite sure—“Should we put some people on tape?” or “We should read it,” things like that. It’s always a combination, but I would say out of the 150 people, probably 144 of them were auditions.
Working on a historically based project, it’s never a given that the actors will bear a genuine resemblance to the people they’ve portraying—but in the case of Feud, the resemblance is often eerie.
Absolutely. I think we ended up casting over 60 people to portray real-life characters, from actors, to the president of SAG, to the ex-husbands, to the children, and all that.
Usually, Ryan is very private about casting and doesn’t want us to let the world know everything that we’re trying to do. In that case, he knew it was imperative that we make it really authentic—that we ought to let people know that we were casting Frank Sinatra, or Anne Bancroft, or Jack Paar, or Gregory Peck. We’d never be able to accomplish that if we weren’t able to include agents and managers and actors in the process.
It was really interesting because we were hitting people at different times in their lives, so we really had to capture what they looked like in 1962. We were very fortunate to be in a time that so much is on the internet. We’d get scripts and we’d immediately start sending out pictures, from Marilyn Monroe to Patty Duke. I saw an article about how it was so important for Ryan to recreate everything at the Oscars, down to the Dixie cups. We didn’t use any newsreels—we recreated all those—so we had to put the actors in that, along with trailers in the movies.
We assumed when we saw the script the first time that all that was going to be stock footage. We ended up shooting it all. There would be extras in the background at the Oscars, or the news footage, or the films, that we would test as well, because as with the Dixie cups, it was important to get it right.
Do you enjoy the fact that Ryan Murphy keeps his actors so close to his chest? In many ways, he seems to operate as the leader of a repertory company.
It’s a wonderful quality that Ryan has—he recognizes talent. He also recognizes that actors can do many, many things, and doesn’t pigeonhole actors. He really understands the qualities they can bring to different characters.
It’s wonderful that people like Sarah Paulson, who we’ve worked with on Nip/Tuck, on American Horror Story, found her way into this. Alfred Molina is somebody who we’ve been wanting to work with Ryan for decades, and because he’s like the most-working actor in Hollywood, he’s never available. This was a time that, because we were far enough out, we were able to get Alfred to do it.
Often, really good actors have other projects going on. Another thing that Ryan does, which is really great, is he doesn’t let date conflicts get in the way. People like Judy Davis weren’t available for a lot of the shoot—Stanley Tucci had date conflicts, Alfred had date conflicts. Rather than just move on to the next choice, Ryan made it work. I think that’s something that Ryan does that most producers don’t. I think that’s why he gets the people he gets.
How did you manage to get John Waters on board for a cameo?
That was so much fun. Tim Minear directed that episode—Tim is a huge John Waters fan. We were casting William Castle, and we actually found a couple people who were exact matches. Then, Tim and Ryan called and said, “You know, it would be really neat if instead, let’s do our version of William Castle, and give the fans a little treat and have it be John Waters.”
We called John Waters’ people, and they just put us directly in contact with John. We had many, many phone calls with John. He’s a very busy man, so we had to work around his schedule a little bit. I was just talking to Tim the other day, and he said it was one of the highlights of his career to be able to direct John Waters.
That’s an instance where I think it was really neat that we weren’t doing a documentary; that we were doing a television show about that period, and that we took some liberties, always thinking of the entertainment value.
Had Dominic Burgess been on your radar a while? He’s not only a very versatile actor, but also a perfect physical match for Victor Buono.
That’s a really great casting story. We talked to Ryan like six months before production—he said one of the biggest challenges he thought that we were going to have in casting was Victor Buono. Here’s a guy who’s six-foot-five, overweight, very specific looks, needed to have a British accent, all these things.
We did some lists for Ryan—Dominic was on our list, and for the first week, we just kept looking at the list and going back. We realized he was like the doppelganger. He checked every box of Victor Buono.
Because we didn’t have a script, we transcribed his scenes from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and called his agent. We didn’t tell his agent what it was about, but we asked Dominic to come in. We brought him in by himself and asked him if he knew who Victor Buono was, and he didn’t. On our computer, we showed him the scenes from Baby Jane; we gave him the sides.
We just started running it, and we put it on tape, and we only sent it to Ryan. He was the only person that we put on tape. Ryan saw it on a Wednesday, and he was cast on Thursday. It was one of those where you know you have gold.
That’s what’s great about Ryan, too—he didn’t need to see 20 people do it. He saw Dominic, knew it was perfect casting, and said, “Cast him.” That’s respect for us, but also shows that Ryan always knows what he wants. He’s open, and even when it’s something he didn’t imagine, when he sees it, he knows it.
The role of Mamacita is such a terrific platform for Jackie Hoffman, a strong character actress who everyone has seen, but not in a role like this.
She’s probably the one that I’m the most proud of in the whole cast. It was a role that was not very defined—Mamacita had literally one picture online. I think when we first got the script, we weren’t sure how big a role Mamacita was going to be.
We did lists for the role and Ryan said, “Why don’t you go ahead and read it?” So we released it to breakdown, and we read people. She went on tape, and she just had the greatest attack on the character. We sent Ryan over a few auditions with her at the top, and he immediately went straight to her. He called me and said, “She got every single line.”
I think she earned her Emmy [nomination] one line at a time, one episode at a time. They enjoyed her so much that they just kept writing more and more for her. I think that because the show was so heavy and dark at times, her comedic relief was so needed, and she perfectly that line—it easily could have been a caricature, but she made it this wonderful, heartfelt role that was so incredibly funny.
Is it satisfying to be working on a series driven by strong, complex female characters?
Absolutely. Since the very beginning, with our very first show, Ryan has always written women’s roles really well. I think he really understands their voice, and takes it upon himself to get their stories out there, and create opportunities for women at every level.
You’ve cast almost exclusively within television since the late ‘80s, and TV has only in recent years entered the so-called “Golden Age.” Why has TV been the medium for you, even when it wasn’t in vogue?
We’ve always been television guys. We love television, and that was always our plan—to cast television at its best. It’s interesting because there was a time when television took a second seat to film, for actors and directors and producers.
I think one of the best things in our career was when we did Nip/Tuck at FX, because at that point, cable television was not regarded like it is today. When Ryan sent it to us, I was like, “I wonder what this is going to be?”
It was one of the best things we’d ever worked on, and it was interesting, trying to get people to do cable television, in the same way that when we did Battlestar Galactica, it was hard for people to sign up for that without really thinking it out.
It was based on a movie that wasn’t great, and now, it’s considered in the top 100 television shows of all time. It’s been a phenomenal process to see network television getting so much better; the stuff that’s on cable television now, in my opinion, is better than features, in many ways.
Everybody’s fair game for us—it used to be we would call and get actors’ availabilities, and we’d have pages and pages of “No interest in TV,” “No interest in TV.” We don’t get that at all anymore. Everybody is interested in the right television.