Casting Directors Bernard Telsey & Adam Caldwell Spotlight International Talent With ‘Little America’

'Little America' casting directors Bernard Telsey and Adam Caldwell
Courtesy of Apple

In Apple TV+ anthology series Little America, casting directors Bernard Telsey and Adam Caldwell found the ultimate casting challenge—a project centered on lesser-known, international talent, who needed to be able to meet very specific language requirements.

Exploring the journeys of American immigrants, the heartfelt comedy is based on a collection of true stories published in Epic Magazine. For the casting directors, part of what resonated about the series had to do with the kinds of stories it was telling, and how they were approached. “It was exciting, having all these different immigrant stories that were not focused completely on their struggle, but who they were as people,” Caldwell says, “aside from being immigrants.”

Angela Lin and Madeleine Chang in 'Little America'
Apple TV+

Another aspect to the series that drew the pair in was that it required a casting process unlike any they’d undertaken before. “We knew that it was going to be a daunting task, because every episode needed to be treated like a small independent film,” Caldwell shares. “What we didn’t know was how crazy the situation was going to get, because they truly were writing as we were trying to cast things, and the further into the timeline we got, the less time we would have to actually do the proper kind of searching to find the people that we needed.”

First introduced to executive producer Lee Eisenberg and his associate, Natalie Sandy, by NBCUniversal’s Beth Klein—an exec that Telsey had known for many years—the casting directors were recruited for the project not only based on their acclaimed body of work, but also because of their skill in juggling multiple projects at the same time.

“Most TV series have the casting director or directors, maybe an associate and an assistant, and on this one, we ballooned up to eight staff members, working at different points, only because we had to be searching for Igbo-speaking Nigerians, as well as Levantine Arabic-speaking men. There were searches for every single part of it,” Caldwell notes. “They would be like, ‘We need a cowboy who can actually wrangle cattle.’ So, that had to be a search, and all of that had to happen at the same exact time.”

Adam Ali and Haaz Sleiman in 'Little America'
Apple TV+

“Because there are so many people in our office, it wound up being a perfect fit,” Telsey adds. “Everybody had their hand in it.”

But even as two of the most respected and hardworking casting directors in the business, who had a large support staff to lean on, Telsey and Caldwell found the Little America casting process to be incredibly rigorous. “We’re all in this business to search and find and discover; it’s what we all do all the time,” Telsey says. “But this really made us have to search, discover and find.”

In early conversations with the series’ EPs and directors, what was clear was that each role had to be cast with great attention to detail, and total cultural authenticity. “We had a lot of talk up front about [that],” Caldwell says, “and how we were hoping that the specific communities and people whose stories these were would see themselves in the stories.”

In many cases, achieving authenticity meant searching for talent that spoke languages or dialects, which were specific to a given country, or even a region of it. “There are different kinds of people, even within each of the countries,” Caldwell notes. “We were finding out all this stuff about the different Nigerian regions and accents, and that’s the exciting part of casting, too, when you’re finding out new things.”

Helping Telsey and Caldwell to navigate a process based on dialect were a number of international casting directors, as well as cultural advisors, who could speak to the nuances of languages they didn’t themselves understand. Of the languages featured in Little America, the hardest to cast for was Luganda, a Bantu dialect spoken in Uganda, which comes up in Episode 5.

Kemiyondo Coutinho and Innocent Ekakitie in 'Little America'
Apple TV+

“Luganda is not a common language at all in the United States. We really would have to try to do a search, if we could, in Uganda,” Caldwell says. “Luckily, we had some connections to director Mira Nair, who shot in Uganda. Within a couple of hours, [we] got in touch with a team who could do some casting on the ground in Uganda, and go on tape for us within 24 hours.”

Ultimately, the casting process for Little America involved in-person auditions in New York and LA, as well as countless self-tapes from around the world, which Telsey, Caldwell and their colleagues had to look through.

For the pair, an additional challenge in working with international actors was securing their visas for a given shoot. This kind of logistical hurdle was all the more difficult to address, given that the shooting order of episodes was constantly shifting, as casting was going on. “Of course, [that] has a strong impact on the timeline that we would have to get a visa for someone, who might be international. Episode to episode, we were constantly trying to beat these deadlines to be able to consider people,” Caldwell says. “Sometimes, we didn’t meet the deadlines; sometimes, we did.”

Naturally, casting Little America led to countless great discoveries. And while actors Jearnest Corchado and Kemiyondo Coutinho were standouts for the pair, Conphidance is the name that keeps coming up, when discussing the show with people who have seen it. In Episode 3, “The Cowboy,” the Nigerian actor plays Iwegbuna Ikeji, a college student who connects with the state of Oklahoma through its cowboy culture. “That was one where, first of all, the Nigerian talent pool in the United States is pretty amazing, [as] we came to find,” Caldwell says. “But when we first put out the basic roles that we expected to be looking for before we had the scripts, and one of them was this Nigerian cowboy, we got a call from Cophidance’s manager, who pushed him.

Conphidance in 'Little America'
Apple TV+

“He was in the first batch of tapes that we sent the team, and it happened to be that someone on the team had some kind of previous knowledge of him, as well,” the casting director adds. “They saw the tape, and we were expecting to work for another couple of weeks on it, and it felt like within 24 hours they were like, ‘Conphidance is our guy.’”

For Telsey and Caldwell, the most rewarding aspect of casting Little America has been the ability to elevate actors like Conphidance—great talents who are little-known in the United States, and might not have been discovered as quickly, otherwise. “Any time, as a casting director, that you get to be introduced to a new actor, that you learned about through the process of casting, is a thrill. Because a lot of the time, we know people, or we know the work of actors, and then we’re trying to plug them into certain roles,” Telsey says. “[On] this one, it became like, Oh, I learned how to ride a new kind of bicycle. Because now, I know all of these different kinds of actors that I now want to put in something else.”

In certain cases, episodes hinged on international actors like Shaun Toub, who were more well known, but had never hit a certain level in their careers. “[Shaun’s] an established actor. He’s done a lot of work in a lot of big films,” Caldwell says, “but this was the first time that he was number one on the call sheet, which was exciting.”

When all was said and done, the culturally authentic casting of Little America paid off in spades, doing service not just to an incredible array of actors, but to the stories themselves. “I think the fact that all the leads were not recognized stars helped you, as an audience member, to sink right into the story of this true situation,” Telsey comments. “You know, it’s the closest kind of thing to a documentary.”

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