Casting Directors From 'Never Have I Ever,' 'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, 'P-Valley' and More Talk Curating Chemistry Between Co-Stars

9:30 AM 1/14/2021

by Carita Rizzo

Pros from five of the year’s newest dramas and comedies — including 'Perry Mason' and 'We Are Who We Are' — also reveal the surprising obstacles they hurdled before production began.

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist
Sergei Bachlakov/NBC

From left: Jane Levy, Lauren Graham, Skylar Astin and Michael Thomas Grant

  • 'Never Have I Ever' (Netflix)

    While eager to gather a diverse troupe for Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher’s series, casting directors Collin Daniel and Brett Greenstein quickly realized that until they had nailed down their series leads, there was no ensemble to assemble. "It was really about getting Devi and her mother cast, as they are the heart of the story," says Greenstein. But filling the role of a Sherman Oaks-grown teenager of South Asian heritage proved harder than expected. “It was the biggest casting search we’ve ever done in our career," says Daniel. "We actually hit the limit of how many emails Gmail can accept in a day." After Kaling posted the open call on her social media and more than 13,000 submissions poured in, the duo discovered Toronto-based, then-17-year-old Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. Once the lead was in place, the other puzzle pieces of this ethnically and neuro-diverse cast started to land. "We got so many emails from agents asking, 'Where did you find these actors?' Everybody was blown away," says Greenstein. "We were so touched that people were really moved by the show and actually watched it. It is one of our most rewarding jobs."

    John McEnroe 

    "[John McEnroe] was in the original script, and I remember nobody was dealing with it. All of a sudden we’re like, 'Guys, shouldn’t we make sure he wants to do this?' " recalls Collin Daniel of the role that was part narrator, part Voice of God, and all affectionate snark. "I think Mindy had said she ran into him at a Vanity Fair party and said something to him. We put out the offer, and he was on board. Thank God. Then he was totally game to be in the last episode in front of the camera."

    Maitreyi Ramakrishnan

    After co-creator and executive producer Mindy Kaling tweeted an open casting call for series lead Devi Vishwakumar, the casting directors discovered newcomer Ramakrishnan. "We were like, 'Wait, did we just see somebody who literally has zero acting experience and was that great?' " says Brett Greenstein. "To see somebody with natural comedic timing who really got the nuances of the scenes and really got the multidimensional character — she wasn’t just reading lines. You believed everything that was coming out of her mouth."

    Richa Moorjani

    "We did an open call for Kamala and I feel like [Richa Moorjani] came in pretty early on. We’ve read her over the years and have been a fan of hers," says Daniel of the role Moorjani eventually landed, as the cousin who initially inspires envy in Devi. "We knew her, but I wouldn’t say that a lot of people knew her," Greenstein adds. "Mindy did, probably, because she had her on The Mindy Project. But I don’t believe she had ever been a series regular before. She had been around and doing guest star work, but to get a series regular gig was a big step for her."

    Poorna Jagannathan 

    "Poorna has for most of her career been a dramatic actress, and she was like, 'I never get to come in on comedies because nobody thinks I’m funny,' " says Greenstein about the role of Devi’s mother for Jagannathan. "We wanted to see her because we were such huge fans from all the things that she’s done, especially The Night Of. She came in and was so natural, so funny. She was channeling her own mother, is what she told us. Literally, we were all just howling because she just got it."

    Darren Barnet 

    "We needed a Jake from Sixteen Candles, someone brooding and obviously swoon-worthy and somebody that Devi’s going to have a mad crush on,” Greenstein says of the protagonist’s love interest, Paxton Hall-Yoshida. "We wanted the fans to believe this, too, like, 'Oh my God, he’s so cute. Of course she would have a crush on him.' Darren was somebody who had this quality that was a little mysterious, obviously very handsome and surprisingly funny."

    Jaren Lewison 

    "We never really expected there to be a love triangle, because in the pilot Devi and Ben are just so nasty and mean toward each other. It felt like he was going to be her enemy the whole time," Greenstein says of Lewison’s character, Ben Gross. "Slowly they realized that Maitreyi and Jaren have this really great chemistry, so it naturally evolved into this love triangle, which was really fun to see."

  • 'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist' (NBC)

    Finding stars for a show that centers entirely on musical numbers is not the daunting task one imagines — especially if you were the casting director of Glee and have an enormous roster of singing actors at your disposal. "It’s so much more fun when you’re doing a musical, because people are singing and your day’s suddenly better," says Robert J. Ulrich. For Austin Winsberg’s musical extravaganza, Ulrich was asked to put together a cast that could sing, dance and pretend none of it is really happening. While leaving no stone unturned in his search for the perfect San Francisco enclave, Ulrich ended up with more than a few recognizable names of both stage and screen in key roles. "I’m always thrilled when stunt casting works, because people immediately feel a sense of connection by knowing somebody from the past," he says. "But I don’t think that it is ever more important than having the right person." Of course, the greatest discovery of this musical comedy is its lead, Jane Levy, best known to viewers for her comedic skills on the ABC series Suburgatory. "As a casting director, the joy is in discovering talent," says Ulrich. "In this case, it’s Jane, only in the fact that the public did not know that she was a singer. Her emotional depth and ability, in the scene, to always find the deepest but most surprising way to play it, is amazing — and then to be able to sing on top of it. We’re lucky."

    Jane Levy

    "I was a giant fan of Jane’s for many, many years, from Suburgatory," Robert J. Ulrich says of the lead actress whose Zoey can see and hear what others are feeling via fantasy musical numbers. "At the time [we started casting], she was working with one of my best friends on What/If, and I was hearing a lot about her and how she would sing karaoke. I think she had auditioned for Rocky Horror Picture Show several years before, so I knew she could sing. But honestly, I had no idea how well Jane could sing."

    Lauren Graham

    "I knew she could sing because she had been on Broadway, and she just brought such a fun element to the show," says Ulrich of the Gilmore Girls and Parenthood vet, who made her Broadway debut in a 2009 revival of the musical comedy Guys and Dolls; Graham plays Zoey’s boss. "Having her name value in that role grounded the whole office."

    Skylar Astin

    "For Skylar’s role, we auditioned lots and lots of great people," says Ulrich of the co-worker character with romantic potential. "Skylar is obviously a name, but he’s also just a real standout, an extraordinary singer and actor."

    Michael Thomas Grant

    "Michael Thomas Grant, who plays [rival coworker] Leif, I knew from The Glee Project," says the casting director. "Michael was one of those extraordinarily talented people who did not make it onto the show, but I kept in mind and saw him in stage productions and For the Record. It was fun to be able to draw on somebody that I had thought was so talented for so long."

    Alice Lee 

    "Alice Lee was just a discovery. She came in for Mo [Zoey’s neighbor, played by gender-fluid actor Alex Newell], and everybody remembered her when we were casting [Zoey’s sister-in-law] Emily," says Ulrich.

    Mary Steenburgen

    "I knew that Mary could sing. I’d read about her ability," Ulrich says of the Oscar winner, a prolific singer-songwriter. After a 2007 surgery that required general anesthesia, Steenburgen, who plays Zoey’s mother, Maggie, began hearing original music in her head. "And Peter [Gallagher, as Maggie’s husband, Mitch] obviously had been on Broadway. He is so wonderful. He was the heart of the show the first season."

    Andrew Leeds

    "Andrew is absolutely hilarious. And I have now grown to see what a great dramatic actor he is," in the role of Zoey’s brother, says Ulrich. "I obviously knew of him, but he was a friend of Austin’s, so he suggested him, and he is so great on the show."

    John Clarence Stewart

    "John I also knew because he was in What/If. I had the highest hopes and no idea that he could sing as well as he could sing. He did come in and audition and just blew everybody away." 

    Alex Newell

    "The most fun bit of casting was the fact that Mo was written as a woman. We had lots of auditions. We were finding choices and some incredible singers, but it just clicked when it became Alex. I knew him from The Glee Project and I just think he is one of the most extraordinary talents around. The second it became Alex, I ran with it, pushed it, said it's a way to really enlighten the world. I don't want to make it sound so righteous, but I think it was just a good, interesting, and different way to go. It's great for the world to see his story; something that you're certainly seeing more and more television, which is wonderful, but that you don't see every day."

  • 'P-Valley' (Starz)

    When putting together an ensemble in which one star cannot shine brighter than the others, there's a key to getting it right: "You need strong people all around, people who can match each other talentwise," says casting director Billy Hopkins. "If you have one weak link, it becomes obvious." According to Ashley Ingram, who also served as casting director on the show, an added challenge of populating the struggling Mississippi Delta strip joint was the desire for authenticity over recognizability. "The driving force was that this world felt real, [that] we could see these people living here," Ingram says. Creator Katori Hall made a short film of her intended pilot that featured several castmembers, but the search still encompassed thousands of auditions and extensive chemistry reads. "It's a visceral feeling," says Ingram, "when you see an actor who you really know should be in a role."

    Brandee Evans

    "[Brandee] really had the strength and the forcefulness and chutzpah that [lead dancer] Mercedes needs," Hopkins says. "Mercedes is the one who draws all the crowds into The Pynk, so you have to have someone that has this magnetism about them."

    Nicco Annan 

    "Oh, what can you say? [Nicco's] brilliant," says Hopkins. "He's daring. He's not afraid to try things. He goes right to the edge, and it works. That's why the character [club owner Uncle Clifford] is so exciting and real — because Nicco is willing to take those risks."

    Shannon Thornton 

    "Shannon [as dancer Keyshawn] is shockingly gorgeous. In person it's almost distracting how gorgeous she is," says Ingram. "She needed the right role to be able to show that she's not just someone who's gorgeous, and Mississippi allows her to do that."

    Elarica Johnson

    "Elarica [as dancer Autumn Night] has a very openhearted vulnerability that comes forward when you just look in her eyes," says Ingram. "Elarica leads more with vulnerability, and Brandee leads more with strength. They're opposite sides of a coin."

    Skyler Joy 

    "Skyler has an exuberance that is hard to describe," Ingram says. "She is a positive, light person, and that carries into her portrayal of [dancer] Gidget. That openheartedness that Gidget needed to have, Skyler innately has."

    J. Alphonse Nicholson 

    "J. Alphonse is truly an incredibly skilled actor," Ingram says. "You might look at the character of Lil Murda and think you know this person, but you don't. We have to experience the duality of his life, and that heartbreak, and the choices he makes."

    Tyler Lepley 

    "I remember in the audition process, the actors had to say to Mississippi how they could take care of her abusive boyfriend," Ingram recalls. "With Tyler as Diamond, when you see him experience that, you don't question whether or not that's his truth."

    Harriett D. Foy

    "We all loved [Harriett] from the beginning. She gave so much more than was even on the page [in the role of Mercedes' mom]," Ingram says. "She works constantly in New York, but she was this undiscovered gem to the rest of the world, and now everybody knows who she is."

  • 'We Are Who We Are' (HBO)

    To populate Luca Guadagnino's vision of an American Army base in coastal Italy, casting director Carmen Cuba knew she had to build her cast out from the kids at the center of the story. But in a series that tonally feels more like an independent feature, not just any teenagers would do. "This is my first experience with Luca, so the process involved me figuring out how he defines a lot of the things in the script. When you read that someone is meant to be beautiful, what does Luca think beautiful is?" says Cuba. "He was shooting a really naturalistic portrait of this group, and so much of this was about how these kids are as themselves: How are they when they're not doing the scene?" What sets this young cast apart from many other series starring young adults is the actors' age range. "A lot of times in these teenage parts, you have 20-year-olds playing 15, and that wasn't the case," says Cuba, who wanted the coming-of-age roles to be occupied by fresh faces. "Luca is a director who's interested in the rawness and the grounding of truth."

    Alice Braga 

    "Because of City of God, [Alice] is somebody I've always looked at and always been really curious about," says Cuba of the actress, who plays one of protagonist Fraser's mothers, both in the military. "Luca was intrigued [by Alice] and it seemed like a great match. Those things are leaps of faith, right? But Luca is very connected to the human side of actors, so I think he connected with her."

    Chloë Sevigny 

    "Chloë [as Fraser's other mother] is someone I have loved from the beginning. Kids is the movie that made me recognize that this was something I could do, and the first movie I did on my own as a casting director was a movie called Bully, which was by the same director as Kids [Larry Clark]. She's just someone I've been watching. I love her performances and everything she does, and Luca felt the same way."

    Jack Dylan Glazer

    "Jack has a lot of experience in movies and TV, so he had a flexibility as far as craft goes," Cuba says. "But he also, as himself, has a real confidence and a unique and very modern feel, which I think really lends itself to Fraser. I'm not saying he is like Fraser, because that was never our feeling. But this is definitely a collaboration between Jack and Luca, and who teenagers are today, in this moment."

    Ben Taylor 

    "[The character of Sam Pratchett] was really about mixing and matching with whoever [would be playing his girlfriend] Caitlin. Once we started to figure out that it was Jordan [Kristine Seamón], Ben was a perfect match. We needed him to feel younger than the other boys, other than Jack. He hadn't done anything either. He just had a great rawness and innocence."

    Corey Knight

    As Sam's older brother Craig, "Corey had not had any experience. He was a great audition, for sure, but he also really interested Luca as a person. He was pursuing editing work on the side. The thing that Luca seemed to be connecting to is a real combination of, could they do the material, but also could he engage in real dialogue with them about what it means to be their age in this moment and incorporate that into the vision that he had."

    Jordan Kristine Seamón

    "Jordan didn't even have an agent. I have no history with her. This cast is definitely a combination of people who Luca knew he'd have to shepherd along." Of Seamón, whose outwardly confident Caitlin struggles with gender identity, Cuba adds, "But it's funny, because we thought this going in, and then Jordan turned out to somehow be a savant and know how to do everything, even though she'd had no experience."

    Scott Mescudi

    "I have auditioned [Scott] over the years for various things. We discussed a bunch of people [for the role of Caitlin's father, an Army lieutenant] and then it just felt natural for Scott and Luca to meet. Luca was definitely familiar with his music [as Kid Cudi] and loves it. So he was intrigued. They met and he loved him, and that was that."

  • 'Perry Mason' (HBO)

    There is no shortage of star wattage in the dark origin story of the legendary defense lawyer, but there is an art to combining such talent. For Perry Mason (originally set to star Robert Downey Jr., who serves as executive producer with his wife, Susan), casting directors Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas discussed their suggestions for each role with director and executive producer Timothy Van Patten. "[Tim] talks about the spirit and the soul of the actor marrying with the spirit and the soul of the character," says Thomas. "The external is not what's important to him." The main cast may seem only six actors deep, but to the casting directors, the world was expansive. "The storylines and arcs are massive, and you're also in a period piece, so it was important to make sure that each actor [remained] defined within their own self, even if the character wasn't around all the time," says Thomas. She and Bialy relied on their stable of talent from decades in the profession. "Part of our journey is the process of learning about the actor," says Bialy. "The actors don't care that they come in 10 times and didn't get the part, because they know that one time — with us — they will."

    Matthew Rhys

    "Once you have Matthew Rhys, you want to make sure whoever is opposite isn't wiped off the screen," says Bialy of their lead. "Oftentimes you have to stay on your leading guy because other actors can't hold [their own]."

    John Lithgow

    "The challenge is getting that first person of well-known stature to say yes, then you build from there," says Thomas. "John Lithgow, for E.B. Jonathan [Mason's employer], was the first one. So that bar was set very high."

    Juliet Rylance 

    "She had been finishing up something and was not available," Thomas says of the actress who plays E.B. Jonathan's secretary. "When we circled back, I remember looking at the date and I was like, 'Holy shit, I think she's available.' "

    Tatiana Maslany

    "There's an assuredness to Sister Alice that the audience has to buy because she believes [her evangelism] so strongly," Bialy says. "[Tatiana is] someone we really believed in and highly recommended to Tim and the producers."

    Gayle Rankin 

    "[Gayle was] the only one who read," Thomas says. "I wrote a brief commentary of why there was only one Emily Dodson [mother of kidnapped boy]. I don't think it took an hour for every creative to say, 'She's perfect.' "

    Nate Corddry

    "The most exciting thing is taking that actor everybody sees one way and flipping expectations," Bialy says. "Even Nate said, 'I can't believe I'm in this part.' He tapped into the soul of [kidnapped son's father] Matthew Dodson."

    Robert Patrick

    "He was in that initial conversation with Tim … it was just determining which role," says Thomas of Patrick. Matthew Dodson's father "is not a role he typically plays. He's often the heavy … for this, he was a father who had a lost son."

    Chris Chalk

    "We cast Chris in Gotham but have known him for years," says Thomas. "He's a very soulful actor and person, and his craft is unbelievable. He put himself on tape, and Tim really responded to his audition [for the beat-cop role]."

    This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.