How to Cast Serial Killers and Wrestlers

9:30 AM 6/18/2018

by Rebecca Ford

Top casting directors on eight series reveal how they found their leading men and women, even if that meant asking the actors to attempt a somersault during auditions.

Courtesy Photos
  • 'Barry' (HBO)

    Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas

    Courtesy of HBO

    BIALY "The first time we suggested Henry Winkler, there was a lot of head tilting. It was a lot of like, 'Huh, are these crazy women who we just hired as casting directors?' Kudos to Mr. Winkler, who came in and read and fought for the job. Actors of his stature don't usually have to do that. It was so smart of him to do that, because he really was showing [star] Bill [Hader] his ability to play, and what their relationship would be, because their relationship is — all of the relationships on the show are — their own movie, in a way.

    THOMAS "When we put the acting class together, there were no specific descriptions of who each character was. We knew that there would be about six of them. We knew that [creators] Bill and Alec [Berg] really wanted to build the class from the ground up, so we saw different types of actors, improvisers, comedians to fill this class. We have a database of 100 people that read for it. Then we would improv with each person in the room."

  • 'The Chi' (Showtime)

    Carmen Cuba

    Courtesy of Showtime

    "I had a suspicion that [creator] Lena Waithe could become an important cultural touchstone, so my first thought was about how best to help amplify it via this project. I loved the specificity of the world and of the characters, and how it was someone writing about the place and people that she knew personally. I viewed the foursome of men whose stories interweave the narrative of the neighborhood as one character in four different versions of a human experience. So it was very important to me that they share a genetic strand of humanity and charm but still have a distinct sense of individuality. Jason Mitchell was the first actor we cast in the show. I knew it would create a bar that everyone else would have to match. The other three came in and did exactly that. Watching Alex Hibbert do a chemistry read with Jason was exciting since he had just come off of Moonlight and he and the film were having a huge moment at the exact time we were casting."

  • 'GLOW' (Netflix)

    Jennifer Euston

    Courtesy of Netflix

    "I needed to find 14 women and one man who would feel authentic to the time and place of our story, 1980s LA. I needed to find diversity, not only ethnically, but all shapes and sizes and ages and appearances. And there was a unique aspect of casting GLOW: the physicality the actresses would need to display in my tiny audition room, on tape, to make sure they would be able to fill the 'wrestling' portion these roles would require. Our stunt department advised me they would need to see something — a somersault or a high kick or a split — so they could assess the actress' agility and strength. And as expected, a lot of women gave great readings but didn't have the physical requirements we needed and vice versa. Ruth is the central figure who brings us into the story and the character our ensemble will revolve around. I knew Ali [Alison Brie] had what it takes. Her dedication as an actress in every role she plays and her enthusiasm for our show sealed the deal for me."

  • 'The Good Doctor' (ABC)

    Kim Coleman

    Courtesy of ABC

    "This pilot did not have any actors attached, but the bigger picture to me was not only finding a lead actor because this is an ensemble show, but also making sure that everyone else in the cast complemented each other. You want an ensemble that functions as one unit — not a bunch of individuals. The most challenging part of casting is finding a single actor that everyone up and down the food chain can agree on. Freddie Highmore was pitched by his agent for the role of Shaun Murphy and he was on an original list, but he had just completed Bates Motel, so we weren't sure if he wanted to jump right back into a series. We had some good candidates in place, but to ultimately get Freddie on board was amazing. At the same time, I knew I had to present actors who were solid, versatile and who had range to work with him. Another character, Dr. Glassman, was a challenge but Richard Schiff was always our unanimous choice."

  • 'Howards End' (Starz)

    Rachel Freck

    Courtesy of Starz

    "The challenge was how do we not seem like we're copying the previous [1992] film and make that message come out? We had to find people who made that material seem like it was real and honest and natural to them — not playing the period, because it's quite wordy, technical stuff. The Schlegel sisters were definitely forward-thinking, kind of the beginnings of the feminist movement — free spirits, particularly Helen. We had to find actors that would be that, with language that's quite restrictive. We found that a lot of the girls from drama schools who were intelligent enough to make sense of the dialogue couldn't feel like free-spirited, passionate, ahead of their time, liberal women. Which is I think why we ended up casting Philippa Coulthard, who's an Australian, in that role because the very nature of being Australian brought something less inhibited than being British. She understood what she was saying, made sense of it but she had that little extra bit of passion that our more restrained English girls were struggling to find."

  • 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel' (Amazon)

    Jeanie Bacharach, Meredith Tucker & Cindy Tolan

    Courtesy of Amazon

    BACHARACH "Given that the show was contingent on finding the right actress for the role of Midge, obviously, this was the biggest challenge initially. It's a bear of a role. Believe it or not, Rachel Brosnahan, who I had cast in the series Manhattan, is who I pictured and heard in my head when I read the script for the first time. I pitched her on our first casting concept phone call. I knew she had all the layers and complexities and contradictions needed for the role. She could be the sweet, naive, perfect 1950s wife and mother but also had the resilience and moxie that the character displays when her life falls apart. Rachel has an innate spunk, a natural beauty and inherent charm and likability, which is so important for the role of Midge and the audience's willingness and desire to go on her journey. The only concern was her comedy chops as she had worked primarily as a dramatic actress. But when you have someone with her training, intelligence, fierceness, vulnerability and willingness to be goofy and flawed, it was not a huge leap to know she'd be able to fully inhabit the role as brilliantly as she does."

    TUCKER "I was excited about doing a period comedy which had its very specific challenges — finding someone who could do the period and be funny for that particular era. Midge aside, Lenny Bruce was daunting [to cast] as he is such an icon. Luke Kirby really embodied the character without making it a mere impersonation. And being a fan of his past work, I knew he would do a wonderful job with the role going forward." 

    TOLAN "My first thought was, 'Yes of course I want to do this — it's Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino. Absolutely.​' All the roles are a challenge in their own way. The most fun roles to cast for me were Shirley and Moishe, Caroline Aaron and Kevin Pollack — Michael Zegen's parents.​ I have been friends with Caroline Aaron for years and for me there was simply no one else. And to pair her with Kevin? A dream."

  • 'Mindhunter' (Netflix)

    Laray Mayfield

    Courtesy of Netflix

    "Probably the biggest concern in this was that so many of the characters were based on real people. We had to find the absolute best actors to embody that role, but also find people who were very similar in lots of ways to the real people. It felt really daunting in the beginning, but it was great fun. One of the unique things to it was the type of research that we needed to do for the roles and the type of people, serial killers, that we were researching. It's upsetting and disturbing but the more you read about them, the more intrigued you do get about who they were, where they came from. We met Cameron Britton early on in the casting process, which gave me a bit of ease. Every time he came in he was always so prepared and he worked so hard. He has a magnetism about him that people really gravitate toward."

  • 'Ozark' (Netflix)

    Alexa L. Fogel

    Courtesy of Netflix

    "The challenge of casting was about working with people who will let you push it to a place where it can be the most interesting. This project is special, because it was really the three of us making decisions, because both [pro­ducers] Chris [Mundy] and Jason [Bateman] really listen, they really love actors. So for instance, it's been a dream of mine to cast Peter Mullan in something. And they both understand what a brilliant actor he is, and Jason was a huge fan of his. I think also casting Jordana Spiro in something that was really different from what she'd done — since Jason's an actor, he really can appreciate that actors act. I've worked for people who will say when you bring up an actor, 'Well, they don't do that.' My reaction is, 'How do you know they don't do that? You just haven't seen it yet.' It was an opportunity to be casting to the nth degree in that we were always going to be able to cast these roles, but we were able to cast them in a way that was really interesting. Lisa Emery is another great example. She's a Broadway staple, someone that often ends up playing classical drama and prim, Upper East Side ladies. She's playing [the wife of a crime lord] Mrs. Snell, which is definitely not that."

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