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Casting a sprawling ensemble drama is hard enough, but for Tiffany Little Canfield, the casting director tasked with NBC’s mega-hit This Is Us, there are additional layers of difficulty — the series takes place across more than three decades, necessitating the casting of three different versions of the Big Three.
After casting grown-up siblings Kevin, Kate and Randall Pearson for the pilot (played by Justin Hartley, Chrissy Metz and Sterling K. Brown, respectively), finding the 10-year-old versions of the characters was not as simple as finding an actor who looks like his or her older version, considering that the storylines necessitate plenty of emotional heavy lifting to be done by the actors of all ages.
“You have to look on multiple prongs. Do they resemble the characters that have been established already? Then, do they play the age? Often with kids, you do a little bit of a range of age. You don’t just say they have to be 7, because every 7-year-old is different, every 8-year-old is different, every 9-year-old,” Canfield tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Frankly, until you reach adulthood, everybody’s different, so we usually look for a range of ages. When we’re looking for an 8-year-old, you might see 7 to 9. But then you need to make sure that your top choices go together, because you want to feel that they are realistically twins or triplets. Then acting, really — it comes down to also the best performer has to get the part. You are taking a little bit of all of the aspects and putting it together to find the best choice.”
She adds, “It’s so hard. There’s nobody who’s going to walk in, except maybe with Jermel Nakia [who plays the younger version of Ron Cephas Jones’ William], who walks in and looks like an exact younger version of the person in every single aspect and is perfect. We don’t have time machines. The person is going to have to approximate it, and I think it’s really about nailing the essence of the character that is the most important thing, because even if they match a certain physical aspect of the person but they can’t act or their energy is completely different, I think the audience will actually have a harder time buying them in the role than someone who maybe has a slightly different physical aspect.”
The first appearance of the teen versions of the characters, who have been featured heavily in the second season, was initially very small.
“It was unclear how much they would be required to do, which is always a big part of casting. How big is the role, what is the range needed for it? Because if it’s smaller, maybe it’s just the visual, then the visual makes more of a difference if it’s going to be a small part,” Canfield says. “If they get to establish themselves as a character, then the essence becomes more important if you have to believe this is the same character.”
But on This Is Us, any person can come back in an important role.
“That is what we’ve learned. I mean, look at our pilot, our character of the fireman who finds Randall [played by Brian Oblak]. That was a two-line part in the pilot, and then when the later episode comes in, I was reading it thinking, is this the same fireman? Because I did not necessarily know the depth of Brian’s work,” she said. “I loved him for the fireman but he was a new actor to me; I didn’t know him before this project. He killed it, and now my line producer probably wants to kill me for overcasting a few roles in season two because I’m thinking if this part comes back, I want a great actor.”
Below, Canfield describes the process of finding each of the young actors.
Kevin (Justin Hartley)
Parker Bates, 10-year-old Kevin: “Parker was so adorable and looked like Justin to us, and he just nailed scene after scene. He really just had the essence of the character of Kevin,” Canfield says.
Logan Shroyer, 15-year-old Kevin: “Logan just came in and felt like a little star. He felt like that football player; he felt like he just had that golden boy persona that I think you need to have with Kevin,” Canfield says.
Says Hartley of Shroyer, “Interestingly enough, even though he and I are playing the same character, he gets a lot of guidance from Milo [Ventimiglia, who plays the family’s patriarch, Jack], because he works so closely with him. The story they’re telling is this father/son relationship, and Milo is the one that is there. The backstory is really on the page, and Logan does just a bang-up job of playing it. He’s got a really difficult job on the show because he plays this character who is not always the greatest guy to be around. He is volatile and he’s pompous, and he’s a loner sometimes. He’s got a really difficult job, and he pulls it off flawlessly.”
Kate (Chrissy Metz)
Mackenzie Hancsicsak, 10-year-old Kate: “She really resembled Chrissy,” Canfield said. “Her skin tone’s a little bit different, but in terms of her features, and it felt like she was believable as Kate, but what she also had is this joyousness about her. We didn’t want a child who was self-conscious about who she was. You wanted her to have, similar to Chrissy, that buoyancy, that wonderful inner life that even though she might be struggling with something, she is in essence a wonderful, delightful, bright person.”
Hannah Zeile, 15-year-old Kate: “Hannah was a no-brainer. She really looks like Chrissy,” said Canfield. “She also was a tremendous singer. She’s terrific. She just was boom, there it is. She is a pro; she handled all the scenes we gave her, and just the physical resemblance also was really terrific.”
Says Metz of Zeile, “I actually used to represent her when I was an agent. It’s full circle. Life is so crazy. I’ve been a huge fan of hers for as long as I’ve known her. I actually didn’t know she sang. It was just so perfect. She plays that angsty, sarcastic, funny teenager so well. And she’s such a love in real life. I just love her as a person. We’re friends. I’m so grateful to have that, because so much of the younger Kate informs the adult. We get to play into each other in so many ways, but it’s also still her character, her choices. It’s so great to see her thrive in this character, and do it with such nuanced and interesting and subtle performances.”
Randall (Sterling K. Brown)
Lonnie Chavis, 10-year-old Randall: “Lonnie is a talented actor, and he just was the best actor for the job, frankly,” says Canfield. “He’s funny; he’s incredibly heartwarming. We knew his character would have a lot of conflict, and he really just nailed all aspects of it.”
Niles Fitch, 15-year-old Randall: Says Canfield, “Niles was actually an actor we’d seen for something else and loved so much that we remembered saying, if a teenage Randall comes, we have to see him for it. We were like, we love him, we need to remember him. We’re definitely now much more in the business of we run across actors thinking they look like a young version of this one or an older version of this one. Just in case.”
Says Brown of Chavis (who can currently be seen on Showtime comedy White Famous), “People are like, ‘Yo, man, you was real light-skinned when you was a little boy,’ because Lonnie and I don’t look that much alike, but Lonnie acts his little booty off. It doesn’t matter what he looks like or whatnot; if we tap into that character and we can share that journey together, everything else takes care of itself.”
Deja (Lyric Ross)
Ross was cast in the original pilot of what would become Showtime’s The Chi but aged out of the role after the project underwent re-shoots and re-castings. Ultimately, she was cast as Deja, the foster daughter of Randall and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson).
“We had one actress from New Orleans, one from Chicago, Lyric, and then one actress we found here in Los Angeles through an open call who was totally unrepresented, had not pursued acting yet. The three of them auditioned, and we actually did chemistry reads with Susan and Sterling,” Canfield says. Ross ended up being the pick.
“We’re so proud of [finding Ross], because it was a tough day…. You have to go with your gut. You could’ve cast all three of those kids; they were fantastic,” she adds. “There was just something special [about Ross], and you really saw it when you watched the tape back, that it really should be Lyric. I believe Sterling and Susan really felt that in the room too in working with her, because they had the opportunity to actually read with her.”
The child and teen Big Three don’t meet their adult selves, so they never had chemistry reads with the adult actors. And Hartley, Metz and Brown each told THR that they don’t really consult with the younger cast much about the roles — the kids do just fine on their own.
“Focusing on the teenagers in particular, from Logan to Hannah to Niles, these three episodes, they put in work. They put in some serious work,” Brown says of the stand-alone episodes that explored each of the Big Three. “I remember watching [episode] 208 and looking at Logan and I was like, ‘Little dude, you better act. You better act your ass off.’ Then Hannah busts out with that song. I’m like, ‘Girl, you can sing?!’ “
This Is Us returns Tuesday, Jan. 2 on NBC.
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