How the Die is Cast
From Stranger Things to Mindhunter, the top-shelf casting directors at Netflix institute a highly deliberate checklist when choosing our favorite stars
Part of what draws us to a new series is the cast of actors. And part of what keeps us watching are those actors’ performances. So, compiling the right ensemble for a Netflix show is very important. The people on screen are not selected by a director or producer, nor by a talent agency or computer algorithm. They’re chosen by casting directors.
Casting directors find the people who make up the casts of movies and TV shows, from the leads to the smallest of speaking parts. Sometimes projects come with a big name attached, though usually only if it’s because they’re also one of the producers, as in the case of Ozark star Jason Bateman. Otherwise, the job starts with merely an empty slate and a script.
“The script is the most important element,” says three-time Emmy Awardwinning casting director, Alexa L. Fogel. She works with a filmmaker or producer—Chris Mundy and Bateman in the case of Ozark—to define what the characteristics are in each of the roles, how they relate to the other characters and what their arcs are over time. And, with ongoing series, what they're going to be. Fogel points out that, “A lot of the stuff that I work on has unique characters, but you may not see them fully. Things are going to happen later, and I have to know it then.”
For Ozark, Fogel also works with regional casting agents Tara Feldstein and Chase Paris, who are based in Atlanta, where Ozark is filmed. Feldstein and Paris pull from Southeast talent agencies. “We divide up the work depending on the budget,” Paris explains. The larger the budget, the more actors can be accommodated from out of town. “Sometimes we will get a movie or TV show with some great roles. If they don't have the biggest budget, they'll book some actors locally. [But] if they can bring in every single role, they will. Each one is its own little puzzle to solve.”
Open casting calls are not as common as you’d think, though, even for local or lesser-known talent. “We don't do a lot of open calls unless it's something very, very specific that would be hard to find,” Feldstein notes. “Most of our roles that we cast here in Atlanta, we don't need open calls. There are more than enough actors. We don't need an open call to find, for example, a nurse with under five lines.”
Casting directors are “an essential and integral part of the creation of any project,” according to John Papsidera, a two-time Emmy Award winner who populated HBO’s Westworld and found the actors for Netflix’s reboot of Lost in Space. He says it’s very rare for him to get a project with actors already in mind. “Even the Batman [movies] that I did with Chris Nolan, there was no Batman before Chris and I started on it.”
THE COLLABORATIVE ART
Papsidera has cast a lot of movies and TV series, though his work with Nolan, going back to the director’s 2000 breakthrough feature, Memento, is what he’s best known for. He sees casting as one of the first steps in the collaborative art of production, because the job entails meeting with creatives to discuss the roles before the search for actors even begins.
“You talk about how you see those characters and who might be right,” Papsidera says. “It's a collaborative process. They have their own thoughts and likes and dislikes, but that's the genesis of what you then start to create from. Then it proceeds to checking with who’s available, who might be interested in the project, to auditioning people, reading them, and then negotiating their deals, and finally you get a cast.”
Not every casting collaboration is so intimate, of course. “On a feature film, for the most part, you're trying to get the director and producer and an executive or two on the same page to make decisions,” Papsidera explains, distinguishing the experience of casting movies versus the writer’s medium of a TV series. “On Lost in Space, it was probably trying to get 20 people on the same page. Because there are so many people involved, you're trying to find a common denominator, and it takes many more choices to try to find that.”
When collaborating with writers on casting, the challenge is to get them to let go of what’s in their heads. “‘I get it, you wrote it,’” Papsidera says, addressing an imaginary creator. “‘You wrote that a month ago, change that. You're casting human beings to fill this world.’ That's what my focus is, trying to get the most multidimensionally talented human being to flesh out this role and have it be maybe something you hadn't even thought of. That's the seesaw battle. You try to find a balance between how it was written, how they imagined it, and what you bring to the table about the characteristics of these actors that will fill in that character.”
Even more committed to their vision, Papsidera reveals, are people who come out of animation. “They have not only a sense of what's on the page, but also some vision that they drew in their head. It's so concrete, they're always trying to refill this,” he says. “My point to them is, ‘Yeah, but you want a three-dimensional human soul that fills that.’ This is not about red hair and freckles.”
THE REAL CHALLENGE
Ironically, casting characters based on real people seems less of a challenge despite there being an exact likeness to refill. “We don't really go for lookalikes,” says Laray Mayfield, the casting director for Netflix’s Mindhunter, which depicts stories of actual FBI agents and serial killers. “We like to have people who are very similar, and as you can see on Season 1, we had great success with finding people who were. But what you're looking for is the emotional consistency and the tone of that person.”
"His physicality was so much of who that character was that you're not going to forsake that.”
Mindhunter offers a similar experience. Viewers of a certain generation recall some of the characters from the news 40 years ago, but maybe not what they looked like. But they tend to look up the real people, Mayfield says, “Then they decide for themselves if they think we did a good job casting that or not.” In the end, if the physical appearance is off, hopefully the performance is what viewers come away with. “I think that’s what you see in all of these roles with what David and I do. We don't cast people to mimic. We cast wonderfully talented, fluid actors who take on the role and make it their own.”
Both Mayfield and Papsidera were allowed some freedom with casting Mindhunter and Lost in Space, respectively, in that these series didn’t need big stars. That means finding new actors or elevating lesser-known talent, which can be a satisfying part of the job. “It is fun to get an opportunity to expose Taylor Russell to the world, or Mina Sundwell or Max Jenkins,” Papsidera admits of his Lost in Space actors. “Molly [Parker] and Toby [Stephens] certainly have had big careers already and were known, but both of them are showing different sides to what they’ve shown in the past.”
Rarely, though, has there been a discovery quite like that of Shannon Purser, who played the supporting character Barb on Stranger Things and has gone on to a substantial career rather quickly. Feldstein and Paris, who won an Emmy for their work on the Netflix series (with Carmen Cuba), found the then-17- year-old locally and were surprised and delighted by Purser’s breakout success.
“I don't think anyone anticipated the ‘Justice for Barb’ movement,” says Feldstein. “What's amazing with that role is she's only actually alive in two episodes. To bring that kind of movement to a role that has only appeared in two episodes, and briefly at that, means she brought something very unique and special to that role that you can never predict. She just did something magical with it.”
Particularly with how streaming series are produced and released, there is often more preparation put into a show by the creators from the start than there used to be. It’s more common to see sudden breakout characters elevated from guest spot to regular, like in the old days of sitcoms.
“I'm fortunate in that I work with a lot of writers who have things mapped out pretty clearly, for the first season and subsequent seasons,” Fogel says of this benefit. “Sometimes there can be a character that, say, David Simon (The Wire, The Deuce) wants to see more of, but mostly it's pretty clear what's going to happen. The writers I'm working with are so clear with what their stories are.”
“In doing long-running series like I did with Ray Donovan,” adds Papsidera, “the writers and creators would have an idea of where those characters were going to go three seasons in, which I wasn't necessarily always privy to. But I think as the casting director, my job is to try and give projects the most talented actors that I can in every role, so they have more bullets in the gun as they go on. I take that as a real responsibility, trying to find people who can give them multidimensional performances over time.”
Another great kind of discovery for casting agents is when an established talent rises to a new occasion. “People knew who Jesse was,” Mayfield says of the former child actor turned Oscarnominated The Social Network star. “Sometimes you're just super, superfortunate to have a perfect role and an actor at the time who's perfectly suited for that role; who gets to be seen in a completely different way. We all enjoy that. The audience enjoys it, I enjoy it as a casting director. The director enjoys it very much. So does the actor. It's nice when that happens.”
CASTING FOR CHILD ACTORS
Feldstein and Paris have also cast a number of young actors for Stranger Things and Ozark. Working with kids is one of the great challenges of movie and television production, and finding the right child performers can be a lot more difficult than casting adult roles.
“You're trying to find a kid that understands the environment that you're putting them in,” Feldstein explains. “The younger you go, the harder that becomes. A lot of times kids between 4 and 6 years old don't know why they're saying the words. They're just repeating. To find a kid who really grasps and understands what's going on is very, very difficult. We have to see a lot of kids to find that something special.”
Casting kids is also challenging “because you don't know a lot of people that age,” says Fogel. “You have to create the time to see many more actors than you would if you were seeing actors in their 40s and 50s. I know a lot of those actors already.”
Papsidera adds that you’re not just casting the kid, “You're casting their family,” referring to their need of a guardian and the potential relocation of the actor, their parents and their siblings all for a part. More importantly, “You're casting someone who is in the process of morphing into a different kind of human being.” He doesn’t just mean physically, although Max Jenkins, who plays young Will Robinson on Lost in Space, had a substantial growth spurt from the time of his casting to when the first episode was shot. “Those are things that you don't necessarily worry or think about when you're casting adults.”
"You're casting their family."
“I remember we were talking about the relationship between the robot and Will,” Papsidera tells of the casting process, “and there was a younger actor who was fantastic. One of the creators or writers said, ‘Here's the thing, though: Him being that young, he wouldn't necessarily choose a friend as much as an older boy would.’ It came down to that. If you're too young, you're not choosing your friend. He's just a protector for you. But it's a two-way street with Will and the robot. Will chooses him to help him. You needed someone a little bit older who was cognizant and active in that relationship. That's also the exciting stuff. You're talking about subtle differences about a boy's relationship with a robot. That was a tricky part.”
Lost in Space was also an interesting job for Papsidera in that the series involves a smaller ensemble than most shows. “It was different in that you really wanted to create a family,” he says. “The priorities are a little bit different. In Westworld, you're dealing with a huge world with different storylines. With this you wanted to be part of the Robinson family. It was interesting and challenging, and I'm really proud of the family unit; not just in matching people to be in one family on a physical level, but also that you really care about all of them. There's not one throwaway in that group. They've all had a real opportunity to shine.”
Of course, the most notable element of the casting of Lost in Space was the choice of a woman, Parker Posey, to play Doctor Smith, a role previously filled by men in both the original series and the 1990s film adaptation. The decision to alter the character’s gender came from the creators and posed another interesting challenge for Papsidera, who knew such a change would draw a lot of attention. He never wants any casting choice to be a distraction.
Having Posey play the role of Doctor Smith wasn’t an idea informed by any trend or call for more female representation in Hollywood. But inclusion is definitely on a lot of casting directors’ minds at the moment, especially when they’re often blamed for a lack of diversity. “People have just laid that on the doorstep of casting directors,” Papsidera admits. “We try. We try like crazy. You should really be talking to writers. They create those roles. There's only so much leverage we can have by saying, ‘Hey, what about this as a woman? What about this as a person of color?’ At the end of the day, they make the decision of ‘No, that's not how I wrote it.’”
Feldstein says diversity has always been on her mind when casting. “Our job is to populate the world as we see it. And the world is diverse,” she says. “In the entertainment industry, there is a push for that—and rightfully so. We need more actors to be recognized.”
But sometimes the world being depicted in a series isn’t inclusive. Fogel has cast a lot of series with widely diverse ensembles over the years, from Oz and The Wire to, more recently, The Deuce and Atlanta. But one of her current gigs isn’t so varied in its representation. “Ozark is set in a very specific place,” she acknowledges of its lack of diverse roles, “and it's about being authentic to that place. So, it’s not something that I think about. I just think about the material.”
CASTING IN ATLANTA
For Ozark and Atlanta, both of which film in Georgia, Fogel works closely with Feldstein and Paris. The duo set up shop six years ago, filling a growing need for casting agents in the area. While a lot of movies and shows, especially those with large budgets, still cast predominantly in L.A. and New York, more and more talent (like Purser) is being found locally.
“We have several shows where nice big roles that people would normally cast out of town cast locally now,” says Paris, recognizing an increase in work for talent based in the Southeast. He points to Charlotte-based actor Robert C. Treveiler, who plays Sheriff Nix on Ozark. “I think it's a bit of a misrepresentation when actors think the opportunity's not there. It absolutely is. Much more than it was last year, and the year before. Every year it gets better. I think the leads are probably [still] going to be names. A lot of the bigger roles are probably [still] going to be coming from L.A. or New York, but they are seriously considering locals nowadays. That's one of the big changes from four or five years ago.”
“At some point there's not going to be that much of a bias towards the L.A. actor versus the Atlanta actor,” Feldstein adds. “A lot of people are actually moving from L.A. because they aren’t able to get the auditions that they're looking for in L.A. They're coming to Atlanta because it's a really great way to start your career. To start getting auditions, especially for dayplayer roles, and getting the experience they need, and then building up a resume, and then moving back out there or to New York—or wherever they feel like their career takes them."
Competition is growing in Atlanta as the talent pool is widening—“more fierce,” Feldstein says—but there is plenty of work to go around at the moment. This means there are also more and more gigs for casting directors. Many others have set up in Atlanta since Feldstein and Paris began, and there are no rivalries among them due to the amount of business. “We're happy to hear when other casting directors have more work,” Feldstein says. “It's not really a dog-eat-dog kind of world.”
What about when awards come into play? All of these casting directors have won or been nominated for Emmys, but they’re not in the profession for the accolades. “You never know what’s going to come down the line,” Feldstein says, “so you just do the best you can on each and every project, and if it turns into an award, that's amazing.”
What makes a project award-worthy? Well, they all have their own ideas about what makes a great casting director. “Someone who loves actors, who interprets material well, who understands character, and can help people the material with actors who feel authentic to that material,” Fogel suggests.
For Papsidera, “The most brilliant casting is seamless casting. Where it allows you to lose yourself in this world, in this story, without hitting a lot of bumps in the road.” He adds that a great casting director is “somebody who helps create a world that has longevity, that has believability, that is stocked with talented people—all those things. It’s about being empathetic to actors and kind to people, and getting the best out of actors. There's a real wide range of things.”
Compassion for what actors are going through is also high on the list for Mayfield, who says you have to have integrity with how you approach your job and the roles. But most importantly, she says, “What makes a good casting director is that you get up every morning enjoying what you do.”