Casting Networks / RAY RICHMOND
How much influence do casting directors have with individual project directors and producers when making casting decisions?
It turns out there is no single answer to that question. It’s contingent on a number of factors – namely, the kind of project it is, the length of time that project has been around, the relationship between the CD and the creative team, and how diplomatic the casting director may be when serving a host of masters simultaneously.
“Every show does it differently,” finds Liz Dean, who has cast shows including FX’s “Nip/Tuck” for Ryan Murphy, “Designated Survivor,” the 2010 feature “The Kids Are All Right” and (currently) “The Good Doctor.”
“Today especially, there are so many cooks in the kitchen. There are some shows where it’s incredibly democratic and everyone puts in their two-cents. It’s my job as the casting director to echo back, ‘OK, so what I’m hearing is, people are leaning toward Actor A for this, but there’s also a lot of support for Actor B.’ So a large part of the job is funneling.”
On other series, Dean will send in actors to audition and the creator will say, “I love so and so” everyone says, “Great, let’s go with so-and-so,” and that’s the end of it.
“But no matter what the project is, in my experience this job is incredibly collaborative,” Dean adds. “Every show is different. It’s a matter of guiding everyone through until we’ve agreed on a choice.”
In Dean’s experience, it’s generally a different process working on films, at least in part because she’s worked primarily on independent features rather than big studio releases.
“For the independent films I’ve done, it’s more about me and a director in a room,” she says.
That was certainly the case when Dean sat down with director Lisa Cholodenko during casting for the 2010 feature “The Kids Are All Right” with Julianne Moore, Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo.
When Dean brought in Josh Hutcherson to read for a part, Cholodenko said, “I like Josh.”
“And then I answered, ‘OK, what’s the process now?’,” Dean recalls. “And she said, ‘We hire him.’
“I was still in the mindset of working for a studio and a network and worried about all of the other people we had to run this by before something could be signed off on. It was a moment that really crystalized how simple this process can be.”
But it isn’t something a casting director should get too used to, particularly while working in television.
Julie Ashton, a CD whose projects have included “2 Broke Girls,” “Bob’s Burgers,” the reboot of “Will & Grace” and (currently) the forthcoming “High School Musical: The Musical” for Disney’s soon-to-launch streaming service, points to the scads of red tape required to pore through before many casting decisions in TV can be finalized.
“There’s the studio and the network and executives and a million people that you need to go through,” Ashton says, “and it can get shot down at any stage of the process. Fortunately, I generally happen to work for really nice people, studios and networks who are super supportive, so it doesn’t happen very often.”
That said, Ashton notes that it takes a village to cast a show. “We discuss it and make a choice collectively. It’s the same with a film. You pre-read actors first, make your choices, bring in the producers and directors. You make the decision together before submitting to the studio or network for final approval.”
The creative team’s decision is rarely overruled, in Ashton’s experience. There isn’t a lot of pushback because “they generally want to support our vision. And yes, my choice as casting director is given significant weight.”
Jeff Greenberg, a veteran casting director whose sterling resume’ includes the likes of “Cheers,” “Wings,” “Frasier,” “According to Jim” and (the past 10 seasons) “Modern Family,” maintains that he always weighs in with his two cents on final casting decisions.
He believes that the more experienced the showrunner or creator, the greater the consideration that’s accorded his suggestions. On the other extreme, if he’s casting a pilot for a first-time creator, he turns into a guide whose word is closely listened to.
As the gatekeeper for which actors get seen, casting directors like Greenberg in some ways hold all of the cards.
“Some call that power,” he says, “I kind of see it as working off of a guest list, and there are only so many seats at the table. It’s always very frustrating to have to say ‘No’ to people who are so good but just aren’t quite right.”
What can sometimes be exasperating about his job, Greenberg stresses, is the number of masters that a CD must serve.
“Depending on the TV project,” he agrees, “you’re dealing with the writer and director of the episode as well as the creator, the showrunner, all of the network and studio executives and the network’s director of comedy development.
“There are a lot of people you’re trying to make happy, and a lot of diplomacy is needed. You have to prioritize who will best serve the vision of the creators.”
Dean finds that to be true as well.
“A lot of times when you’re dealing with a director of episodic television, that person represents the interests of the creative team,” she believes. “It’s different on a pilot, because you’re creating a vision together as you form the cast. On pilots, I do think casting directors have a tremendous amount of sway in the decision-making process.
“We’re the ones supplying the actors, so it’s like, ‘Here are my selects. I’ve whittled it down from over 2,000 people to about 8 whom I’m sending to you.”
Times have certainly changed for how a TV project often gets cast, however. Dean shares that the casting director, director, producers, writers, showrunners and sometimes president of comedy or drama development will all be copied on a Google Doc where everyone weighs in on casting in the same spot.
“That’s how we do it on ‘The Good Doctor’,” Dean says.
Or, sometimes things can be done the old-fashioned way, where success breeds credibility for a casting director like Greenberg. The success he had with replacing Shelley Long with Kirstie Alley in 1987 on “Cheers” boosted his credentials sufficiently so his casting word became close to golden.
“I’d use that clout if there was a great theatre actor I’d found in New York that they might not have known but I felt would serve a show’s purpose,” he remembers.
While some may still see television as an inferior casting gig to film, Dean isn’t one of them. She sees TV as “the closest thing in this industry to a real steady gig. “Movies come and go, but it’s nice to have TV as my bread-and-butter, and I love it. I love actors. I love the process.