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These casting directors pull back the curtain on the process

Natalie Morales (left) joined the cast of "Dead to Me" in Season 2 as the love interest for Linda Cardellini (right).
Natalie Morales, left, joined the cast of “Dead to Me” in Season 2 as the love interest for Linda Cardellini.
(Saeed Adyani / Netflix)

Actors often think casting directors hardly even pay attention during their auditions. But what they don’t realize is that not only are they watching closely, they might actually be looking straight into the actors’ souls.

“We had been fans of Samira [Wiley] from ‘Orange Is the New Black, '" notes Sharon Bialy, who is part of the team that casts Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” “She read with me .... There was something she found — the strength in that character, the fearlessness in her eyes.”

“We weren’t identifying what roles would be people of color,” adds her colleague Sherry Thomas. “It was the soul of the actor and what [showrunner Bruce Miller] was looking for.”

Wiley plays the rebellious Moira on “Handmaid’s” and has one Emmy win in three nominations for the role.

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The Envelope spoke with some of TV’s top casting directors about their part in helping stories get told and actors get Emmy nominated. Among them, they’re responsible for five of the shows nominated for casting Emmys this year as well as a host of others that have received acting nominations in the past.

Bialy, Thomas and Russell Scott are nominated twice this year, for “Dead to Me” along with “Handmaid’s Tale.” Another of their shows, “Better Call Saul,” now has 11 acting nominations. For “Dead to Me’s” second season, Scott said the main task was finding the new love interest for Linda Cardellini’s character.

“Natalie [Morales] was someone [showrunner Liz Feldman] had in mind from the beginning, but she was working on a movie. Production was able to move around a lot of stuff,” he says.

“Well, Russell was able to work with production to make it happen,” adds Thomas. “He was a huge part of why we got her … it was a lot of working out schedules; we don’t just get to read in a room with actors all the time.” Did Scott have to break some legs to get it done? “No. That’s me,” Thomas says. The others laugh ... a little.

Samira Wiley plays Moira in "The Handmaid's Tale," a performance that has brought her a third Emmy nomination.
Samira Wiley plays Moira in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a performance that has brought her a third supporting actress Emmy nomination.
(Hulu)

For Season 2 of “Handmaid’s,” “we were surprised with Sydney Sweeney [as Eden]. That was a very, very challenging role,” Thomas says of the eager young “econowife” character who comes to learn just how divorced love and marriage are in the Gilead dystopia. Thomas called Sweeney “wise and mature beyond her years. What she did to prepare for that role was incredible. She read the whole book in like 48 hours. She created a book this big between her read with casting and her read with Bruce, of her story as the character. She’s the real deal.”

The Emmys may be in September but it’s never too early to look out for potential nominees, including ‘Succession,’ ‘Schitts Creek’ and Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

As continuing shows, all three series have established “universes and tones,” says Thomas.

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Bialy says, “For ‘Better Call Saul,’ we have an inside joke in the office that they’re a ‘Vince-Peter’ type of an actor [co-showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould]. Every actor that comes in, even if they don’t get the job, we keep a lot of notes .... We’ll often write notes like, ‘Remember for BCS’ because there’s a naturalistic approach to the acting on the show; it’s not showy at all.

“You really want to buy into that environment. There would be years where people would be like, ‘Where did you get all these drug addicts?’ ”

Thomas adds that they sometimes develop relationships with actors, calling them in time and again for reads. “Saul’s” Rhea Seehorn was one they called in many times before she booked the key Kim Wexler role.

Scott says “Dead to Me” is “a comedy, but it’s very down to earth. Liz responds to actors who aren’t hitting the jokes but ... have a sense of humor, not typical sitcom, playing-to-the-audience types you might see on traditional multi-camera shows. A lot have to be able to do comedy, drama, all of it.”

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Regina King is nominated for an Emmy for "Watchmen."
It’s good to be (Regina) King: The Oscar winner might win her fourth Emmy for her portrayal of Angela Aybar/Sister Night in “Watchmen.”
(Mark Hill / HBO)

Secrets of the ‘Watchmen’

Victoria Thomas, who is nominated this year for casting both “Insecure” (with Matthew Maisto) and “Watchmen” (with Megan Lewis), said the latter had unusual secrecy concerns: “There were dummy sides or fake names on a breakdown. [Showrunner Damon Lindelof] is pretty specific about what he wants, but if he can’t really explain it, he’ll know it when he sees it.

“I feel like I get him. He once told me, ‘You’re weird too.’ ”

Five seasoned entertainment journalists predict the shows and performances the Television Academy will honor with Emmys; do you agree with their picks?

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One of the limited series’ biggest secrets — spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen ‘Watchmen,’ skip down several paragraphs — was that perhaps the most iconic character from the comic would indeed appear in the show, set years after the source material. But who to play the enigmatic Dr. Manhattan?

Thomas says of the then-not-so-well-known Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, “I kind of always knew Yahya was it. One day, Damon said, ‘Hey, there’s this guy, Yahya!’ I went, ‘Yeah. He’s coming in this week.’ ”

But not even Thomas and Lewis knew who the character, a nice guy married to Regina King’s vigilante character, would later be revealed to be.

Thomas says, “Damon tried to give me a hint: ‘He should be … a little unusual.’ My associate, Elizabeth, who knows the comics very well, she guessed it.”

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Yahya Abdul-Mateen II
The Doctor is in: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II was a surprise choice to play Dr. Manhattan in HBO’s “Watchmen.”
(Mark Hill / HBO)

Even the actor didn’t know until that episode’s script rolled around.

Thomas says, “His agent called me: ‘Oh my God, Vicky, we just learned who he was!’ — and they screamed. Yahya took a leap of faith. He was playing a ‘husband.’ He was kind of signing on to play the ‘girl’ part.”

As to King (she and Abdul-Mateen II are nominated, along with costars Jovan Adepo, Louis Gossett Jr., Jeremy Irons and Jean Smart), the Oscar winner and three-time Emmy winner who worked on Lindelof’s “The Leftovers” wasn’t a slam dunk — precisely because she’d worked on Lindelof’s “The Leftovers.”

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“He doesn’t necessarily work with people twice in a row, so we didn’t immediately go to Regina,” says Thomas. “We had readings for that part. We thought we’d cast an unknown.

“Then he went to dinner with Regina and came back and said, ‘Why didn’t I just … I feel so ashamed.’ Because here, on a plate, is this great actress.’ ”

Co-writer Jeremy O. Harris of "Zola" was cast in a small role on "What We Do in the Shadows."
Jeremy O. Harris was cast in a small role in FX’s “What We Do in the Shadows.” Co-showrunner Jemaine Clement then wrote an episode just for him.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Actors coming out of the ‘Shadows’

For the vampire mockuseries “What We Do in the Shadows,” nominees Gayle Keller, Jenny Lewis and Sara Kay find themselves looking for actors who don’t look like typical actors.

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Kay says, “I met with [showrunners Jemaine Clement and Paul Simms] in the beginning, and they were like, ‘You know, just bring us … good … faces. And people.’ ”

Keller says, “They said they wanted ‘boring.’ Like if you were to go to a town meeting to talk about zoning.”

The vampire mockumentary series was a surprise Emmys 2020 comedy series nominee, but don’t look for hidden meaning behind the fun, say its writers.

Sometimes Clement will become inspired by the actors.

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In Season 1, says Keller, Harvey Guillén, who costars as Guillermo, familiar to one of the vampires, “starts talking to this other familiar at a party, and it was a very nondescript part. I brought in this guy from New York, he’s actually a playwright, his name is Jeremy O. Harris. He’s like 6-foot-5, he’s got this huge ‘fro. We sent the audition, and Jemaine fell in love with him: ‘We have to have him!’ And the next season, they wrote an episode for him, but he couldn’t do it. He was tied to a play in New York.”

“Jemaine does that so much,” says Kay. She cites the scenes with Mark Proksch as energy vampire Colin Robinson in his workplace. “Like with Colin’s office mates; they have like one line here and there and Jemaine said, ‘I need them all back.’ You don’t see loyalty like that a lot.”


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