The human oddity acts in carnivals of old were geniuses at carving niches for themselves, capitalizing on their unusual attributes and talents and "creating a market where there was none," commented John Papsidera during a recent interview at his small, 1970s-modern-decored Robertson Boulevard digs, which have become the casting portal to the 1930s and HBO's ambitious new drama, Carnivale, from creator Daniel Knauf. Since they began casting the series pick-up in January, CDs Papsidera and Wendy O'Brien have enjoyed a traffic of unique and exciting talent through their offices. These contemporary niche-makers--be they veteran character actors, interesting newcomers, or performers with exotic skills or exceptional traits--have begun to assemble behind a project of vast scope and high expectation. The biggest star name among them, however, is HBO, which continues to exploit the market for high-quality, daringly innovative scripted series.
Set during the Great Depression, HBO's first episodic period piece centers on a traveling carnival that is joined by a mysterious teenage boy (Nick Stahl) while caravanning through the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. A parallel plot takes place in a California agricultural town, somewhere around Salinas, where a villainous radio evangelist (Clancy Brown) has a small ministry. Beyond that, the production office remains tight-lipped about the series (which is currently being shot in Santa Clarita), and with about a third of the season left to cast, Papsidera and O'Brien would discuss the concept in somewhat broad terms only.
"It's a classic story of good vs. evil," offered Papsidera, who called upon examples from film to describe the show, comparing it to Star Wars in its themes and scope, and visually to O Brother, Where Art Thou? with its sweeping landscapes and sepia tones. As in those films, a strong current of myth and the supernatural runs through Knauf's concept. "It's an attempt to put mythology on world life events," Papsidera explained. "This time in history, Dan [Knauf] has always said to us, was like the last gasp of magic because once man invented the atom bomb all bets were off.... In a way it was the last time that supernatural phenomenon still existed."
Because Carnivale establishes two highly specific and crowded locations, its casting needs have been immense. The series-regular tally has been estimated at 24, said the CDs, and boasts a wide range of veterans and rising stars from a broad spectrum of genres and mediums--from promising young actors like Stahl and Clea DuVall (Identity and the upcoming 21 Grams) to Adrienne Barbeau, "who is famous by and large for a sitcom and John Carpenter's films, to Amy Madigan, who is steeped in regional and Broadway theatre and independent films." Other intriguing choices include Michael J. Anderson (Mulholland Dr., Twin Peaks) and local actor/performance artist John Fleck.
The show also continues to accumulate a long roster of recurring characters, including Actors' Gang favorite Cynthia Ettinger, as well as about 10 co-stars and guest stars per episode. Coming up with the sheer numbers required while also achieving an authentic, eclectic look has been a challenge, the CDs explained: "Finding people with unique and distinct looks takes a lot of digging, especially in this town where a lot of people are hired because of their looks. Added to that we also have the human oddities, the freak aspect of it." To portray one of the sideshow acts, the CDs recently hired a woman sometimes known as Lobster Girl, whom they had met while casting the 2001 film Bubble Boy. French-Canadian identical twin performers from Cirque du Soleil will portray "Siamese" twins.
Even for roles not quite so unusual, the CDs have turned to different resources than they tend to for features. Time permitting, they attend theatre showcases, from which they have hired a few actors directly, and they rely heavily on smaller agents and managers with diverse client lists.
Said Papsidera, "It's not a show where we hire movie stars or TV stars; in fact we steer away from it. We have some very well known people in the cast...but we don't want to tip the scales and do something that pulls people out of this world." He added, "I'm really proud of all the actors we've been able to hire because you feel so bad, I do, doing features that are so name oriented, so about marketing that you don't get a chance to just hire really brilliant working actors. Getting to contribute to that kind of employment is great."
Lack of employment, of course, would be a lesser concern if there were more shows on network TV of the scale and with the emphasis on compelling storytelling that Carnivale promises. When asked whether they thought the popularity of quality cable series could help to take down the reality/talent show trend, Papsidera and O'Brien were optimistic. "You can only hope that the business focuses less on commercialism and marketing and more on telling stories and finding a market that way," said Papsidera. As for Carnivale, he said, "I think it's such a smartly written, ambitious, and courageous project by HBO because there's nothing else out there like it. Nobody has really done a show in this time period with this kind of concept, so you always hope people will find that. I think it's absolutely what entertainment is missing."