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Casting Advice

Nat Geo’s ‘Genius’ CD Wants to Cast You Whether You Have an Agent or Not

Nat Geo’s ‘Genius’ CD Wants to Cast You Whether You Have an Agent or Not
Photo Source: National Geographic

When Rose Wicksteed was approached to cast the National Geographic biographical series “Genius,” the decision wasn’t difficult for her to make. It was a series about Albert Einstein and the pilot would be directed by Ron Howard. “Where do I sign up?” Wicksteed jokingly recalled saying. However, when it was time to get to work, the project proved to be much more complex than casting jobs she had taken on in the past. Elements like casting based on real, globally-recognized historical figures, casting internationally, and the sheer number of parts on each season, which reached past 200 roles, were exciting but challenging charges for the British casting director.

Season 1 offered her opportunities to learn, so when Season 2 geared up with a focus on Pablo Picasso, Wicksteed was ready to face the fast-paced season with interdepartmental collaboration, more worldwide searches, and local casting directors in the countries where shoots took place. She’s developed a casting process for the show that runs with machine efficiency, and along the way, she’s added some mastery to her skills in identifying talent on tapes sent from all over the world, authenticity casting, getting an actor from audition to set in less than two weeks, and more.

Why was “Genius” a project you wanted to take on?
It’s an exciting prospect to cast real, ripe characters who are figures in history. Particularly someone like Einstein, who’s obviously a fascinating character. It’s challenging, and I’m always up for a challenge. When it came time to cast, I only read the pilot, the initial for Einstein and then the same for Picasso. Having done Einstein, I knew the context for the show and how it would need to be cast and what we were trying to achieve. Picasso, in a very different way, was an equally exciting, thrilling character and life full of many different fascinating historical characters to find.

What the casting process like for “Genius”?
It’s epic. It’s a really interesting process that is very different from working in film. On a film, I will get the whole script, I’ll know what’s coming up, and I’ll know how many roles there will be. In television, particularly in doing American-style shows, I don’t know those things. When I started to do Einstein, we had a pilot script but that script changed quite considerably even from when I joined the project. I had no idea that there was going to be the number of roles there was going to be. In Season 1, we ended up with about 237 actors that we cast across the 10 episodes. In Season 2, it was something like 207. They write the show as they go along, so we don’t know what’s coming up, which is exciting and terrifying at the same time. I’m auditioning and casting actors for whatever episodes I have at that point, not knowing where that role might go. I’ll have an idea of which will be the main roles and how many episodes they might be in from the writers. Also because all the roles are based on real people, we can see what’s going to happen. We bombard the writers’ room with many questions throughout the casting process. It allows me to be very spontaneous in the casting. It’s a very different process in thinking about the actors I really want because the turnaround from casting to shoot is so quick. We can’t do a huge amount of pre-preparation. It’s a challenging show.

So you stay on the production all the way through?
Yes. On other productions, casting comes on at the beginning and then we stop by the time principal photography starts and we’re done. On this show, we worked all the way through from about two or three months before it started shooting and then we are on it until the end of the shoot. We also worked on the Picasso and Einstein seasons very internationally. I’m based in the U.K. and the studio and the networks are in L.A. This time, “Genius” was shot mainly in Budapest, Hungary but we also had people working in, Spain, France, and Malta. We bring actors from the U.S., the U.K., and Europe. We had actors from Russia, and we also looked in Australia. I feel very lucky to have worked on this show where we really are able to cast worldwide; it’s a really exciting prospect.

How are you involved with the international casting element of the show?
On Einstein, it was me overseeing and then we had a local casting director in Prague and we had the casting department at the studio. The Picasso season was great because I had support from CDs in the other countries where we shot. Picasso spent most of his life in France, so we had a French casting director, Rachel Desmarest, who was fantastic and found us some really interesting, exciting French actors. We had a Spanish casting director, Luci Lenox, who came on because his early life was in Spain. Then we had Katalin Baranyi who was local casting in Hungary. We also shot a bit in Malta and had a CD there. It’s great to have those local CDs who can introduce you to actors that you wouldn’t have known about before. I watch everything submitted from all the locations and then I present my selects to the director and the showrunner. In Einstein and Picasso, there were many different nationalities of characters in both of their worlds so I was seeing people from all these different countries.

What research went into the casting process?
When I found out it was Einstein and Picasso, I read some biographies and did a lot of Google image research. What we really like to do as part of the casting process is get the script and break all the different roles down. Then we print out images of the real versions of characters and plaster our office walls with them. We try to match physically, facially, and nationality-wise where we can. There are many considerations for all of these roles because they were real people. What was really exciting this season with the casting was that Antonio [Banderas] set the tone for the casting in the show because he was Spanish. It felt like we really fought to be authentic in nationality, physicality, and the like where we could throughout the rest of the show. It was something very important to me and the showrunner, Ken Biller. He loves actors from different countries. If there’s a Russian role, we do our search in Russia. We’re pretty extensive with our searches for all roles. We caught some eclectic actors.

Something quite interesting this season was Picasso was very short, around 5’4”. The team felt it was an important part of his character, but Antonio is not 5’4”. We tried to cast actors around him to make him feel small. That is a challenge. We would constantly have to ask agents, “How tall is the actor?” They didn’t really believe that it was a massive consideration, but it was. We pushed to cast actors that were taller than Antonio and Alex Rich, who we found after an international search to play the younger Picasso, where we could to create the impression that they were small. With women, it was tough. Costumes helped. That was a big consideration this time which created whole new added limitations. Davina Lamont, who’s the incredible hair and makeup designer really helped us out with wigs, prosthetics, anything to make them feel like that person.

What are your priorities when you’re casting based on real people, especially ones who are so familiar to so many?
It’s a combination of the look and how they embody the character. What someone looks like, the physicality, the actual nationality or accent—if they’re not French or Spanish, can they do a believable accent? When we have real Spanish or French actors in a scene next to them, is that going to work? The essence of the character is probably the most important. It’s definitely what I would fight for and also what the showrunner and the director will look for, ultimately. I’ll present a handful of actors per role to the creative team that’s a mix of actors that might have a very strong physical resemblance to the role but then maybe a couple of actors who don’t, but who might embody the role how it’s written. Then it becomes a discussion. What becomes most important is that you really believe that actor is that character how it’s written and that they can tell the story and embody the emotions and whatever else is needed. If they look exactly like the photos, that’s an amazing bonus.

There were some characters who are more known, like Coco Chanel, who audiences might know what that person looks like. We try to match them physically. That became more important in those roles than other roles who were real people but don’t have much visual recognition. We can get away with them looking a bit different. In this production more than any other production I’ve worked on, we work quite closely with the hair and makeup designer, Davina. She became involved in creative discussions before we would choose the actor, which is not my experience in other productions. We made selects and then ended up with, say, two actors that the showrunner really liked. Since they shoot next week, we had to know if they could get a wig in time if the actor’s hair didn’t match the character’s. It’s important to go for authenticity. She became very involved in those creative discussions. It was a collaborative process. When we couldn’t find a blonde actor for a very blonde role or they needed different color eyes or something, they worked miracles in the hair and makeup department. After Season 1, it became apparent that we would have to work like that because of the timeframe and deadlines. We would have 20–30 new roles that had to shoot in three weeks. We had to go into the season with a different approach to speaking with hair and makeup about the direction much earlier in the casting process so who and what they’d have to work with wasn’t a shock to them.

How do you avoid the risk of imitation when casting based on real, familiar people?
What’s interesting about how the show is written is a huge number of roles. There are some roles, like the leads, Picasso, Françoise Gilot, Dora Maar, who work many episodes and have a huge character arc. Those roles for the actor auditioning can, I suspect, be easier to move away from more of a surface imitation of a character because they’re in the show for 7–10 episodes and they can really get in depth instead of being any kind of stereotype or superficial idea of who that person may have been.

Guest roles might pop up in one or two scenes who are famous or known characters that don’t have that opportunity to go into depth, so there’s the potential for them to do more of an imitation. The writing on the show doesn’t allow for that because it tries to get to the essence of the person. Guest roles are introduced in a realistic way, so I think the actors find it easier to not do an imitation. There are definitely times when actors will do more of that, particularly when they accentuate an accent, which is always tough if it’s not their natural accent. We try to seek out the most authentic, down to earth, real interpretation. I make sure the actors who come in for one or two scenes feel 3-D. They were highly influential in these historical people’s lives even though we don’t see them in all 10 episodes. We have to feel like they could be, so they have to feel like they have the potential to be a leading role although we just see a snippet of them. It’s definitely a challenge to find the actors who can embody that. We cast all around the world to find someone who understands they are almost like a leading character within this one scene they’re in. We pay the same attention to detail and process to all the roles, series regular or day player. Sometimes the hardest roles to cast are day players that will say one line because it’s actually incredibly difficult to come into a scene and just say one line. On “Genius,” even if you’re a day player that just has one line, there’s a reason for that. They’re very integral to this particular scene. To say one line and make it believable and authentic is a talent. It’s very tough, so we go through a very intricate casting process on all of these roles whether they’re one line or even nonspeaking roles. Sometimes extras casting might do them, but we want them to look a certain way or they have to have a believable reaction to something in the scene so we go through the casting process the same way as we would with the lead roles.

Where do you look for talent?
Apart from going to see theater and watching film and TV, there are other platforms, especially European platforms, like one called E-Talenta, which I’ve used on both “Genius” seasons, that covers all of Europe. Actors can sign up without manager or agent and submit self-tapes. On both seasons, we’ve cast several actors who don’t have representation. Some have never worked in the English language before and it’s a whole new experience for them. It’s really exciting to put those actors together from all over the world. Sometimes I’ll do street castings with non-actors. It depends on what the production is and what the casting requirements are. I don’t care what agents an actor has; I’m open to anyone taping if they feel like they’re right for the role. It’s really exciting on this show to be able to do that. Ken is open to helping actors, whoever they are. He doesn’t care what their CV is or whether or not they’ve worked. We’ve taken risks and cast actors who haven’t done anything or kids who have never been on a set before. It’s exciting to be able to work on a show that allows me to cast that way, doesn’t judge, and appreciates what’s on the audition tape.

READ: Your Guide to a Perfect Self-Tape

Speaking of, what sticks out to you on a self-tape?
We send out self-tape instructions that say tape yourself against a light colored plain background, mid shot preferably showing head and shoulders, and good lighting. We have these standard criteria, but actors sometimes break rules. Some of the best self-tapes that I have seen have been when they’ve broken all of those rules and it has gotten them the role. It’s difficult for me to give advice. I don’t think there’s one option because it depends on what the role, production, and team are like. I would always tell them to do whatever the CD is advising because then you’re safe. A self-tape that comes to mind from the Einstein season is one for a Nazi role. The character was getting out of a car and then he was shooting someone and then he was getting back in the car. The actor added sound effects. It was set in his living room on a chair, but when he was driving, it was like the noise of an engine and then he would open the door and there would be the noise of the door opening and the camera followed him and the movements were cut together. It was an incredible self-tape and he got the role. The risk is sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. If you want to be safe and you don’t know what the team is like, use a light background. No matter what you do, we should be able to see the actor. In casting, we’re used to watching self-tapes, so we can see if someone has potential for what we’re looking for. That comes down to accents and performance. Even if there’s drilling going on in the background or a person going past in the background, if it’s a really amazing performance, they can win you over. If there’s something distracting on the tape, the director and showrunner don’t have so much time to be watching with so much going on for them, so I will ask for the actor to re-tape with notes. You don’t want the next person that sees the tape to be put off by distracting elements. It should be well lit and we should be able to hear you. Sometimes I receive self-tapes and I’m not sure the person watched it back before they sent it. I’m talking on a superficial technical level, it’s always helpful if someone completely separate can have a look and not at the acting or acting level, but to consider the tape quality and ask “Does the tape have what I would need in order to determine whether this person can be good for a role or not?” Can I actually see the person’s facial expressions and all the things that we need in order to cast them? Watch the tape back and put yourself in the seat of the CD who hasn’t met you and ask if it is strong enough to say yes, let’s go for it.

What’s also helpful on a self-tape is what they call a slate in the U.S. Have a separate take where you shoot yourself and say your height and see your full body shot and do an introduction. If you’re casting someone from another country and potentially no one is going to meet them, you want to see what they’re about. That’s really helpful.

What don’t actors know or realize about what you do?
It would be really helpful for people to come work in a casting office for a week. We’re separate from the rest of production on “Genius,” and our process is unknown to many of the other departments. A lot of people don’t understand or appreciate the extent of the considerations of the casting process beyond the creative aspect of the job, which is the cherry on the top, really. That’s the human interaction with the actors when we help them to be able to embody new characters. The idea people have about casting is different from the reality, which is the huge amount of logistical and administrative work and endlessly checking availability. Massive parts of the casting world are availability, heights, with kids, it’s getting a child license in time, how old they are, and if they can get out of school. We need to know what agent someone is with and how to manage a situation where there are two actors we really like at the same agency. It’s a puzzle and it can constantly change. As much as we want to be in control of certain elements, at that point, we have to release a certain amount of control because there are so many uncontrollable elements. A lot of it is about managing—people, your team, and also all the different characters and personalities involved in the production, actors, and agents. On the shows that I do, 98 percent of the actors never meet the director or the showrunner until they are on set. My role as the CD then really extends to also asking, “What is this person like? Are they going to be able to shoot in another country? Are they going to be okay to shoot so many scenes in a day? Are they a team player? Are they going to be able to take direction?” As well as asking if they can embody the role, which is massively important. Even if they can, I have to ask, “Can they also deal with the fast-paced nature of the production? What are they like? Are they going to fit into our Genius’ family?” I think with children that definitely is a big consideration.

It’s a multilayered role apart from doing the deals, which is a whole other part of the job. We have to be artful negotiators. A lot of people only have the idea of what it’s like in the casting room, but on a show like “Genius,” that probably accounts for maybe under 50 percent of the casting process. It’s a very small part of the day at the casting office which most people don’t see. We’re sending the tapes or the selects to the creative teams but the amount of work it has taken to come to that point of showing these five actors for this one role out of 200+ roles is huge.

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