The following Career Dispatch essay was written Terri Minsky, creator of Disney Channel’s “Andi Mack,” eligible this Emmy Awards season for outstanding children’s program.
I have a bad case of empty set syndrome. I miss my kids—the ones from my Disney Channel show, “Andi Mack.” I look at their pictures on Instagram, and I barely recognize them. I’ve known these kids since they were babies...or at least young enough that their idea of a classic Christmas movie is “The Santa Clause 2”! They grow so fast. They look happy and busy, and that’s what’s important. Sigh. They don’t call, they don’t write. A text once in a while—that would be nice.
But listen, I’m just grateful they exist. I remember back when my script for “Andi Mack” was just words on a page that we had to make flesh and blood. And who knew if that was even possible? Where does one go to find a 13-year-old girl burdened by my lifelong self-esteem issues who gets hit by a major family trauma? And did I mention this was a comedy? This was Andi, my lead character. The Disney Channel gave me two months to find her, and it had to be someone they would approve, because it is a Very Big Deal to add a new star to the Disney firmament next to the likes of Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, and Zendaya.
Luckily, I was blessed with a tireless expedition team: Amber Horn, Danielle Aufiero, and Steven Tylor O’Connor. These casting directors were prepared to audition, in person or on tape, every tween girl on the planet. Very quickly, it became apparent that actual 13-year-olds are much more worldly today than the pre-Internet version I had in my head. They had to cast a wider net. For guidance, they asked if I had a picture in my head of what Andi looked like when I wrote the script. I said no, because I would never say “me.” (See above: self-esteem issues).
But my casting directors needed me to be more helpful than that; thousands of girls were reading for Andi. Even if I couldn’t say exactly what I wanted, but I knew what I didn’t want. Often, I could tell almost the moment a girl walked into the room whether she was a prospective Andi. It was the little things, like shoes. Converse sneakers, yes; heels or over-the-knee boots, no. A lot of make-up, hair that had been curling ironed, long painted nails—my interest level went down the more dressed up someone was. Even though they were auditioning for a Disney Channel comedy, I didn’t want anyone to try to be funny. I wasn’t going to have a studio audience or a laugh track, and I don’t write the “hard” jokes of classic sitcom humor meant to get a laugh. But a lot of these kids had been to acting coaches who taught them the singsong rhythms of comic delivery. I wanted my dialogue to sound as natural as possible.
Then out of nowhere, there was Peyton Elizabeth Lee. She didn't have a reel; she had only been acting professionally for a few months with two guest spots on her résumé. This is what I mean about Amber, Danielle, and Steven seeing everyone. When Peyton read my dialogue, it didn’t just sound natural, it sounded so real that I felt like I was meeting my own character. But before Disney would hire her, they had to rule everyone else out, which meant Peyton had to audition again and again and again, each time competing with a new crop of candidates. The final time, the network executives asked her to do a cold reading of the scene where Andi finds out her sister is actually her mother. They gave her a half hour to prepare. She came back in five minutes and killed it. She was only 11 years old.
Then, we got the all-clear to look for the other kids. Jonah Beck was Andi’s crush, the unattainable guy. Buffy was the best friend with the backbone Andi didn’t have. Cyrus was the other best friend, Disney’s first LGBTQ character. There’s no suspense to the rest of this casting story; we had a group of kids who almost instantly became the best friends they were hired to play. There were some bumps, though.
Joshua Rush, our Cyrus, had just been hired as the lead for another Disney pilot. He came in with a list of questions about my plans for Cyrus’ storyline, which I had to answer before he would even consider auditioning. I don’t know if he ever actually read the sides. He was already Cyrus. The other pilot was never made. (Belatedly, I’m feeling very guilty about that.)
Between his name and his smile, Asher Angel seemed like a no-brainer for Jonah Beck. But in the post-audition banter, Asher said he loved sports, every sport…except ultimate frisbee. He didn't know how to play it, and he had no interest in learning. This was immediately after reading the scene where Jonah Beck, the captain of the ultimate frisbee team, teaches Andi how to play frisbee. Betty Thomas, who directed the pilot, threw up her hands and plaintively wailed: “Dude!” (But the role was still his, of course.)
We didn’t have a Buffy until two days before we started shooting the series. We saw a lot of auditions full of vampire-slayer toughness, but very little of the best friend. Amber found Sofia Wylie’s hip-hop dance videos on Instagram, and brought her in for the role. She was the very last person to audition for the role, and it was hers.
I once asked Peyton how long she could see herself playing Andi. She looked at me like I was crazy: “Forever,” she said, as if it was obvious she was the one. Such a beautiful thought to keep the series running for all time, but I knew then it wasn’t possible. Working on this show and with these kids for its third and final season has been such a dream and a gift. The “Andi Mack” series finale airs July 26, 2019.
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