Casting directors Claire Koonce and Charlene Lee love a curveball, so Lee Sung Jin’s “Beef” was the perfect project for the duo. The Netflix series stars Ali Wong and Steven Yeun as entrepreneur Amy Lau and handyman Danny Cho, who become nemeses in the aftermath an over-the-top road rage incident. Here, Koonce and Lee share what was unique about casting the show and discuss how the rise of virtual auditions has changed their jobs.
“Beef” is all about seeing new sides of people, and that extends to casting comedic actor and standup Ali Wong as a dramatic lead. What did that process look like?
Charlene Lee: In addition to, obviously, finding new talent and searching, we always also like to think, Maybe there’s someone out there who hasn’t been utilized in a certain way. [With] someone like Ali, everyone knows her for comedy; but this is really a showcase of her comedy as well as her drama chops. The delineation between drama and comedy isn’t always as far apart as everyone thinks.
In terms of building the characters around [the leads]—in particular, Amy’s husband and Danny’s brother—[getting] that chemistry right was extremely important. We were casting in the middle of the pandemic, so there were a lot of challenges of how to navigate that. Fortunately, we were able to do some in-person chemistry reads and a lot of auditions on Zoom, so we were able to make it work.
How did the pandemic impact your casting process? Were there any positives?
CL: We were all kind of figuring out the best way to navigate the process while staying safe. Our first callback session wasn’t in a production office, but outside in the parking lot. In terms of the specific process of casting the show, one thing that was really exciting was that there were so many different types of characters, which allowed us to go through the traditional methods of casting as well as do a ton of outreach to find new faces.
Claire Koonce: During the pandemic, everything became much more digitized. That meant that Charlene and I got to implement a lot of new methods of outreach in order to reach communities that haven’t been utilized as much. For example, we don’t tend to use a lot of social media in our casting, because you focus on acting skills. But the fact that we’re able to do a completely open call to anyone who is able to audition using social media, using organizations like the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, and partnering with a lot of organizations that could reach communities that aren’t checking breakdowns—getting the word out there, that was something that we were excited to be able to do.
How has the rise in self-taped and virtual auditions changed your job? Is it harder to get a sense of an actor through a screen?
CK: I think that we get a more comprehensive idea of an actor whenever we get to meet them in person, and that’s really important to us. It’s also really helpful whenever we’re determining chemistry. But I do think that a self-tape puts the actor in control, and you sometimes get a truer idea of what they’re capable of—because they’re able to perform it exactly as they intend. All that stuff that comes along with meeting someone in person or in an audition room is just cleaned out. You can get a gut feeling from both a self-tape and from an in-person audition; it’s just that you’re looking for different things.
CL: A positive is that self-taping does democratize the process. You’re able to see more people. Obviously, doing callbacks for a second round, whether it be in person or on Zoom, is extremely helpful. But I will say it’s nice to be able to see more actors, which definitely allows us to broaden who we’re searching for.
What do you wish more auditioners knew?
CK: Nowadays, actors tend to take the breakdown as gospel, where [before] they took it as a sketch that they could kind of paint outside of. Instead of trying to guess what I’m looking for and get it right, [an audition is] truly an actor’s opportunity to show us their take on a character. I wish actors knew the agency that they have and the freedom that they have in a self-tape, that it’s not a test. Instead of trying to make the “right” choice, make your choice.
CL: We’re in the corner of the actor. We want you to succeed, and we want you to get the job…. There have been so many instances where someone comes in and auditions over and over and over again. You call them back [repeatedly], and I’m sure they’re thinking, Am I ever gonna get a job [from] this person? If you’re getting repeat opportunities, you’re doing the right things, and hard work will generate opportunities. We know how challenging that can be. But we’re always here to support [you] in whatever way we can.
This story originally appeared in the June 15 issue of Backstage Magazine.