Actors, especially New York actors, have long recognized the name and work of Calleri Casting. Now, although the reputation of the office hasn’t changed, the names on the door have. The team of three spent some free time during the pandemic to bring what has been a long time partnership to the name of the company. James Calleri, Erica Jensen, and Paul Davis have worked together for more than two decades, and now the trio works under the banner Calleri Jensen Davis. While live theater was paused, the office kept busy with television projects like Apple TV+’s “Dickinson” and quarantine creations like virtual “Pride Plays.” All three members of the team sat down with Backstage over Zoom to discuss their work, changes, and to share advice for actors now that opportunities are returning to stage and screen.
Tell me about your working relationship and the changes you’ve made in the last year.
Erica Jensen: We’ve been working together for a really long time as partners, but without all of our names on the door. I was James’s intern at Playwrights Horizons 21 years ago now and I’ve been with him pretty much ever since.
Paul Davis: James had been my acting teacher when I was an undergrad, he was a grad student. I had a lunch date with James and Erica when they were still working at Playwrights Horizons and I was unemployed, I came back to the office with them, and I kind of never left.
James Calleri: I was at Playwrights for 10 seasons. As I was there, more outside work was coming our way and it felt like a natural progression for us to move out on our own to take on some other projects. We all decided to do that together. And that’s what we’ve done ever since. We put all our names on the masthead for a nice equitable division of what we are and how we’re represented.
“We put all our names on the masthead for a nice equitable division of what we are and how we’re represented. ”
What has casting during COVID-19 looked like for you?
PD: Initially, there was no work. We had started with “Pride Plays” that Michael Urie produced and they decided to go virtual. It was really lovely to get to read scripts and do some lists. We just did calls as usual, which was a really lovely way to resume working even though we were geographically scattered. It felt familiar and new all at the same time.
EJ: We wrapped that up in May or June. In August, we had to make a really horrible choice to give up our office. Now we have regular talks scheduled and we’re accessible to each other all the time.
JC: We’re all members of the Casting Society of America, and I remember being on a call with maybe 30–40 casting directors one night and had the realization that everyone was going through what we were going through.
It’s been interesting to hear how different people have adapted.
JC: We like to work together on things. Having the physical distance and trying to figure out how to reconnect through that has been the big challenge.
PD: We love in-person stuff. Even if we have an intern or an assistant, I love to check in the actors in the hall. But you find silver linings; we can see more people via self-tapes and we can meet actors that we haven’t previously met. There are certain things that have revealed themselves to be really lovely. We had never cast anything for audio and Stephen Brackett’s a director we’ve worked with a lot and he was doing a James Patterson scripted series. It’s a mystery set in a Broadway theater, so it was an opportunity to cast a lot of Broadway theater actors who weren’t currently working on Broadway.
You mentioned being very collaborative. How do you usually work together when casting?
EJ: At the end of the day it’s our three-person office and as James said, we’re all in each other's business. So even if Paul is heading a project, James and I are going to participate and help out. James and Paul are really heading up “Dickinson” right now, but I’m very much all over it wanting to know what’s going on.
PD: I love having collaborators because I get a lot of assurance at the end of the day running something by James and Erica, whether it’s a question of, Is this actor right to put on a list for something? or, This situation has come up with a producer, how do we navigate it?
“A favorite thing is to give a theater actor their first job on TV. That is really exciting for us. I feel like we celebrate the victories as much as the actor does.”
There aren’t a ton of people that do both stage and screen casting. How are the two different?
JC: I always say it’s much harder to cast somebody in a play. It feels like it's a very different process and requirement. People want to know where you’ve trained, who you went to school with, what theaters you’ve worked with, they’re really studying the résumé. I always remind actors we rarely bring in pictures and résumés when we’re casting for television because typically no one really cares. What they care about is what is happening right in front of them, and what is going on when they’re working in front of the camera. I find that in an odd way liberating. It’s just a different process. It’s a quicker process, it feels less complicated in some ways.
EJ: James, you’ve said with smaller roles on TV, you can cast just about anyone.
PD: A favorite thing is to give a theater actor their first job on TV. That is really exciting for us. I feel like we celebrate the victories as much as the actor does.
JC: Just like the actors, TV has allowed us to have a career in the theater. Being able to do both things, they’ve fed off of one another in a symbiotic way.
What advice do you like to give actors as CDs?
PD: A few years ago people were circulating this quote that Taylor Mac had said, and he was talking about being in school and having a guy from the business talk to the students, and the advice was sort of like “Just hang out with the people you like, and don’t worry about getting in the door of people of power because if you hang out and collaborate with the people you like, you’ll find that those people end up becoming the people in power organically.” Hang out with the people you want to hang out with and collaborate with the people you want to collaborate with. Train, take class, figure out the business.
EJ: One thing that the pandemic and this time, has highlighted for me and with my students and the actors I’ve been working with are the impulses to expand beyond acting with things like writing and directing and exploring those avenues. I highly encourage that in actors. Don’t think of themselves as just an actor but to maybe think a little more broadly and see what that can bring. It’s not everyone’s impulse to be a writer or director or producer, but when you have the time to explore something else that you hadn’t thought of before, it can also bring something to your acting. It can also bring you to finding your community and the people that you really bond with and want to work with.
JC: It’s really about the long haul. All this stuff takes so much more time than you would think. The commitment of that, it’s years of developing those relationships and years of getting out there and getting better and more comfortable with auditioning and being more comfortable on set. Those things take more time than I think anybody realizes.
“It’s not everyone’s impulse to be a writer or director or producer, but when you have the time to explore something else that you hadn’t thought of before, it can also bring something to your acting.”
What can an actor expect from auditioning for you?
EJ: We pride ourselves on having really calm audition rooms. We really try to instill as much confidence and empower them to do their best work. We’re very warm, welcoming people. The casting community at large is also working on how to create more inclusive audition spaces where we respect people’s identities. That’s something that we’re really working on. And I think once we’re in the room again, hopefully, actors will see that in action, and that will be in action with the directors we work with and the writers we work with, and hopefully with everybody.
PD: It’s sort of like match-making, right? If we’ve scheduled an actor, it’s because we were hoping for chemistry between them and the creative team and we love it when that strikes. And if it doesn’t strike on one project, we hope that the actor is going to trust that we’re going to keep searching for the match.
What don’t you think actors know or realize about what you do as casting directors?
EJ: We don’t represent actors. We’re not agents! Another thing is that actors sometimes think we’re the ones making the final decision, and we’re not. We’re part of a team, so it’s a collaboration. At the end of the day, it’s the director, the showrunner, the artistic director, the writer, they’re the ones making the absolute final decisions. We’re bringing options to them. Everyone that we’re bringing to them, we think they’re great. And at the end of the day it’s their decision and how they’re going to tell their story and with what actors.
PD: I also find actors are fragile, especially young ones. I think if they get an audition or a callback and they don’t book it, it’s a source of shame for them. Booking a job is great, but if you run into an actor who didn’t book something we’re happy to see you. Some people think they tanked something, it’s just that the team fell in love with somebody for some reason. I like the idea of actors just being able to show up on the court, play the game, and leave it at the end of the day.
Talk about your work on “Dickinson.”
Paul Davis: Alena [Smith, creator of “Dickinson”], was a playwright, so she writes very far in advance. Unlike other TV jobs, where you’re sort of waiting for the scripts to find out what role you’re going to cast, she has a very clear idea of what’s down the pike during the season. We can have a lot of collaborative conversations early on. She’ll come to us with ideas, but also say she’s excited to see people that we bring in.
James Calleri: It’s fun to do comedy. There’s not a lot of it, and I always think it’s harder than anything else. That’s been a really nice challenge, to figure out the style and the tone of the show.
PD: It’s not a cookie-cutter show like a procedural. When we read the script originally, we never imagined Jane Krakowski as Mrs. Dickinson, and then all of a sudden, you get to know Alena and the world that she’s creating. It’s never an autopilot kind of casting experience, in a really fun way.
Erica Jensen: We have all the scripts, so this is the first TV show where it’s like we’re casting a movie.
How does the combination of tone, time period, and subject matter affect who you consider for casting?
PD: It’s fun, because you can bring in people who are period-appropriate, but also have a very contemporary feel.
JC: There is a certain style to the show, but [Smith] likes it when we do the opposite or stand that on its head. You find somebody who stylistically doesn’t really play into that and seems really interesting.
Where do you like to look for new talent outside of agents and managers?
EJ: Thankfully, school programs are still releasing showcases virtually. That’s always been a big way for us to find new talent and get to know new people. James, Paul, and I also all teach, so we get to know actors that way, too. That’s a really great way to bring new actors in and for us to get to know them.
PD: Sometimes we find people on Instagram. I’ve been in sessions with directors who introduce us to actors because they follow this person and they have funny clips. It’s fascinating how you can source from all over. Erica and I have cast a lot for Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Humana Festival, and they have a really great apprentice program, so while I was looking at people for an upcoming episode from agent submissions, I found myself thinking of people Erica and I had met down in Louisville. We’re always playing a fun version of the name game.
This story originally appeared in the June 17 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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