Do You Create Characters With Certain Actors in Mind?

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Javier Grillo-Marxuach

Los Angeles; 'The Middleman,' 'Lost,' 'Medium'

Pre-casting in my head—be it for a guest role in a series, a lead in a pilot, a feature, or even a comic book—is an amazingly useful strategy. In comic-book projects specifically, I often "cast" known actors in the parts so as to give the artist a general reference as to the look, body language, and attitude demanded by the part. (The most exotic was a character I cast as a cross between Natalie Portman and River Phoenix.) In television and films, visualizing actors I like as certain characters allows me to develop a mental shorthand that at least allows me to enter the scenes with a little something in my quiver other than the blank page and a pervasive sense of fear and panic.

The one role I could never pre-cast was the Middleman, the main character of my comic book/TV series. I kept trying to imagine the guy in my head and just couldn't figure out what actor could have the mixture of "aw shucks" innocence and sheer unbridled manliness called for in the script. However, in between the comic and the TV version, I caught Matt Keeslar in "The Last Days of Disco," and he immediately became the character for me. So much so that in every casting meeting with the network, every time they asked, "Who do you see as the Middleman?," I would answer, "A Matt Keeslar type." Eventually, the ABC Family execs got fed up with hearing it and asked, "Why haven't you made Matt Keeslar an offer?" Savvy television producer that I am, the idea had not even crossed my head. Thankfully, Matt was more than game for the part, and he not only met but also exceeded my every expectation with his performance.

Marti Noxon

Los Angeles; 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' 'Private Practice,' 'Mad Men'

Yes, absolutely—sometimes. For instance, I wrote a pilot for ABC a couple years ago, and there was an actor in a Canadian series, "Slings and Arrows": Paul Gross. He was the guy in my head the whole time. There are times when somebody's just exactly the type, and when you can imagine someone, sometimes that really helps you write it, because they have such a distinct voice and you can kind of guess what their attitude would be toward a situation. Of course, that doesn't mean that you're going to get that guy. Most of the time you don't get the person you're imagining, and sometimes you even have to rewrite a little bit. But usually, you get another actor and you realize they were perfect for the role all along and you were deluded.

I'm a huge Patton Oswalt fan, so I'm constantly trying to write him into shows. Other friends, such as Jane Espenson and Joss Whedon, have already done so. They beat me to the punch on that one.

With pilots, they're very concept-driven. You're always pitching types. You're not writing for movie stars; you're writing for concepts. So I don't get as attached to specific actors in general. Because it's moving so fast, you're really just looking for the best person for the job.

The best part of doing television—as opposed to a movie, where you might not have the opportunity to respond to what an actor brings to the table—is you have multiple episodes, and you start to realize, say, "Oh my gosh, this person's strength is comedy." We just did a show for TeenNick called "Gigantic," and Gia Mantegna was one of the girls on the show. We didn't realize how funny she was until we got into it. And in fact, that whole show became more comedic as we moved forward with it, because all of the actors had real chops in comedy. The show evolved because of them. That's the great thing about doing TV: Actors bring their strengths, and hopefully you're collaborative and are awake enough to recognize that they're going to take it in a different direction and you should let them.

Mike Royce

Los Angeles; 'Men of a Certain Age,' 'Everybody Loves Raymond,' 'Lucky Louie'

Ray Romano and I began creating the main characters in "Men of a Certain Age" without any templates in mind, except that obviously Joe Tranelli would be played by Ray. However, as we discussed the characters of Owen and Terry and filled in backstory, a couple of well-known actors popped into our heads as good "types." We decided to list them in our opening descriptions (à la "Joe Tranelli, 50-ish, slightly neurotic: Think Ray Romano") in order to help people reading our script get a shorthand picture of who these guys were.

We actually approached one of the actors for the part of Owen, but he turned out to be busy with another project. Which became a lesson to us, because eventually that part went to Andre Braugher. And despite the fact that he is one of the best actors in the world, we had not pictured such a commanding presence inhabiting our somewhat downtrodden character. Turns out that Andre could inhabit him perfectly—because he is one of the best actors in the world. He was game to try something different than what he was known for, and boy, did he nail it.

So I guess I would say that from a writing standpoint, it can be helpful to throw well-known actors' names into your scripts in order to familiarize and liven up the heretofore unknown characters for the reader. It gives them a picture. But when it comes to casting, consider throwing that out the window in service of finding something unexpected and even better.