‘The Gilded Age’ Casting Directors on What Actors Need to Know About Period Piece Auditions

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Photo Source: Barbara Nitke/HBO

The 1883 opening of the dazzling Metropolitan Opera House takes center stage on Season 2 of HBO’s “The Gilded Age”—and as Julian Fellowes’ period drama expands, so does its theater-centric lineup. Casting directors Bernard Telsey and Adam Caldwell have plucked many Broadway stars for the ensemble. “What’s so great about [this] show is people are established with sometimes one or two lines, and I think theater people have that natural training,” says Telsey. Here, the duo discusses their repertory approach to casting the SAG-nominated ensemble. 

What advice do you have for a theater actor who’s looking to break into television?

Bernard Telsey: Let’s say you don’t have a lot of television behind you—be willing to take any role. That even goes [for] “The Gilded Age.” You know who that cast is—they’re all Tony nominees, Tony winners—and they’re taking parts smaller than what they’re capable of. Ensemble roles and small roles are great, and [they’re] a way to get into that marketplace. That’s what I would say to a younger actor: There’s no part too small. 

Adam Caldwell: Especially for the younger generation, they have access to ways to film themselves. So, aside from the self-tapes, you can practice. Tape yourself, see what you look like; see what happens in a scene and the way that you feel about it versus the way that it’s perceived when you watch it back. You can become an expert in crafting the way you’re in control of yourself as an actor on camera.

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In early conversations with Fellowes about “The Gilded Age,” was someone like Christine Baranski cast from the beginning?

BT: Michael Engler, who was [an executive producer] and the director, is who knew us and [who] asked us to cast it. Then, we met early on with him and Julian. Michael, who comes from the theater as a director, knew that he always wanted this to feel like a troupe of actors who are going to be playing all these parts. They had a sense of who these people were; nobody was just the rich lady down the block or just the servant downstairs. They all had their backstory. They wanted to cast a bunch of people who would be able to all work with each other and off each other, and it wouldn’t be about the size [of the role] and how many lines they had. Yes, there were six leads or four leads, which we knew early on. So we started making lists of people, and Christine and Cynthia [Nixon] were on those lists. 

Did people audition for multiple parts? 

AC: Once we got past the first six [characters]. Those roles were fairly defined, and the [actors] we were talking about were generally only right for Agnes, Ada, George, Bertha, Marian, and Peggy. Once we got to that next grouping of the society ladies and the downstairs crew, there were discussions; and sometimes people came in for multiple roles and did costume changes in between [auditions]. We were lucky enough [that] they wanted to play around. But I’m sure you can imagine worlds—well, maybe you can’t if we did our job properly—where someone like Deb Monk [who plays Armstrong, Agnes’ lady’s maid] could have been talked about in multiple places, including upstairs.

Gilded Age

How do you go about casting this many ensemble roles? 

BT: From a director or producer’s point of view, when you think of the people downstairs in [the Russells’] household, every one of those [actors] has done [Broadway] shows together. So they automatically had [the familiarity of], “Yeah, we’ve been your servants for years...” You think of Doug [Sills], Michael [Cerveris], and Celia [Keenan-Bolger]—they had a shorthand. Even down to the personal thing between Christine [Baranski] and Louisa [Jacobson]. Like, [Christine’s] best friends with Meryl [Streep]; she was probably at Louisa’s birth. [Laughs] There’s history amongst this cast, so they all felt comfortable.

Is there something you look for when casting period roles? What advice would you give an actor who is worried about appearing too contemporary?

BT: If you are auditioning for something like that, come in with that poise. Come in with that look. That doesn’t mean you have to have a period costume, but there is a way that one stands and looks in a period piece as opposed to a contemporary piece.

AC: A lot of it’s about the language, because so much can be altered with a look. It’s more about how they sound. Do they sound like a millennial with upspeak that doesn’t go away? That’s way more the thing that takes someone out of being believable for this world than the way they look.

Do you have any audition tips for actors? 

BT: Every audition is a blind date. You need to look and feel your best, and not just throw it away—“Oh, it’s another self-tape.” You’ve got to help the people who are watching [you] feel like, “Oh, I could see [them] in this role.” It’s really being prepared, knowing the material, and playing to the camera. That’s the other thing different from auditions in the room. Every time I look down now, I’ve lost you. So much of acting, it’s in the eyes. It’s in the listening—making sure actors are present with whoever is reading with them…. It’s constantly staying and looking at the camera or looking at the actor who’s reading rather than [looks down].

AC: Do the best detective work that you can so that you feel confident in how what you’re doing fits into the broader story, and that you have some perspective on that. If it’s a small role, it’s about how much you blend in with the scene, because the focus is elsewhere. If it’s a larger role, trying to make choices that support what you think is important for the broader story. Feeling like you are entering this audition as a potential collaborator with a point of view and not someone who’s just going to show up and ask what is wanted. Because the minute you’re guessing or your audition feels like a guess at what is wanted, rather than a choice of what you’re able to contribute—that’s half the battle, feeling like, “This is what I’ve got to offer. What do you think?” rather than the question of, “Oh, tell me what you want.”

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of Backstage Magazine.