During a year when Netflix seems to be coming out with a new film or TV series every hour, a few of its original features have rightfully risen to the top and become part of the awards race. Tamara Jenkins’ “Private Life” and Nicole Holofcener’s “The Land of Steady Habits” are two such films. Both deal with difficult topics in humorous and heartbreakingly human ways, and they feature casts of heavy hitters like Paul Giamatti, Kathryn Hahn, and Molly Shannon in the former and Ben Mendelsohn, Edie Falco, and Connie Britton in the latter. Joining them are young talent who imbue their performances with beyond-their-years gravitas. Behind these casts is a bicoastal team that searched the country for young actors who could anchor these stories. Jeanne McCarthy handled Los Angeles, while Rori Bergman, who ultimately cast these films’ two young leads, worked out of New York City. Bergman spoke to Backstage about the challenges and triumphs that come with being a casting director.
In “Private Life,” how did you fill out the family that’s going through this complicated phase in their lives?
We had someone drop out of playing the niece fairly close to the start of shooting, and the role opened back up. It provided an exciting opportunity to fill it with somebody who maybe wasn’t as known to audiences. We did a pretty deep search for it, with Jeanne McCarthy in Los Angeles and me in New York, and Kayli [Carter, who got the role] was the last actor we saw for it. She returned from doing a play in New York on Tuesday, came in on Wednesday, and by Friday we knew she was our choice. She’s so unique, and what she brings to it is just her own essence and self.
What was the process for finding Carter like?
We brought a lot of girls in for that role, both girls who had a profile already and unknowns. We knew it needed somebody incredible to anchor and go toe to toe with Kathryn and Paul in those scenes, and it was tough. It’s a complicated emotional role for a lot of reasons. She needed to be endearing but also young and have a sort of emotional immaturity but also the maturity to feel like she wasn’t being taken advantage of. We were very lucky in finding all of those things that we needed in Kayli.
What can actors expect from auditioning for you?
I hope that we’ve created an environment in our office that is welcoming and open. We encourage actors to ask questions when they come in and to be prepared but open and ready to work. We love to work with actors, and we’ll always do a couple of takes and get the chance to play in the room. I hope that we create an environment where actors want to show up ready to do that work with us and trust us to be a part of that process with them.
What’s something an actor shouldn’t do in your audition room?
Apologize for themselves and make excuses. When you’re coming in and you’ve got the material 24 hours beforehand, so did everybody else that’s coming in that day. We all know there isn’t always time to take it to the level that you could with more time, but that’s not always the job. Sometimes the job is to come back and make it work. So don’t apologize for the work in the room and make excuses for it. Really own what you’re able to do in the time that you have in the room with us.
How were these projects different from ones you’ve worked on in the past?
I really loved working on these. They’re both small films that come from a very independent film sensibility. That’s my favorite world to cast within because you’re working for faces and performances that are real and simple, which is not the case in all genres. It’s not going to be the same actors that you would see for a big budget studio comedy or a giant tentpole film; it’s about working with the actors in the room to hone the performance to fit the world that they’re being asked to live in. That’s part of the fun of casting from New York and casting out of the pool of actors here: You get to be in the room and sculpt something toward what is going to work for a specific director. And in this case, [you get to] strip it down to its simplest form or give them the permission to find the humor in something that seems heavier on the page.
What were some of the challenges you had casting these films?
Each film had its own role. Finding Kayli’s role was a tremendous challenge, and when we were approaching filming, it seemed almost terrifying that we didn’t know who was doing that incredibly crucial role. Production was coming up fast! On Nicole’s film, the role that Charlie Tahan played was similarly one of the last puzzle pieces to come into place, and it was such a huge element and such an important narrative piece of that story. We didn’t resolve that piece of casting until very late in the process. Once other pieces came into place around it, it brought that role into relief in a way to allow us to see what it needed. It’s always the scariest when it’s weeks away from starting and those types of roles are still open. It’s [about] taking the leap of faith on a choice and knowing that it’s going to complete the picture.
What considerations did you have to make when balancing the comedic and dramatic elements of both “Private Life” and “The Land of Steady Habits”?
Both Nicole Holofcener and Tamara Jenkins had very clear visions for the way their films looked and sounded. They’re not dissimilar in some ways, but Nicole’s always looking for the humanity and the realness in people. It’s the most important thing for casting the roles around Nicole’s film: You don’t want to see any of the acting. They have to be 100 percent truthful. Her humor is the moments you see real life reflected back at you in all of its ugliness or beauty. Tamara’s similar, but maybe with a different bit of punch to it. It was about looking for people that just had an honesty to them and that succumb to the humor from a real place of truthfulness and fearlessness. We wanted actors who were good with comedy, but it couldn’t be sitcom comedy. It really needed to come from the most honest place, which often meant more dramatic actors who are able to find humor in those moments and be real in them.
When you’re on a search for an actor for a project and you want to look outside of agent submissions, where do you find talent?
In New York, I think our first responsibility is seeing as much theater as we can. When we’re looking for younger actors, we always will reach out to training programs starting all the way down to St Anne’s, BPAS, and La Guardia, all the way up through the master’s programs. We’ll cast the net as wide as we need to to find what we’re looking for. If we’re looking for something very specific like native Russian speakers, and that was the case on “The Americans,” we might dig deeper into those very specific communities and the theater community within those demographics. It’s kind of going where the rabbit hole leads us to find whatever it is that we need.
As a casting director, what advice do you have for actors?
Be prepared and do your homework. I think one of the easiest and most obvious things that I don’t always see actors doing is taking the time to know as much as they can about the tone or the world that they’re walking into and that they’re being asked to fit into when they come in for a project. On “The Americans,” when people would ask us for notes when they were doing a self-tape, we’d say just go watch an episode of the show. If you don’t, you’re just doing yourself a disservice to not know. When you’re going in for a project and you have the opportunity to take a look at the filmmakers’ previous film, or read something from that writer, or look at the body of work from the lead actor of the show, it gives you a leg up in terms of being able to walk into that room and feel like you know where your performance needs to live as a jumping-off place. Then, [you’re] able to work with the casting director in the room to hone that more specifically.
Ready to get to work? Check out Backstage’s New York City audition listings!