Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas of Bialy/Thomas & Associates are no strangers to prestige TV. In fact, they’ve had a hand in making a lot of it, from “Breaking Bad” to “The Walking Dead” to “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Their work on “The Act” rightly sits alongside those modern classics. Charting a case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy gone from bad to worse, the Hulu series is based on BuzzFeed’s investigative story about Dee Dee Blanchard’s murder at the request of her daughter, Gypsy Rose (played by Patricia Arquette and Joey King, respectively). Bialy and Thomas approached re-creating the story with the hope of sparking sympathy for both criminals.
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Describe the casting process for “The Act.”
Sharon Bialy: We focused first on Gypsy and Dee Dee. We knew that for Gypsy we would be reading and meeting actors, and for Dee Dee we’d be discussing established actors. Patricia Arquette was on our list from Day 1. She’s an actor with great authenticity and honesty, and is not afraid to dive into a role and portray a woman with flaws. That was what interested us. We wanted to portray these people as human beings, not just horrific people. It’s not a caricature; you should feel even for that character with everything she does. You should understand that she’s searching for love. I think Patricia has all of those qualities. She’s not afraid to get ugly.
What was the process of finding Gypsy?
SB: We did a huge search and saw a lot of young women. Joey King was somebody we were aware of; we’d cast her twice before. She came in to meet first because she has a certain body of work. Although we don’t always like to do that, we knew her and understood her process. She came in in character for her meeting, which was just so smart of her. We had a great meeting, and then Laure [de Clermont-Tonnerre], our director, asked her if she would play with a scene. It was such an integral role, so different from anything she had done before, and she said, “Let’s do it.” It was extraordinary.
Do you like when people come in in character?
Sherry Thomas: It really depends on the person. It’s a case-by-case basis and [depends on] how they approach walking through the door in character. Had she shown up in high heels with her hair all done up, she wouldn’t have understood Gypsy too well.
What made this casting process unique?
ST: It’s a very fine line, making sure to cast actors who will not become a caricature of who the real person is. It was a collaborative effort to ensure that didn’t happen. Co-showrunner Michelle Dean had firsthand knowledge and accounts of Dee Dee and Gypsy, and we’d come up with ideas and she’d say, “No way, it’s not anywhere near who they were.” But that was inspiring and exciting because it was about the soul of a person and not necessarily what the person looked like. It was really fun. SB: They did have to have a certain resemblance. We wouldn’t want to go too far from it, but we were looking for someone who understood the character. You can do a lot with hair and makeup.
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What can an actor expect from auditioning for you?
ST: A safe space to do their best work. The only thing that we require is that they’ve done their homework so that we can do ours.
Where do you look for new talent?
SB: We both go to the theater, whether it’s in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, or, sometimes when we’re lucky, London. ST: Sometimes you’ll bring your kids to a kids’ improv show at the Groundlings where you’re not supposed to be working at all and you end up writing down [the names of] all the people in the show. It doesn’t ever stop, honestly; it’s life. SB: We see the showcases from the schools, like when NYU, Yale, Julliard, and Purchase all come out here. In fact, there’s somebody we just saw who we might be casting in a huge role who has never been on a television show. We have a wonderful office, and people are always watching different content, so when somebody stands out, they’ll mention it. ST: As an actor, you don’t have to be the star of a show for us to notice who you are. SB: Every actor asks, “How do I get in your office?” My answer is always, “We’ll find you.” Just work, and if you do your stuff in the theater and we haven’t seen it but you get a good review, somebody here is going to read it.
What advice do you have for actors?
SB: We look at people as professionals, and if you keep working hard, the cream rises to the top. It’s not how you are when you’re successful, it’s how you are when you take rejection. As actors know, you can come in and do an amazing audition and for a variety of reasons, you won’t get the job. [You just have to] keep going and believe in yourself and eventually it will happen. ST: But also, being an actor isn’t about being famous. An actor can be somebody who is happy acting on a community theater level. It’s an art form.
What makes someone memorable in an audition?
SB: Their talent, their commitment, and their ability to dive into the role without their ego. We’re all in this because we love to tell stories, so what makes me remember an actor is an actor who went in to tell the story, not the actor who is in there because of the ego. A lot of times, actors are told, “This is your time in the room,” and that’s not my feeling. It’s not their time; it’s the time for the story. It’s their time to bring the story to life. It’s not all about them. ST: And the ego and servicing that ego. SB: We remember an actor when you start paying attention again to what the story is and you’re moved by it. ST: We may have heard the scene 20 times and it doesn’t make sense, and then that one person comes in and they read the scene with you and you go, “I know what this scene is about.”
What shouldn’t someone do in an audition room?
SB: Here’s a new one: Don’t come in if you’re sick with a cold—just don’t come in. We don’t want to hear, “I’ve been really sick for three days, but I had to come in for this audition.” It’s a small room. ST: For me, it’s going back to Sharon’s point. We don’t just have an actor come in, do a scene, and walk out the door. We take time and we more than likely give direction to see what really can be under the surface as an actor. If it is just about them and their ego and they don’t want to engage in that, I’ll remember. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard, “Well, that’s not how I prepared it.” OK, well, can we try it this other way? There’s a resistance to being open to working in the room. That’s what the process is about. It doesn’t happen a lot, but sometimes it does and it stays in my memory.
This story originally appeared in the June 6 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here!
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