How the Emmy-Winning ‘Twenties’ CDs Found a Lena Waithe–Approved Lead Actor

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Photo Source: BET

Junie Lowry-Johnson and Libby Goldstein know television. Lowry-Johnson won the first-ever Emmy Award for casting a drama series in 1994 and has gone on to win seven more trophies for the craft, while Goldstein has five of her own. Separately and as a team, their résumé is full of credits that span the spectrum of projects artists on both sides of the audition room table strive for when setting out for a career in entertainment. The team has ridden the wave of changes in television, and one of their latest projects, BET’s “Twenties” makes that abundantly clear. The loosely semi-autobiographical Lena Waithe series follows Hattie, a queer, Black aspiring screenwriter who hasn’t done much to further her career. Bolstered by her two best friends, Marie and Nia, who are further along in achieving their own goals, Hattie takes her real first steps towards the life she wants (and into real life), and viewers get to watch her grow. The L.A. of “Twenties” is populated by new faces and led by Jonica T. Gibbs as Hattie, and Lowry-Johnson and Goldstein shared the process of finding actors to play these twentysomethings and what to expect in an audition for them.

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How did you become attached to “Twenties”?
Libby Goldstein: We had worked with Lena on another project. She sent us the script and asked us to consider casting it. The script was charming, funny, smart, and it had great characters. Lena is great to work with, so for us, this was a no brainer.
Junie Lowry-Johnson: The first project was one of Lena’s first produced pilots and we were immediately drawn to her on so many levels. Her uniqueness, her quick mind, her take on the world, her fast-talking, and her incredible humor. She also knew what she wanted and was going for it. Lena is a very hard worker and she really pays attention to her work and to the things that matter to her. When “Twenties” got picked up as a pilot she asked us to work on it and we were delighted to be doing another show with her and then we read the script and fell in love with the project. 

What were the casting process and auditions like?
JLJ: The Casting Process was very open and inclusive and much more unconventional than usual. It was a great experience to meet and see people from many different avenues and not just the traditional avenue of agents and agencies. Lena is very involved in a variety of circles and likes to open up opportunities to people she has met that she finds interesting or that she thinks have potential. She gave us some names right at the beginning of some people she had been following and every one of them was a breath of fresh air and unique and had talent. Libby and I were particularly happy because neither the studio nor the producers were looking for “names” or famous people; everyone just wanted great faces, talent, chemistry, and connection within the cast. Besides the new avenues—YouTube, standups, comedy clubs, web series—we also saw actors via agents and agencies. The cast is made up of talent from both worlds.  

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Describe the process of finding the lead character of Hattie.
LG: We mostly followed Lena’s lead. I think she wanted someone she felt simpatico with, someone who could stand out in this somewhat semi-autobiographical comedy. We read a lot of talented, young actors. Lena had seen Jonica T. Gibbs’ standup work and her digital series and asked us to bring her in. She was new to acting and a little green, but sometimes there are things about a person or actor you cannot quantify—they make you lean in and you aren’t even sure why. It’s magic. She worked so hard between the first audition and the first table read, you cannot imagine. It is a testament to her will and her talent. It took my breath away.
JLJ: We wanted to cast someone as close to Lena as possible in essence, attitude, likeability, and humor.  There were two wonderful choices for this role, both talented and charming and likable but Jojo was born to play this role and it became undeniable to all of us that we had found someone very special and unique to play this character that called for all that she had to offer. It was truly the right person, at the right time, for the right role. This doesn’t always happen. It was very exciting. 

“The Casting Process was very open and inclusive and much more unconventional than usual. It was a great experience to meet and see people from many different avenues and not just the traditional avenue of agents and agencies.”

Junie Lowry-Johnson

Casting Director, “Twenties”

What went into casting Hattie’s friends when the chemistry between them was so important?
LG: We usually never like to bring in actors to read together, it often feels like dinner theatre 101. But in this case, it worked. We mixed and matched all day. Everyone who made it to the mix and match was terrific. We were lucky to have so many great options. 
JLJ: We did a lot of mix and matching with these women and the other contenders to see how they fit together. All the actors were wonderful and they all had good chemistry together and it was a very fun experience. It was very heartening to see them put their all into it and although we had to make decisions and not cast every one of them, it was a positive experience and opened up opportunities for all of them in different ways. They were very supportive of each other and we ended up with a mix of women that really brought it all to life for the show. 

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How did you work with Lena Waithe during the casting process? 
JLJ: We read her script, listened to her thoughts and ideas, sat in casting with her, and sent her lots of casting tapes and self-tapes. We listened to her thoughts, what she was looking for, and how she saw things, and we shared our thoughts and ideas and opinions. Casting is a collaborative venture but it was Lena’s show and we were supporting her script and her ideas. It was her vision that we were all working towards, ultimately. 

What opportunities did the “Twenties” casting process provide that were unique to this project?
LG: Casting young actors is always the most fun part of our job. You get to meet a new crowd. It’s not the usual suspects and you don’t have to worry about making the same list you have made on every project for the last five or 10 years. We had an opportunity to meet actors we had never met before and we had a ton of fun.
JLJ: It provided us with the opportunity to search outside the traditional avenues and to really play around with the material and let actors work together and in the various mix and match sessions we had.  

“Casting young actors is always the most fun part of our job. You get to meet a new crowd. We had an opportunity to meet actors we had never met before and we had a ton of fun.”

Libby Goldstein

Casting Director, “Twenties”

You’ve been working in TV through a ton of changes, how have those changes affected casting and what has stayed the same through them?
JLJ: I think the key here is not to get stuck: stay light on your feet and embrace the changes and the new ways as they come. All casting used to be done via in-person casting sessions. We would spend hours and hours in a room with directors and producers. Now we have done entire shows with us putting people on tape or self-tapes. Presently, self-tapes will be the name of the game. We can cast people all over the world this way. For now, we will have more complicated immigration issues for a while due to COVID-19, but we will still be able to cast. What has stayed the same is that talent cannot be predicted; it is incredible to witness and it takes work to get there. 

What advice do you have for actors?
LG: Take acting class and work hard because when opportunity knocks (and you never know when it will), you must be ready for it. It is easy to get into a casting office for one audition, but you want them to remember you for the next one. It’s not about getting this job it’s about getting the next one.
JLJ: Take your work seriously, study diligently, and always keep studying and deepening what you do. Do not pursue this life for fame or fortune, but for the inner satisfaction it gives you. 

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What can an actor expect from auditioning for you?
LG: In an in-person audition, an actor can expect my dog, Franny, to be there and sometimes Bobby, Junie’s dog. They are very sweet. Franny likes blonde women so she will often jump off the couch to kiss their feet. Bobby is usually fast asleep. It’s a very relaxed atmosphere and we are very casual. It’s who we are and in the end, we think actors appreciate our relaxed vibe. It’s not too relaxed—you still have to do the work, but we sincerely hope the atmosphere makes it easier to achieve the best audition.
JLJ: We are always looking for the realness, the simpleness, for the scene to elicit our getting involved emotionally, not witnessing someone overacting.

What self-tape advice do you have for actors?
LG: A surprising amount of actors who have self-taped their auditions wind up with the part. This happens so many times nowadays, it is mind-boggling. Just be the best you can be. The audition is the same as it is live. We don’t like any introductions, explanations, height (unless asked), or body shots (unless asked). 

What makes someone memorable in an audition?
JLJ: Be prepared, do the best job they can, and don’t drag it out.  

What shouldn’t an actor do in an audition for you?
LG: There is a list of the dos and don’ts for actors that I’m pretty sure everyone knows so I am just going to remind everyone that in an emotional scene to remember that you do not have to cry. If you can’t cry then don’t. You only have to make the audience cry, and those are two different things.
JLJ: Don’t be overly chatty or ask questions just for the sake of asking a question. Don’t give excuses as to why you are not prepared. Don’t come in a hostile state if you are not prepared or ready for the audition for any reason.

What don’t actors realize about what you do?
LG: That we don’t have the final say of who gets cast!
JLJ: That all of us in casting are actually pulling for them to do a good job—way more than they realize. We are thrilled when they do a good job! We are for them. Also, it is not a popularity contest, it is about their work, their audition, and their look for this particular role. Several people are usually making the decision about who to cast.

Check out Backstage’s TV audition listings!

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Elyse Roth
Elyse is a senior editor at Backstage, where she oversees all casting news and features content, including her weekly casting director Q&A series, In the Room. She came to New York from Ohio by way of Northwestern University, where she studied journalism, and now lives in Brooklyn. She might see and write about awards-worthy films, but Elyse still thinks “Legally Blonde” is a perfect movie and on any given night is probably taking in some kind of entertainment, whether it’s comedy, theater, ballet, or figuring out what show to binge next.
See full bio and articles here!

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