Emmy-nominated casting director Mark Saks has left his fingerprint on many of the successful CBS shows (and some that were gone too soon) of the last two decades. His casting journey is unique to the industry; he’s lived and worked on both coasts, and he’s spent time in the independent casting world as well as holding executive casting positions at Warner Bros. Television, Sony, and CBS. He’s put Emmy winners and nominees in their trophy-tempting roles and staffed out the strong, female-forward casts of shows like “The Good Wife” (and spinoff “The Good Fight”), “Elementary,” “Medium,” and currently, “Madam Secretary.” The political drama, which recently finished out its fourth season and is heading for a fifth, features characters, and therefore actors, from all across the globe, which makes the series one of the most challenging casting assignments in Saks’ long career.
What makes “Madam Secretary” unique to other series you’ve done, especially ones that require a lot of single-episode characters?
I didn’t anticipate the foreign element of the show. Of course, I knew she was the Secretary of State, but I don’t think I realized that we would be in a different country every week, which has been a delightful challenge of casting the show. I didn’t realize we’d be visiting so many different countries and foreign territories over the course of our seasons.
Can you talk a little bit more about that aspect of casting the show?
Our primary base of talent is in New York City (where the show is filmed) and Los Angeles, and occasionally we’ll look in London or elsewhere. You really have to have your paperwork in order before you do the show if you’re not from the U.S., whether you have a visa that’s valid or a green card because we try to be as authentic as we can. We always start in New York and then we widen the pool from there. It is a lot of searching. I’m constantly looking for people who speak other languages, who are conversational or can translate. I’m looking all the time for accents. We’ve had pretty much every country represented, so every time I need an actor who grew up in another country or their parents are from a particular country, I will ask them to make me a list of actors that they know. Once you start getting into the communities, you can reach out because people are often represented and talk about the show. We put the word out there, and since it’s a wonderful show and wonderfully written, people really respond.
How has the casting process changed from the first season to now?
“Madam Secretary” may have been the most difficult pilot I have ever cast in 35 years because it had so many moving parts. It was offers, lists, meeting with actors, straight reads, and it was also children, which required an enormous amount of pre-reading. It was everything. We were working on all cylinders. We were pre-reading children, we were making lists and we were reading actors on both coasts. It was a very difficult process because it was multilevel. Once we got into casting the episodes, they vary depending on what the needs are. One episode can have seven simple parts, or one episode can have three offers and 12 parts to read. In the last episode from Season 4, there were 24 small parts to cast. The sessions were marathon sessions. I had 24 fresh people to actually cast and they weren’t roles that I could offer out. So that was work intensive.
How often do you (and the actor) know if you’re casting for an arc or a one episode character?
It’s a question I ask of Barbara Hall (the show’s creator) and David Grae (executive producer) every episode. I will always say, “is this someone that can come back?” Very often, they don’t know, but all of a sudden, two episodes later, they’ve fallen in love with an actor and a performance and they call us and ask us if that person would be willing to reprise their role. I would say I get a heads up about 50 percent of the time and the other 50 percent, they just fall in love with the character, the actor, and/or the performance, and they get the call later on. Sometimes they’ve arced it out for me for a set amount of episodes if it’s a bigger character, like the Vice President.
What kind of research goes into your casting process for “Madam Secretary”?
A lot of research on many levels. First of all, the dialogue. We need some help because we don’t speak the language, literally, the vocabulary of the state department. There have been many passages when we have to look up what they mean or ask the writers, acronyms and things like that, because we don’t understand it and we have to make sense of it. There are pronunciation issues we need to settle on, and whenever it’s a new country, we do a lot of research about that country and the look and the feel of those people so we can get it as right as possible. We try to get it as close to authentic as we can.
How does that authenticity come into play with different languages?
If it’s dialogue that needs to be translated into another language, we’ll usually provide a translation to the actor, but the actor really has to be fluent in the language so we’ll audition it in English and in the other language. We audition it in English because none of the producers really speak any of these languages so we want to test the skill set, and then we want to see if they can translate it. Some actors come in and they translate it easily and others stumble with it. We want to see how skilled they are at translating and making the words real. Some are unbelievable, they can do it by just looking at it once. Others need a lot of prep time. I always suggest to every actor for substantial roles that they’re reading for that they watch an episode of the show because there are so many characters that they’re speaking to in the scenes.
Is that not something you would usually tell actors who are auditioning for TV shows?
I especially do on this show. I think every actor should prepare that way, but I think that it’s especially important on “Madam Secretary” because this show is so surrealized, there are so many characters jumping in and out all the time. I think it’s very wise, even for an arc supporting a cast of characters and our irregulars, I think it’s essential that the actors know who they’re speaking to.
Besides knowing a different language, what skills are particularly helpful for actors auditioning for “Madam Secretary.”
It’s not an action show, it’s not a show about court cases, it’s not a show about mixed martial arts, it’s about confrontations and meetings in conference rooms, in the oval office, in boardrooms, and in madam secretary’s office. You really have to be able to facilitate that type of dialogue. It takes a certain level of actor. There are wonderful actors out there who can’t play in a courtroom or can’t play military dialogue because that’s not just in their repertoire. Most of the people that we’re casting in New York are experienced theater actors, including even the central and supporting cast. Most of those people have the skill set and the vocabulary from the theater to handle a lot of dialogue, but especially when it’s military and it’s technical, you really need to be able to rattle that off.
What about theater actors are skills that help contribute to success on screen?
Their skill set is usually at a certain level anyway, but the other thing they’re great at is making it spontaneous but being able to replicate it the next take. In theater, you have to be the same every night but completely spontaneous like it’s being done for the first time. When you put that into the language of television or film, it translates very well because that’s what they’re used to doing. They’re going to be able to replicate the scene take after take, but it’s going to feel like it’s the first time. That’s what they’re doing when they do eight performances a week.
How do you think being an individual CD influenced how you worked on the executive level and then how your experience as an executive informed your work when you returned to freelance?
I think it’s a very unique position, having run casting to a certain extent at Warner Bros. where I was also a CD but had executive responsibility, then at CBS where I did both, and then at Sony where I did both. It certainly gives you a window into the politics of a studio and how decisions are made between a studio and network. It gives you insight into the process and how each studio and each network are different animals. Then, when you come out of the trenches working as an independent, your vocabulary of actors is much better than any executive because you’ve been in the trenches for years. You can make a much more comprehensive list than somebody who’s just been supervising because you’ve been out there, met those actors, and are reading those actors all the time. People start with two lines and then ultimately burst into series stars. There’s a lot of demand now, especially in New York City. At last count, there were 67 shows last season that were casting and/or shooting in NYC. 67. That’s crazy.
More generally, not just for “Madam Secretary,” where do you look for talent?
I am constantly at the theater; I probably see five shows a week. I call people in maybe if they don’t have agents or maybe if I haven’t heard from that agent. I extract a lot of talent from that. The other thing we do is we go to almost all the school showcases. We meet everybody out of Yale, NYU, Juilliard, North Carolina School for the Arts, and Carnegie Mellon. We meet every single graduating BFA or MFA candidate. Then, we pick and choose from American Conservatory Theater, SMU, Rutgers, Boston Conservatory, and more, and we sit down with these young people. That’s how we start finding those younger roles which are actors usually in their early to mid-20s.
What advice do you have for actors from your point of view as a CD?
Immerse yourself in the business and in the craft. Every day, you are all about your preparation. One of my pet peeves is lack of preparation. It’s embarrassing when an actor comes in and wants to be on TV but doesn’t watch television. I think it’s egregious when an actor comes in for an episode of “Madam Secretary” in the fourth season and hasn’t seen the show. It’s a sprawling political drama that is shooting in NYC. On the show, there’s something for everybody. Anybody who says they’re not right for the show hasn’t seen it because the show utilizes everything from eight-year-old boys to 90-something-year-old women and every ethnicity you can imagine. When an actor comes in and says, “Oh that’s not really a show for me.” I say, “You’re wrong, it’s a show for everybody.” It utilizes every type of actor. Be prepared; it only takes 43 minutes to watch an episode. This isn’t 1982, here we are in 2018, your content is everywhere. “Madam Secretary” can be found almost anywhere now. If there are things you don’t understand in the sides, look it up. You would be surprised how many people come in, not only for “Madam Secretary,” but younger actors who don’t understand what they’re saying. It’s all about preparation. When actors come in, they need to be prepared.
What would you say are the differences between casting and acting in NYC and L.A.?
I think the training in New York has always been better and I think it’s easier to get started there. I think L.A. is a place you go to when you’re invited or to shoot. You move to New York to be an actor, you move to L.A. to be a movie star. I think that’s how people think about it, but because there’s such a production boom in New York now, most young actors getting out of school who are trained in the theater and maybe have a little bit of film and TV training typically move to NYC now and don’t venture out to L.A. until it does call them. It’s easier to get through in New York. There are four times as many actors in L.A. and we know that because we can look at where the submissions are coming from. I just did a pilot and there were 4,700 submissions for a character. There were 900 submissions coming out of New York and the balance coming out of L.A., so you tell me where it’s easier to get in the room.
What’s something actors don’t know about what you do?
I think a show can be very different with another casting director. All the work can feel invisible but I think the CD makes an imprint. Unfortunately, that sometimes gets lost on executives, writers, producers, or the audience. I’ve gotten so much credit for all the shows I’ve done, I have no complaints, but I’m not sure if it always makes the impact that it should amongst the audience, the people who are creating the show, or the people who are writing the show. It’s a very collaborative craft, but sometimes I don’t think CDs in general are given the credit they deserve because it can look like a very different show with a different casting director.
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