One of the most contested categories in television awards continues to be acting in a TV movie or limited series. That makes sense, considering it’s often these projects that draw major film actors to the small screen for the first time. Such was the case with Apple TV+’s summer whodunit hit “Defending Jacob” and its executive producer–star Chris Evans. In conversation with Backstage, casting director Meredith Tucker talks about casting the crime thriller and explains why it can be helpful for a CD to not have all the answers—and why she turns to Backstage to find new talent.
“If you aren’t getting those jobs, I think writing stuff for yourself or working with friends to make your own product is always a great way A) to keep yourself busy and B) to have something to show people.”
Describe the casting process for “Defending Jacob.”
[The character of] Laurie almost entirely entailed lists and offers. They homed in on Michelle Dockery quickly. She’s quite a chameleon. With the kids, I read kids in person in New York, and kids put themselves on tape all over the place. [Jacob actor] Jaeden Martell’s tape came in early. He brought so many elements that we needed. He was empathetic, but the mystery would be sustained with him, which was super important. He had been the lead of a very successful movie, so we knew he could keep the interest of the audience. Once they settled on him, we started looking for [actors for] Sarah and Derek. We needed someone with a little bit of a musical background for Sarah; she was a bit of [an] artsy outsider. When Jordan [Alexa Davis] did this confessional scene, she was so heartbreaking. It was just a spectacular audition. We had a tough time with Derek, but Ben [Taylor] eventually taped, and then he came for a chemistry read when Jordan and Jaeden were already in Massachusetts.
How did the young talent and heavy subject matter factor into the casting process?
Angela Peri did the local casting, and most of the teens were local Boston-area kids. They were very important, and Mark [Bomback, the show’s creator,] was adamant about keeping an air of reality with all the performances—nothing too heightened. Everyone should seem like a normal kid. That’s what’s so tragic about the whole story, is that you think Jacob is just this normal kid, and then he’s not.
How did the source material influence the casting process?
If it hadn’t been a mystery-thriller, I probably would have read the source material, because I always like to do that. But because the ambiguity of whether Jacob did it is important, I thought it would be helpful for me not to know how the book portrayed it. So I purposely didn’t read it. A lot of the boys would ask me when they came in to audition for Jacob, “Did he do it?” I would have to say, “I don’t know.” One of the notes they would write after auditions is, “That kid definitely killed Ben,” or, “That kid never would kill.” It was a way to gauge—a good marker to see if the boys were right or not.
Where do you like to look for fresh talent?
Especially with special skills stuff, a lot of times we will use Backstage. We’ll sometimes call the schools, but especially with kids, the non-acting schools [are] not as welcoming as they once were. We contact a lot of acting schools. When I worked on this Italian [project], we called a lot of Italian American organizations and places like that. I worked on a project called “Mamma Dallas” for HBO that had a trans element, so we reached out to that community through Facebook.
“I try to meet new people every episode. I’m pretty good about not bringing the same people in over and over again; it expands my universe when I do get to meet people.”
What advice do you like to give actors?
It’s always hard to get your foot in the door, but I think the thing that’s kind of great now is that there are so many means to make your own product if you have a digital camera. If you aren’t getting those jobs, I think writing stuff for yourself or working with friends to make your own product is always a great way A) to keep yourself busy and B) to have something to show people. Something like “High Maintenance,” they kind of just started on Vimeo, and then it blew up from there. Not that that has to be your end goal. It’s a great way just to get to act and write and produce and be a part of something. I think that’s the exciting thing now—that it’s so easy to do stuff like that. People should definitely take advantage of it. But also, sending your self-submissions is always great, keeping your eyes open for nonunion stuff on Backstage. Always keep your eyes open for stuff like that and be willing just to get experience on a set. Also, if you have the opportunity to see other aspects of the casting process—we’ve had interns who have ultimately wanted to be actors, but it’s kind of great to see how the whole process works. Take advantage of stuff like that. Some people need readers. It gives the actor a really great insight into the whole casting process.
What would you say an actor can expect from auditioning for you?
Even if the person may not be completely right for the part, I usually try to let them do it at least once and give them some sort of adjustment just to see if they can make the adjustment.
In those cases when the person isn’t right for the role but you’re interested in seeing what they have to offer, what can an actor do that will make you remember them in the future?
I’ve had instances where someone will come in for me and will be completely and utterly wrong, but at least they’re interesting. I worked on “Entourage,” and Rhys Coiro, who ended up playing the role of Billy—he auditioned for sort of an agent type, and I was like, “This guy’s not right.” Then, a couple of episodes later, we needed an insane, narcissistic director, and I was like, “Oh, that guy would be really good for it!” I always think it’s great if you can meet the person, even if [they’re] not right. I try to meet new people every episode. I’m pretty good about not bringing the same people in over and over again; it expands my universe when I do get to meet people.
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 26 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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