How ‘Russian Doll’ CD Christine Kromer Populated Natasha Lyonne’s Gritty NYC

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Photo Source: Raquel Aparicio

When it dropped on Netflix in February, “Russian Doll” instantly became the show everyone was talking about. The fresh format and bingeability of the dark, cerebral comedy made for mandatory viewing. Part of that instant success was the ensemble cast that brought the series to life. The supporting players who orbited stars Natasha Lyonne and Charlie Barnett’s cyclically doomed Nadia and Alan felt so real that you might think you’ve run into them on your morning commute. Creating the kind of harmony that made this onscreen New York City feel so authentic was casting director Christine Kromer. Kromer, who got her start on “The Wire” and whose résumé includes other HBO favorites “True Detective” and “High Maintenance,” jumped at the chance to build this world; here, she shares how she did it.

How did you show you were the right fit to cast “Russian Doll”?
I try to go into the meeting very open; I don’t come in with a bunch of lists or anything simply because I want to hear what they have to say. I start formulating ideas and picturing people just instinctively from reading so many scripts, but I really want to be open to what their thoughts are and what they’re thinking. Sometimes it can be different from what might first jump off the page to me. I first met with [creators] Leslye Headland and Natasha [Lyonne]. We had a great chat about the overview of the show, what they were thinking, and some of my background. It really worked out and we really gelled, so I was lucky to get the chance to do it.

How do you build a cast that feels like New York City?
I don’t want my New York show to look like it’s being shot in Toronto or Los Angeles—no offense, Los Angeles. It’s real people, real faces, real diversity, really someone you’re going to run into in the East Village at 3 a.m. Those are always the thoughts; I want to keep the authenticity there. And again, it’s faces you might have seen before, like Burt Young out of nowhere. I loved seeing his face, but also people that you haven’t seen before that just make the most sense. As a New Yorker myself, I definitely love that there was an authenticity to all the locations, to the way people sounded. It was very genuine. That really pops off the screen.

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When making lists of potential actors to cast, what qualities are you looking for?
I hate to say the word because it’s so generic, but it’s someone talented who can keep up with the cast that is coming together. The list for, say, Alan and the other supporting roles was sort of all over the place in terms of age and type. We needed people who were really funny but also had depth. And that, I think, really came together in the performance by Charlie. There’s such a depth to what he’s doing, and being such a great actor, he’s able to go to those places. I think Alan is also just such a beautifully sympathetic character that you had to just love him and care about him. So, the list really did go from everyday names to people that you’ve never heard of. A really cool part of it was taking that journey of who makes the most sense for all those reasons.

Where do you like to look for new talent?
Theater, mostly. That’s the beauty of living in NYC, whether it’s some Off-Off-Off-Broadway or Broadway show, or UCB or the PIT, or seeing other comedies. There’s so much talent out there.

What can someone expect from auditioning for you?
A good time! I really like actors to know that the time they’re in my room is theirs. I’m very open to answering questions; I’m very open to working on it a couple of times if they’re having a moment. A lot of people get so nervous, and I really want to make sure they know that coming in for me is going to be fun and warm, and I’m on their side. Auditioning is very difficult and very stressful, and I’ve heard audition horror stories from many people that I would never ever imagine doing to someone. I just want people to come in a little nervous but leave happy.

What can an actor do in an audition that will make them memorable?
It’s an actor who owns the part, whether it’s one line or a series lead. Even if they’re not right for it, if they make it theirs and come in with a breath of fresh air to it, I can see their talent and keep them in mind for something else. I think that as an actor, to stress about booking every job is overthinking it. It’s all about timing, and people get bummed if they don’t book every role, but that’s sort of impossible. All you can do as an actor is really try to build a fan base of CDs and directors you’ve worked with and other actors and producers and writers. It’s much more important to do a good job than to stress about whether you actually get it.

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What advice do you have for actors?
The standard: be on time; be prepared; if you have a question, feel free to ask it. The biggest thing that I’ve seen actors do is really overthink the whole process, the whole journey in terms of the auditions. I think you have to trust the script and trust why you’ve been called in and don’t overthink it or try to build too much onto it or create a backstory that might not appear. Just being a professional in terms of being on time, having your sides, and having intelligent questions is really half the battle.

What shouldn’t an actor do in your audition room?
I would say the biggest no-no is to not be open to direction. I have had people get really defensive about their choices, and I’m there to try to help them get a job. Any direction or type of feedback you’re getting in the room is because we like you, it’s not because you’ve done something wrong. The other thing I’ve seen that is a no-no is being hours late with a lame excuse. My favorite line was, “But I thought it was a suggested time,” when they were three hours late for an audition. Be a real human beyond being an actor—it’s the same way you’d treat any other appointment: Be on time, have your stuff ready, and, once you’re in the room, have fun.

What don’t people know about what you do?
The biggest misconception I have experienced is actors just think I pick people and they get to go to set. They sometimes forget about the process. If I’m calling you in to an audition, it’s to give you a chance, not because I’m saying one of these five people today is getting this job and this is the one. It’s a real team decision; it’s a collaboration; there are many steps to it. It’s not an instant decision or solely my decision.

Ever wonder what casting directors are really thinking? Get more of our In the Room series right here!

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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.
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