Veteran CD Wendy O’Brien Knows You Might Not Think You’re Right for the Role (But You Should Audition Anyway)

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Photo Source: Starz!

When it comes to comedy, Wendy O’Brien has done a little bit of everything. She’s behind the casts of FX’s “You’re the Worst” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” Netflix’s “American Vandal,” Hulu’s “Future Man,” and more, in addition to a long resume of drama work. So when it came to casting “Now Apocalypse,” a Starz! series that is difficult to assign a genre to, she was ready to approach the process with a mix of her comedic and dramatic experiences. From creator Gregg Araki, who is known for pushing the boundaries of sex and sexuality in his onscreen projects, there were specifics to the script and premise that took a particular type of actor to fulfill each role. O’Brien worked closely with Araki during the process of whittling down candidates until landing on a diverse ensemble that could bring the script’s full potential to the screen.

What was the casting process like for “Now Apocalypse”?
We made lists. We auditioned a ton. We had certain parameters and we didn’t have a big budget. We needed people to be available for a span of time, because the way it was being shot, it wasn’t by episode. There were a lot of availability issues that we needed cleared for actors. And then there was sexuality and nudity. So it was a pretty tall order all the way around. Gregg had met with Avan previously on another project so he was a big fan of Gregg’s already. So that’s how that really came about, and Avan taking that leap of faith to work with Gregg. Pretty much everybody else auditioned, but that was the big piece, and it came together quickly in steps. It sort of set the tone of, okay, this is going to be a safe place. It’s about equality. The budget didn’t represent the quality of what was being done.

How did you know someone was right for a role in this off beat universe?
Well, I think Gregg had very clear and specific things in his mind for each role. It’s always a challenge to try and figure out what that is. We definitely had a very attractive world as well. But my memory is very much that literally every role, even the tiny assistant, were very specific for him. I think the more upfront and the more information you can share out of the gate only makes everyone more comfortable. Nothing is being hidden. You’re either onboard with it and comfortable or not and it did weed out a huge amount of actors. Between the money and the nudity with sexuality, it definitely made the numbers much smaller in who was available or who was interested. But the right people kept stepping forward. They were perfect. And then there weren’t the right people for the job, because that would have transmitted across the screen in a second.

READ: 5 Steps to Acting on Television

What were some of the challenges of assembling this cast?
Well, I think some of the roles were so physically specific. Any time anything is very specific, you start limiting your options. So finance is limited. The sexuality is limited. The nudity is limited. The expectations of people being available for the project, also limited, because there were very challenging deals to financially make. On top of that, you have physical specifications. So all of those things add up to a very small talent pool, really.

How does a comedic project or the need for a comedic actor factor into the casting process?
I do a lot of comedy, more straightforward comedy. But this was a hybrid. It wasn’t written your typical comedic way. It wasn’t obvious for a lot of people, the comedy. It was a very subtle piece. I think that’s what Gregg was looking for in the auditions too, that people could bring that forward and just make it more interesting and give it another dimension. That made the difference of making it special. The comedy helped you participate in the project even as a viewer.

What can people expect from auditioning for you?
I hope that this is the experience that it’s a very safe space. It’s a very safe space to try something, to explore, to be yourself. That’s our number one goal of what we try and provide. I think it’s important to help them come in, be comfortable, and do the best work they can. It’s also self-serving. The better they do, the sooner we’re going to find the role.

Where do you look for talent outside of agent submissions?
Especially when I’m working on a lot of comedy, a lot of the comedy shows. I’m always amazed that other actors will recommend a friend. And they are amazing, and somehow they’re not even represented, which I’m always shocked by. Also, independent films and the internet. Dylan O’Brien on “Teen Wolf,” he came from YouTube. Talent is everywhere. It’s really exciting to be able to see the actors be able to take some of that power into their own hands and create. You realize that you can do it yourself, or at least you have a lot more opportunities to have a platform to be found or to be seen.

What advice do you have for actors as a CD?
One of things is to just keep working on your craft. Just because you’re not shooting a role, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be training. And that doesn’t mean spending money to go to a class if you don’t have those means. It can be running the scenes. It’s staying in shape. An athlete can’t race without doing their training. You can’t expect your body perform. So I think it’s the same, to be ready when you do get that call for an audition and you have that day on set. That you’re actually ready and prepared, because it’s an ongoing preparation.

READ: Everyone You Need to Know on a Television Shoot

What can an actor do to be memorable in an audition?
Be prepared. It seems obvious, but you would be shocked. So that’s huge. And bringing your own take on it. It may not be right for that role, but you get a sense of who that person is or what’s unique about them and it sets them apart from everyone else. And not making the choice for the sake of being different, but making a choice that feels really right for who you are, not what you think we want to see. Sometimes those are the most interesting auditions. Sometimes writers completely will change a role because they’re just so inspired by a choice. That’s the best part of our job. Why does it have to be 10 40-year-old white guys? It doesn’t. Why is this written as a man? Why is this written an able-bodied human? Does it have to be? Maybe not. And I think that’s one of the great gifts of what we do.

Have you noticed that the industry is more open to those suggestions in recent years than in the past?
Massively. We would come up and ask those questions, what if? And often the response was, ah, the audience. How are we going to explain that? And that’s exciting when you see some of these great filmmakers, where we’re not going to explain it. You just accept this person is in a wheelchair. Why is it a conversation? This is just who this person is in this role. It’s not a discussion. This is life, or whatever that unique piece is. And I find when I watch projects those are some of the most interesting parts of watching a great filmmaker’s piece. Now people are writing it being more open out of the gate instead of waiting for the casting process. I feel like writers are already taking that responsibility. As much as it’s a responsibility, it’s a freedom that they’re writing with.

Is there something an actor shouldn’t do in your audition room?
I guess I’ll reverse it. They should listen. So don’t not listen, you know? Listen. Listen to the person reading with you. Hear the other words. Hear the director saying, no, that’s great. You don’t need to do it again. Listen. Hear. Hear what’s being spoken. I’m sure it can be like a tunnel when you walk in there and it’s just a blur. But just listen. Listen to the social cues. Listen to the words that are being said to you, whether it’s other roles being read or a director or a producer. Just listen. Care.

What don’t you think actors know or realize about what you do?
Don’t second guess why you’re coming in. You might not think you’re right for the role. And this has happened so many times where an agent doesn’t think they’re right. I’m like, I get they’re not what’s written on the page, but trust me, and just have them come in. And I would say 50 percent of the time, they get the role. They’re my wild card. Just come in. Don’t worry about it. You’re the wild card. It doesn’t make sense to them. Trust me. And a lot of times it works out really well. Do not overthink your invitation. Usually, there’s a very good reason. It’s our job to open the door, and it’s the actors’ to want to walk through it. So just because we provide an audition, it also doesn’t mean that they have to come in or they’re obligated to come in. They can have a sense of what’s right for them. On one level, if it’s because they just don’t like the roles, they should never worry about that. That’s their choice. But if it’s because they just don’t think they’re right for it or that they’re creatively not sure, that’s where I think they need to trust. Sometimes you’re just waiting for the right role. Sometimes it takes a really long time to find that right role. But then when it happens, it’s pretty magical.

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.
See full bio and articles here!

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