The ‘Ozark’ Casting Team Explains Why Atlanta Actors Now Have More Opportunities

Photo Source: Netflix

When a show is shot on location, away from production hubs like New York City and Los Angeles, casting becomes even more of a collaborative effort. Typically the producers will hire a casting director to handle the main cast, someone they’re familiar with who is based, like they are, in a large production city. But when the project films outside of that city, it’s up to the location casting directors to populate the rest of the world you see onscreen. That’s no different on Netflix’s “Ozark,” which films in the Atlanta, Georgia area. New York-based Alexa L. Fogel was responsible for casting the leads in the show, but for the local duties, she tasked frequent area collaborators Chase Paris and Tara Feldstein with finding faces that would fit into the gritty world of the show. Together, the cast they have built includes some recognizable names while using the location to showcase smaller-market talent.

What part do each of you have in the casting process for “Ozark?”
Alexa L. Fogel: I’ve worked with them a lot before and I think they’re tremendously talented, they work incredibly hard, and they have great taste. I also do Atlanta with them and we did Banshee together so we really have a common language. They know how I approach material, and I don’t get in their way. I trust them, and there’s some roles that we’ll both work on... my casting associate Kathryn,who’s totally brilliant, will go over things with them. We’ll figure out what roles we think are definitely me and what are definitely them. We have to make sure that it’s uniform; the audience shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between someone who was hired in Atlanta and somebody who came from New York or Los Angeles. It should be seamless for the viewer. I think it is because we are looking at it with the same eye. We understand what the tone of the piece is, and I don’t micromanage it. There’s no reason to. Chris Mundy and Jason Bateman are great about respecting everybody’s work.
Chase Paris: We take different points on different roles, so the different arc roles that are going to come across each season and the series regulars are going to start with Alexa, and we’re going to look here as well. On “Ozark,” they do look a lot locally so we divide up who’s going to look for what and if there’s a chance that we could find it here locally then we do. Then, we go our separate ways—she steers our ship from up top, but leaves us to our own devices as far as managing talent and presenting to producers. She’s the big picture type, so she’s always got her eye on everything that’s coming through and is an advocate on our part when we need it. She’s got a great eye for talent so when she sees someone that’s great on our side, she’s not going to have a bias to her talent or out of towners. “Ozark” has been a great showcase for the talent pool down here which may not be as well known to the greater markets of Los Angeles and New York City. To have a showcase project for them to really spread their wings is good for them and it’s good for us. We enjoy when we get a chance to really put our imprint on a show like “Ozark” in that manner.

What kind of research did you have to do for the casting process?
AF: I didn’t have to do as much on this as I’ve had to do on some of my other crazy projects. I need to look up the things about this area and the dichotomy between the locals, the people who come in, and the economic disparities. It’s easy to find all that stuff online. Just getting a sense of this part of the country and how people talk. I’m from a very different part of the country, but from a small town in Maine that’s on the coast, so we talk a lot about understanding how that is when there are people from away and people from the place. I intrinsically understood that.

Talk about forming this family and how they contributed to the world at large. What considerations were you making on your end, and what were you communicating with the local casting directors?
In terms of the family, what we talked about all along was that the kids had to be real kids. They had to feel like they weren’t acting, and that was something that we all understood from the very beginning. That was really just about me bringing in kids who felt like they were saying words for the first time, like they could be Jason’s kid and eventually Laura [Linney]’s kids. There’s never anything in any casting that I’ve done where there’s that kind of thunderbolt moment where I know I’ve found the right actor. It doesn’t really work that way, but I will say that it was pretty obvious in the callback sessions that both of these kids were very special, and that their facility with being totally present and being able to communicate was really obvious to all of us right away.

What is different about this show from other projects you’ve done?
AF: Every job is hard because the landscape that you’re trying to fill and the schedules can be complicated, but this job is unique because creatively, it’s been so smooth. These two casting collaborators with me have made it so easy for me to do a good job. Sometimes there are more cooks in the kitchen and it’s great when there are just three of us. Some of these actors are people who I’ve been bringing in for a really long time, who I have enormous faith in and have been waiting to get a good job. The actor who plays Russ Langmore has been going from tiny indie film to tiny indie film to tiny indie film since I cast him in “Generation Kill” ten years ago. Then he ends up in a really big part in “Ozark” that he’s great in and that sort of changes everything. That’s all because when I present Jason and Chris with somebody terrific who really fits in the world, they’re really excited about it. They don’t really care about anything besides that, that’s unique about this job.
CP: The thing about “Ozark,” and this is true of a lot of the shows we work on, is that we don’t look for polish. We don’t look for someone who feels like an actor, or someone you see on a lot of other TV shows. When we started casting, we wanted to find people who looked like they would fit into this bleak Ozark world that we’re building and not a stylized version you might find through another project that would shoot down there. These actors are very talented but there might not be a lot of parts on those projects that are looking for that polish, that shine, that heightened version of everything. That was fun and it stands out. It’s not like most of the shows. Every actor down to the day players have something else going on with them.

What are some of the challenges of casting the show?
CP: There are so many larger roles and so many roles per episode that to find those unique faces, we have to dig a little bit to get to the real world people. The process in itself, especially getting to do a second season, is a well-oiled machine to a certain extent. I think everyone understands their roles and everyone supports each other to get the job done. I don’t know that anything has been too difficult.

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Now that you are a few seasons in, what is different about how you do your job?
The kind of shows I work on, because they tell long stories, inevitably at the beginning of the season, I’m adding a bunch of new characters because of whatever the story that is that second, third, or whatever season. I’ll add a lot of people for Season 2 as recurring characters, which we did. I think the other change is that we shot during a different time of year for Season 2. There were a lot of challenges with the weather, which really wreaked havoc on us and the schedule really took a beating. Because a lot of our characters are not series regulars, we have to hire them for each episode, so there’s a lot of, "It’s this day, not this day," and "Are you still free?" going back and forth. But I wouldn’t say creatively there are any differences; it’s a continuation of what I started. I’m just adding characters to the mix. Some characters have gone away and the story continues, we move into new arenas, and we add characters to those arenas.
CP: We see at the beginning that there are going to be some new characters of consequence. We had a few this year and those are pretty heavy in the front end, but as we go, those other big roles are set, so there’s not a lot of casting to do above us, but there’s a lot of stuff below. There are the day players and the smaller recurring roles, those are kind of the same process, but the difference between Season 1 and Season 2 is in Season 1, we had a lot of larger roles to cast and we had more time to do it. Digging in and getting our hands dirty, we’re having to get in the room and have director sessions with Jason and the other bigger roles whereas the second season, the track is truncated so you may not have as much access to the people above us to do that. The process seems quicker and it needs to be more efficient and I think when you’re starting a series and you have weeks and weeks versus the second season when you may have two.

When you’re looking for people to cast, where do you look outside of agent submissions?
AF: On Ozark, it was pretty straightforward and traditional. If I feel that I may find somebody because of their age, ethnicity or because of some other reasons that are outside the mainstream, I will either look for an ambassador in that community and explain who I am and what I’m looking for and see if they can guide me to more of a network of people that will introduce me to either real people or people who might want to try acting. I recently cast a 15-year-old Kenyan boy in the lead of a film called “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” that Chiwetel Ejiofor directed, and that’s a very hands on the ground, going to schools, working with someone locally in Nairobi and two cities in Malawi. You have to have a nose for it and understand in each community. I deal with people differently depending on whether it’s a community that’s easy to access or one that’s more difficult and that’s something that I like figuring out. It’s also about authenticity.

It’s always about acting; none of these things that we’re talking about are about compromising the acting, and it’s true that you may have to see a lot more people and work with them in a different way if they don’t have the same language that someone who went to drama school has, so that’s the tricky part for me. I have to find a way to communicate with them about how to take direction before they meet the director so that they’ll be pliable enough and not nervous enough to do the work. That’s the part that’s about finding a way into an authentic performance in a world that may not be very traditional, coming out of an acting school, or someone with an agent population.
CP: As location CDs, we generally look in a 100 mile radius from Atlanta, from our production base, so we can go as far west as New Orleans, Louisiana, and we’ll go as far south as Tampa, Florida and other parts of the state, plus North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. In general, we’re looking really hard in Atlanta. Everything is coming here and talent has moved here. We’ve made a really big push to make everything true local and inside the city so we’re not traveling people for these smaller day player roles. We try to cast locals because there is a talent pool here to choose from and we don’t have to go outside of it except for larger or hard to find roles.

What has changed about the roles available to local actors since you started casting in the Atlanta region?
It’s changing, but at a glacial pace. I’m not saying it’s night and day different, but it is different. When we first started, everything was co-star, everything was scale, they didn’t even let us touch the bigger roles and even if we did, budgetarily they are going after locals so they can save money so they wouldn’t give billing. Nowadays, we still have producers and directors that are shy about locals for very understandable reasons, but we also have a lot that has worked here previously or have trust in their directors to get what they want out of their actors and they prefer locals so now we’re seeing bigger roles locally. We booked several series regulars that are locals, true locals that work here and are recurring guest stars.

“Ozark” is a good example. In the first season, there are four or five guest star roles that I think people don’t realize were locals. They probably assumed they came from L.A. because of the size of the role. There are all these roles that maybe five years ago wouldn’t have been cast here but when you look now there are a lot more open minds around it. Every production is different and everyone comes in with their own bias. Most of our producers and directors are not from here and unless they’ve worked here, they’re not familiar with the market and they know what they know, which is L.A. and New York actors who they’ve worked with a ton so they go with what they know and trust for roles that can be pivotal. They need to make sure they can make their day here instead of going with the unknown. They trust us more now which is a big thing. When we first started they didn’t know us so we were doing a good job for the roles they let us handle, anything of substance they needed to know more about us. And now you look at our resume and what we’ve done the past few years and maybe they’ll go well obviously they know what they’re doing so we can let them cast these roles locally. So all these things are kind of happening a the same time.

The roles here are getting way better than they were and I think that’s why we’re able to attract talent from bigger markets like L.A. and New York. People that are graduating from acting schools across the country will come here and cut their teeth here so we’re actually getting a better talent pool because our opportunity is greater here. All of this is a big progression towards being not just a secondary market but a viable market for talent in general instead of just being what can we find here. We have good actors. It’s happening slowly, but I do think as these markets grow, there’s not going to be too much difference between L.A., New York, Atlanta, Vancouver, and English actors. All those place are known for their talent pool and I think we’re well on our way to being that as well.

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