Can Actors Have a ‘Smartphone Face’? The CD of Apple TV+’s ‘Palm Royale’ Debunks the Casting Myth

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Photo Source: Courtesy Apple TV+

Apple TV+’s new seriesPalm Royale” unfolds amid Palm Beach high society in the late 1960s. Adapted from Juliet McDaniel’s 2018 novel “Mr. & Mrs. American Pie,” Abe Sylvia’s limited series is set at the titular castle-in-the-air country club, as seen through the eyes of newcomer Maxine Simmons (Kristen Wiig). The series captures the retro-glam aesthetic of the era with colorfully patterned minidresses and chiffon gowns, voluminous hairstyles, giant sunglasses, and plenty of grasshopper martinis. 

The series’ star-studded cast makes “Palm Royale” a must-see, as led by “SNL” alum Wiig and Academy Award winner Laura Dern, who also executive produced the series. Other big names include Oscar winner Allison Janney, Kaia Gerber, and Ricky Martin—not to mention legendary guest stars Bruce Dern and Carol Burnett.

We sat down with Kerry Barden, who cast the series, to discuss how the A-list ensemble came together and the do’s and don’ts of auditioning for a period project.


Building the star-studded ensemble

Barden says that casting “Palm Royale” was a “collaborative experience” with Dern (who plays women’s rights activist Linda Shaw), her producing partner Jayme Lemons, Sylvia, and Tate Taylor. Janney—after jumping through a few scheduling hoops—and Wiig joined the project early on. (The former plays Evelyn Rollins, Palm Beach’s resident queen bee.) 

“It was clear that everyone was trying to make the same project. And [even with all] the stars we have in it, nobody was trying to weigh it down,” Barden says. “We didn’t have a mandate to find out how many Instagram followers someone has, which was great.”

When it came to casting comedy legend Burnett as socialite Norma Dellacorte, his initial question was: “Will she be able to sign on for more than one season because of her age? But as I started doing research on Carol, I was like, Oh, she’s doing a one-woman show and a six-city tour. I think she’s gonna be fine.”

He says that the Emmy winner “was game to play with everyone,” taking on several roles at the table reads. “She [jumped in] and read [Gerber’s] role. It was funny for Carol to read, you know, the role of a 20-year-old girl.” Barden adds that it was clear Burnett was “invested in figuring out where her character goes.”

This mindset also led to Martin getting cast in an unlikely role. “His character was originally written as a younger Vietnam vet,” Barden explains. But when Martin met with Taylor to discuss joining the series, they reinvented the role together. “We started exploring it, and we were like, ‘OK, we’re going to dive into a different era if we cast somebody that’s Ricky’s age.’ ”

“It really created a lot of interesting changes in what was on the page originally,” the CD continues. “Ricky had just done [‘The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story,’] and obviously, he knows how to control an audience in his stadium [concerts] but he’s still invested in working [and building the character].” He adds that Martin and Taylor “spent hours together talking about where they wanted the character to go. And Ricky was in.”

Matching new talent with the energy of the A-list cast

Carol Burnett on Palm Royale

Barden advises actors who aren’t household names, but are hoping to land a role opposite screen veterans, to “figure out the tone and rhythm of the show. The new SAG rules are great for actors because you now have access to more information than what they used to offer, which was just sides." 

“If you’re in a scene with Kristen Wiig, you better figure out how that dynamic works with your character,” he explains. “If you’re in a scene with Laura Dern, it’s a whole different rhythm, because her character is entirely different on the surface than Kristen’s; she’s the feminist bookstore owner. Make sure to figure out who you’re working [opposite].”

The art of listening is also key. “The world we’ve created with ‘Palm Royale’  is heightened, obviously, because it’s a glamorous world,” Barden says. “And it’s a comedy, clearly, because Kristen is so funny and courageous. But some of Laura’s reactions to Kristen when Kristen is reading to her are genius, because Laura knows how to listen as an actor.”

How to fit into a piece set in a different era

Barden says it’s all about doing your research. “I do think it’s [about] understanding what was going on during the period. In ‘Palm Royale,’ the Vietnam War was going on, and we have Nixon on television a lot. We also have Laura’s character running a feminist bookstore even though she is one of the girls from the country club set. It was a chaotic time and a time of upheaval, much like we’re going through now. I think understanding that kind of thing is essential.”

The CD believes that taking this approach is key for a project set in any era of the past, whether it’s the ’60s or the Elizabethan era. “When we were doing ‘Shakespeare in Love,’ it was like, ‘Yeah, [your character] doesn’t have a bathroom.’ That does change your approach. It’s really looking into what was going on that was impactful in whatever era that you’re in, and I think [research] helps a lot in figuring out the rhythms and the tones of the character you’re playing.”

Is “smartphone face” a factor when casting a period piece?

Coined by culture writer Kleigh Balugo in a Dazed Beauty essay, the term “smartphone face” refers to the idea that some actors simply don’t look like they could play a character from a past era. But is this phenomenon really part of a CD’s thought process?

“There [are certain characteristics that] kind of have a modern feel to them,” Barden says. “But I think you can decompress and get away from that. You have to get rid of your phone and unplug. I think this does change how your body is aligned. In a period piece, you do have to immerse yourself in whatever that world was.”

Self-taping is here to stay.

Amber Chardae on “Palm Royale”

Barden says that most of the tryouts for “Palm Royale” were conducted via self-tape. “We literally had thousands and thousands of auditions; and it was during self-tapes where I saw a lot of new people I’d never met before.” Here’s his advice for standing out

  • Invest in the character. “Whether it’s a small role, a series regular role, or a leading one on film, you should have knowledge of what that person’s life is [like]. It really reads, you know? It’s very elementary Acting 101. [Ask yourself]: Where did I grow up? Where did I go to school? What’s hanging on the wall in my apartment? Do I have a house? Do I have children?” 
  • Keep your self-tape space clear of distractions. “I had somebody do a self-tape for ‘August: Osage County’ years ago. She was shooting in the South, and she did a self-tape outdoors, thinking, Oh, I’m creating this environmental space; but you could only hear the crickets. So we were like, ‘OK, you need to retake because we can’t hear what’s going on.’ I think it’s important to have a space where you feel like you can really do your best as an actor.” 
  • Remember that your character’s story is part of a bigger picture. “If you do land the part, you will have a shot at actually being the one person we cast in that role. We did a movie called ‘Book Club’ years ago, and there’s a scene where Diane Keaton’s character is moving out of her family home. There’s this one-line role with just a moving man, and we auditioned probably 50 people for this one line."

    “However, this one man came in. And I think his line is like, ‘Well, that’s the last box.’ And the actor took in the whole world—that Diane’s character, even though she wasn’t in the room, [was so sad to be] moving. He had so much empathy that his character took on this whole space of: You know, this woman is changing her life. So, that is key to understanding what you’re doing as an actor.”

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