Wittney Horton honed her casting skills under prolific CD Carmen Cuba (“Stranger Things,” “The Chi”) so it should be no surprise that one of her first big projects to hit the small screen since she went out on her own as a casting director is a much anticipated series with a fresh-faced cast. Led by Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs, TNT’s “Snowpiercer,” based on the concepts behind the 2013 Bong Joon Ho film of the same name, the series is filled with new and familiar faces of all ages. Class, social injustices, and climate change are all central themes in the story of a post-climate apocalypse train that can’t stop moving, and where the whole cast is confined. The show has more than a dozen series regulars and Horton had to balance out a large ensemble (who would appear in a small space) with all those themes in play. She shared with Backstage how she did it, and where she likes to find new faces.
Why was “Snowpiercer” a project you wanted to cast?
I just loved the world of it and the themes about class and the way the characters are able to articulate their competing motivations, but everybody who’s coming from their own point of view really believes that what they’re doing is right. I thought it was an opportunity to create a really diverse and inclusive world that represents the world that we live in; that was important to me. I just really loved the writing, the script, and the opportunities that I saw in the material.
What was the casting process for the show?
When I started on the project, nobody was attached. I think everybody’s first question was who was Melanie going to be, and who was going to be Layton? Daveed Diggs was actually attached first. He was somebody that the network was really excited about because of “Hamilton.” He didn’t necessarily have a huge television or film presence yet at that time, and he came in and fought for the role and he won everybody over. He’s immensely talented and everybody’s thrilled to have him. Jennifer Connelly was somebody who I pitched in my very first kickoff meeting with the director and the showrunner and the studio. We had one of those big meetings and she was somebody who hadn’t been on television. She is just one of the most prepared actors I’ve ever seen. She’s such a great leader to have as a number one on the call sheet because she really inspires the rest of the cast to bring their A-game.
When you say one of the most prepared actors you’ve ever seen, what does that mean?
When I saw the way she works, she comes to set, she knows all of her lines backwards and forwards. She can nail it from take one. I think she inspired all of her fellow actors that she was in scenes with. If you know Jennifer Connelly’s coming and she’s totally prepared and knows her stuff backwards and forwards, then you feel you have to raise yourself up to that and be the kind of actor who comes and also knows your stuff just as well as she does. You don’t want to be the person in the scene who’s constantly having to have extra takes.
“I think sometimes when actors come in and they’ve made choices about a character, they end up trying to play the same thing in scenes. In my experience, the showrunners are looking for different aspects of a character in scenes. They want to see that the character can go on a journey.”
How did those themes you mentioned impact the casting process?
I think the main thing is we just wanted people to have range and dimension. The sides that we gave them were scenes where even in a short period of time, they had to do different things. One scene may be trying to show that they’re really competent at their job or one aspect of the character and the next scene would be more emotional or would have to show them in some sort of a crisis potentially, or just some other more emotional kind of aspect of their character so we knew they could kind of tackle anything that was thrown their way. I would just say that it was about looking for different things out of sides. I think sometimes when actors come in and they’ve made choices about a character, they end up trying to play the same thing in scenes. In my experience, the showrunners are looking for different aspects of a character in scenes. They want to see that the character can go on a journey and last 60 episodes or whatever they’re hoping the show will be.
Talk about casting the young actors in the show.
My approach to kid casting was honed on “Stranger Things.” We look for naturalism. There’s a whole school of kids that have been sort of Disney-fied, who come in and they’re really big. I think they’ve been taught that from coaches and parents and workshops they’ve done, but the creatives I’ve worked with have not been interested in that. They look for the kids who are a little quieter or introspective, who can still have a conversation with adults and who aren’t intimidated by it, but just who aren’t big and in your face. We do scenes with them. We also do interviews with them. We do improv with them, games. Director James Hawes came in to read directly when we were casting Miles. He really wanted to work with him specifically in order to see if he felt like that he could take on the challenging part of miles. It is kind of a large role for an actor that age and he really put him through his paces. We saw a ton of kids; you always have to cast a wide net. Kids casting is one of the most challenging things, because it’s a lot of weight to put on a kid’s shoulders as a series regular on a show like this.
Why was this project unique to other casting jobs?
I would say in this particular case we were lucky that we had a lot of time. That’s what I would say is the best gift any studio or network gives you when you’re working on that project that has a really large cast or a really specific task in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, any of those descriptors, is to give you enough time that you can really do your job and be creative. When you have a lot of time, you’re able to look at people who maybe don’t have the résumé that you would normally look at for a series regular role and give people opportunities. I love having the opportunity to give American audiences fresh faces. Because we had Jennifer, the pressure was sort of off to add other big names. We were able to populate the rest of the train with people who weren’t as well known.
Where do you find those people who aren’t as well known?
I’m a huge proponent of theater training and theater backgrounds so drama school really matters to me when I’m looking at submissions. If somebody has done nothing in TV or film, but they went to very respectable drama schools, I will always give them a shot and see what they’re capable of. London, New York, and Australia are great places to look specifically for theater training. I think those actors come to a set with a whole bag of tricks and things that they’ve learned in drama school that they can fall back on when the directors are giving them notes and they’re just really prepared. They take their craft seriously. There’s just a huge pool that I turn to when I’m looking for people who maybe haven’t been introduced to American audiences yet. When we were doing “Alien: Covenant,” we shot in Australia and I did a ton of research on the drama schools in Australia. We cast a few people in smaller roles that came out of Australia, so it presents its own unique opportunity to learn something that you didn’t know much about before. That’s part of the fun of it, too.
What advice do you have for actors?
The most important thing to me is to really know your lines. You’d be shocked how many times people come into an audition room and they don’t know their lines. It’s really hard to give a note and adjust somebody when they don’t really have a command of the language. That’s sort of the baseline for me. If somebody comes in and they really know their lines, I’m able to give them different direction and help them get closer to what it is the team is looking for. If they’re still struggling to know what they’re saying, it’s hard to really show what they can do.
“If somebody comes in and they really know their lines, I’m able to give them different direction and help them get closer to what it is the team is looking for. If they’re still struggling to know what they’re saying, it’s hard to really show what they can do.”
What can an actor expect from auditioning for you?
I tend to take my time with actor when they come in for me. I’m not a person who can really only do one take, but I think actors can sometimes also take advantage of that, which can be frustrating. When I say they need to know their lines, it’s not about them getting them perfectly, but it’s about at least knowing it well enough that they can do the scene from start to finish and not get tripped up. Even if they don’t know the language exactly, they should know the intention of the line enough that whatever they’re saying still makes sense within the context of the scene. Most people who come in feel like we’ve listened to them and that they’ve gotten to do their best work.
What makes you remember an actor from an audition?
There are things an actor can never control in terms of what a director, producer, studio, or network are looking for, usually regards in regards to look or physical type or height. All they can really control is how well they prepare, know their lines, and make choices, and clear ones. If people come in and they do a good job for me, I always remember them. I take notes and I look back at my notes. I keep track of people who I really like even if they’re not right for this project. Even if you read a script or a project and you don’t really think you’re right for the part but it’s a casting director who you’ve been wanting to get in front of or who you know and like, go in anyways because if you go in and impress that person, they are going to remember you for next time. If you go in and you do a good job for the smaller projects you might not be as excited to come in for, we’re going to remember you for the big ones.
What shouldn’t actors do in an audition for you?
Don’t touch a reader. Most actors that have been doing it for a while know the boundaries of what’s good and what’s not. The only other thing I can think of is sometimes they’ll bring in a cigarette, like if it’s a smoking scene. Don’t light your cigarette. If you want to use it as a prop you can, but I think that props are not necessary. If it helps, do something small, but don’t spend all of your time trying to come in and recreate the scene with a million different props because it can be distracting and people get caught up in whether it’s what they imagined rather than the acting and the talent behind it. Same with scenes where people are eating. I found that if they haven’t rehearsed it properly, there is a lot of dead time while they’re chewing and they’re waiting to say their next line or they mumble it because they’re still eating. It’s things like that where sometimes it can become a stumbling block rather than a help.
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