Why Finding Talent Across Continents Was Essential to Build ‘The Hot Zone’ Ensemble

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Photo Source: NatGeo

Mark Saks’ name is behind the casts of some of CBS’ most beloved and long-running series, but his latest project is a product of the new TV landscape. “The Hot Zone” on NatGeo is a limited series on a cable network relatively new to original programming and the story is based on a book that is in turn based on a real story. With a familiar leading actor at the center of the six-episode miniseries, Julianna Margulies, star of “The Good Wife,” another series Saks cast, he filled out an ensemble comprised of actors from New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, South Africa, and more. The show jumps times and places and the actors had to carry off medical and lab talk in high-stress situations on screen. All those elements together made for a tricky casting process with many moving parts, but one that was a mostly faithful re-creation of the story of a military doctor containing an Ebola outbreak on U.S. soil back in 1989.

Talk about a little bit about the casting process for “The Hot Zone.”
We started in New York over the summer and there were lists on some of the principal roles. We literally excavated New York over a four-day period and saw or met with anybody who was right for our principal roles. And then, we shifted to getting some self-tapes from Los Angeles where we had some more meetings. And then, basically, we divided up the work between New York, where I’m based, and Robin Cook in Toronto, where we gave her certain roles to work on, we took certain roles, and then we had overlap roles, and we would compare, and if Robin was having a problem on a particular role or was having difficulties, we would take over that role. And we worked together very much in concert with Robin’s office, almost daily during that process. Then we started approving the smaller roles with the producers and selecting those as she was getting into day players and the co-star roles. Once her work was completed, we started with South Africa and we started overseeing their work there, and that was very intense because of the time difference and because several of the roles, as you will find, were not in English. So, we needed to look at the roles in other languages and that was challenging but, ultimately, the office that took care of us in South Africa was terrific.

Why was it important to the show to cast out of South Africa?
One thing that they were insistent on was that it not get too actor-y. Some of the “actors” that she pulled out of South Africa are just folks who were authentic and not necessarily trained, and there were some incredible, authentic people there who brought great emotional value to their roles. We were actually shocked and surprised at what she found. It was a very long search for her; she traveled far and wide to find it.

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Did you have to be conscious in the casting when it came to different time periods and locations in the story?
We did talk about who played in period better at certain points, those who felt more like they were the story in the late 70s or in the 80s. I don’t think with any of our casting that was ever a problem, but it did come up when we talked about how physically people would look, and that was more of, really, a hair and makeup and wardrobe issue. Those conversations came up, too, about having people age and age back. It didn’t impact casting too much, but there were discussions in the room.

What made this job unique compared to some of the other projects you’ve cast?
Well, I’d never been exposed to South Africa casting. So many things shoot in South Africa in Cape Town or Johannesburg, but nothing I’ve ever worked on in 30 years. That was really eye-opening as to the available talent there, and they really made our job very easy because the pool was much deeper. We didn’t sit through their pre-reads; we only saw their final uploads for actors they were presenting to the producers, but it was pretty impressive. We’re pretty fluent with those actors in New York, of course, and Toronto, but the South African actors were all new to me, especially the actors of color.

How is the process different for a limited series compared to the traditional series you work on?
The work up front is much harder because we had to build a prototype before we talked about the episodes, where when we’re doing a series, after you’ve cast the pilot, the work is sort of evenly distributed amongst the episodes. Here, the heavy lifting is very much in the first 10 weeks. I would say we worked for a little more than two months on the prototype. That’s a lot of names to go through, it’s a lot of juggling because you’re working off of lists and you’re working off of readings and meetings. We’ll see maybe 20 or 25 people for producers for a particular role in New York during the first four days. And as I’m sitting there, I think, How can I make this better? How can I upgrade this part? How can I add more value here? Who would be available who’s made me an offer or a meeting, somebody who did not read? And that’s how, for instance, we arrived at Topher Grace. Topher Grace is somebody who gets offered roles all the time. He’s had multiple series and he’s been a part of some very good projects, and the thought occurred to me that he would be ideal for his role here. And as I was sitting through readings, I was thinking, How can we upgrade this? How can we make this better? How can we make this special? And it really wasn’t about his name value at all, it was really about his connection to the role. And then, ultimately, he fell into place. So, I learn during the process a great deal. And that’s with any process, with any pilot, really, but I specifically remember thinking as I was listening to the reads in New York and watching self-tapes, What am I missing here? And we had some wonderful readings here, wonderful choices, but I thought all along, Who can upgrade this for me?

When making lists for offers, what qualities do those actors need to have to be considered?
For Liam Cunningham’s role, the list was so wonderful because that’s such a rich area of talent. The tricky thing in his character was the age; you wanted to make sure he was believable and could swing both the age ranges and that was tricky. So, I said, we start in the middle and then we widen it out to both younger and older. We had such great people on that list, the producers really had their choice of great actors. Now, the challenge becomes getting six people to agree on an individual to make an offer to because they all perceive actors to differently. In features, it’s really the director’s prerogative; it’s a director’s medium. In television, it’s more a cacophony of voices and sort of casting by committee. And don’t forget, you also have to consult the studio—in this case, Fox 21 and Nat Geo. Everything required their blessing. How you view an actor is very subjective, so getting people on the same page, that was a little tricky. It’s tricky all the time. But ultimately, only one actor is going to play the part and we were able to get everybody on the same page after looking at a lot of film. And that’s really what the list-making process is about. It’s presenting the producers with the right film clips that point them in the correct direction, or at least something that helps educate them about a particular actor’s portfolio of what they can do.

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So past work is used as a sort of audition?
Yeah, one producer may have seen an actor in something, and then another producer will say, “Oh, have you seen the actor in this?” and I’ll say, “Oh, what you really should see is this that will help educate you about the script about what the actor can do,” and then it’s our job to make the case and literally stitch together some film clips or a reel that helps educate all the producers. And sometimes they have those a-ha moments where they look at something and they say, “Oh, yes! We see what you’re talking about. Yes, they’re very right for this and I love them in the clips, and let’s do that.”

For those actors who come in to read, what are you looking for other than just a great reading of the part?
Sometimes, you see the potential in someone. Sometimes, a person is read for various roles on a project and sort of the sum total of what they can do is very clear to you after you’ve read them on two or three roles, which happened here a great deal of the time. I’ll think, Wow, they’ve fallen through the cracks on the first two roles, but on that third role, maybe they can do that. We had seen Bobby Moreno, for instance, and he came in for a couple of different things, and we always liked him. And then, we had a smaller part in one of the later episodes and I said, “How about Bobby Moreno?” and they said, “That could work. Why don’t you put him on tape for this role?” and he prevailed.

What about doing TV now makes your job challenging and different, and how is different for actors compared to how it used to be?
There’s so much content now and so little availability. It’s great for the actors, but it’s challenging for us because everyone is doing something at the moment, certainly actors over 35. If they’ve prevailed up until 35, they usually have a series or they’re recurring on something, and it’s just so difficult. And as you know, there’s a big push in Hollywood for diversity, so I think 80 percent of the pilots this year are heavily diverse, and when you’re looking for diverse talent, especially in the upper age range, it’s very difficult now. Everybody has a conflict. And as we’ve learned after many years of doing this, you can’t have the same actor in two places at once. Those under 35—out of college, up to 35—it’s not so bad. After 35, very difficult. Of course, because a lot of actors are out of the game by then; they’ve found other things to do with their lives, so they’re either acting or they’re not. And you can get by with the day players over 35, but when you’re looking at series regulars, it’s thin.

That’s interesting because you can always dig for more new talent, but you can’t invent older actors.
Yeah. The schools are graduating—right now, we’re going to showcases three, four times a week. I was just at Carnegie Mellon; I just met with those kids. I was just at Fordham. And they keep coming. That’s fine. But when you’re looking for 35 and older, it’s really challenging.

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