Richard Hicks and Leslie Wasserman’s work on Film Independent Spirit Award nominee “Together Together” is proof that casting is its own kind of cinematic magic. Writer-director Nikole Beckwith’s platonic romantic comedy stars Ed Helms as a father-to-be and Patti Harrison as his unlikely surrogate. Here, the team behind Starz’s “American Gods,” “The Devil Has a Name,” and the upcoming “Luckiest Girl Alive” share their insights on casting indie projects.
What, to you, is the state of independent film today? What does casting a film like “Together Together” entail?
Richard Hicks: I would say: Out of great pressure comes great creativity. And because we are all so compressed in our society and with the pandemic, I feel like things are firing off like sparks in a way that is really exciting. Things pop up or get created in a new way. And people are looking for something new and something that feels authentic to these times.
Leslie Wasserman: Casting and finding people, it feels slightly more democratized in a way that I think it hasn’t in the past—just the ability to see more people and expand our search. But I think also in indie film right now, with where the industry is—prepandemic, even—it can be harder [to afford to cast talent]. “Together Together” was so special because it shot in L.A., so we could really find all the people we had always wanted to put in those one-liners that are normally [from] local casting. That made it more fun and exciting.
Patti Harrison in “Together Together,” Courtesy Bleecker Street
RH: [Independent film is] like a snakeskin: It always has to crack to get to become something different. Something’s opened up and something’s closed down in any situation. It’s easier to see a ton more actors, because you can watch more self-tapes. But trying to get the financing requires a whole different way of doing it. I thank God I’m not a producer.
What went into casting “Together Together,” especially for all those hilarious supporting parts?
RH: Leslie is very involved in the Los Angeles alternative-comedy scene. In casting, you fall in love with a million people, and you try to find a way to consummate that relationship by getting them cast in something. And so it’s a real joy to be able to follow through and give somebody an opportunity when you love them from afar.
LW: People like Julio Torres and Jo Firestone—you don’t often have roles for them. Especially when you don’t shoot in L.A., there just aren’t those opportunities, because they’re not yet leads; but they’re still great characters to [have in] a scene. So that was the best part: [casting] these people who had been on my list for years to bring in.
RH: What happened with this movie was that after we cast [Harrison and Helms], those two leads became real actor magnets for everybody campy and cool. It became something that awesome people were willing to take the leap for. We had no money, so it was only about the material and the people involved. That doesn’t always happen. It becomes like a snowball rolling down a hill. Tig Notaro signed on for a small part, I believe, just because of who was involved.
What made Patti Harrison a good fit for the role of Anna?
RH: [Beckwith] was still in process with the script, and she and producer Anthony Brandonisio were the ones to go off and get Ed Helms. And then she called me one day and said, “You know, we’re thinking of Patti Harrison.” So that’s on Nikole; she followed through.
LW: I think her wit and her sense of humor, it’s just always present. I think she’s so weird, but in the best way. And I think what was cool about Anna that Nikole conveyed early on was that she was just a normal girl. Like, I remember discussing her costuming, and they were talking about how Anna’s not very stylish, but she’s not unstylish. Her clothes are probably from Target, because she’s just a normal girl. Patti is weird, like a normal person, as opposed to extremely cool. Or she’s cool, obviously, for her weirdness.
RH: She’s got a sly, sardonic sense about her, which fits beautifully with Nikole’s writing, [in which] there’s a lot of very well-observed, very sly, a little dark humor. That’s exactly what Patti is awesome at.
She’s played bit parts and has a strong digital comedy presence, but this is Harrison’s first significant lead role. Was that a consideration for you, or in casting in general?
LW: In casting indies, there is that balance. Sometimes you have to go with the “tried-and-true,” because you don’t know the timeline or the other cast and the support. But I think, knowing Nikole’s vision, it was easier to know that the pieces were going to fit well.
RH: You try to match the kind of actor you advocate for with the kind of script and direction and production that this is. I’ve worked with some directors on other movies who are not particularly actors’ directors, so you need to deliver to them an actor who can do it with minimal help. Whereas with Nikole, she’s up for and enjoys the engagement of somebody who has an authentic edge to them. So that kind of interplay is something where you’re excited to deliver somebody who might be a little less obvious or less mainstream or less well-known.
Did Harrison’s transgender identity factor into casting her in a cisgender role?
LW: There was nothing about her that made her not able to do this role. We are now experiencing more roles for nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, and trans actors in a very cool way. I think in those cases, it’s definitely about having a frank conversation with the director or the producers about who’s portraying those characters. So if you have a nonbinary character, it’s striving to find a nonbinary actor for that role and a trans actor for a trans role. I think we’re seeing that there are so many actors out there now, and technology and the democratization of it all are giving [people] more opportunities. We’re constantly learning and evolving, and we’re in an extremely different [place] from where we were [years ago]. And we have so, so much further to go. But I think when it came to Patti, it just wasn’t part of the conversation or question of if she was well-suited for the role.
Ed Helms and Patti Harrison in “Together Together,” Courtesy Bleecker Street
For you, what is the ideal relationship between filmmaker and casting director?
RH: One thing I remember loving about Nikole: When I did another movie with her, I talked to her about a character. And I was like, “OK, so tell me, where do they shop? Where did they go to school?” And she had the answers. That tells me she understands her version of these characters deeply, which is something that the actors reading this could do. It’s not exactly about research; it’s about doing the homework. Do your homework so that you have a nuanced and effortless sense of this character—in a way that moves you—and then you’re much more likely to wow us. You can work from the outside in or you can work from the inside out, but do the work.
What other advice do you have for actors auditioning for you two?
RH: Having done this for 30 years, I believe that I can tell quickly whether the actor is right for this particular part or not. I can infer a lot of clues about what kind of things they’re good at and what kind of actor I’m looking at. Is this somebody who leads with their brains, their humor, their sexuality?—whatever it might be. So bring all of yourself, both personally and creatively, to what you’re doing. And allow me to see that. If you’re not going to get cast in this part, I will click into [your] vibe and will remember you for the next [project].
LW: The people who are best suited [for a part]—I don’t see the choices that they’ve made. But they have made a choice.
This story originally appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.