Job Description: Casting directors
Ahead of the British Academy Television Craft Awards next week, nominees in the scripted casting category tell DQ about their work identifying and hiring actors for drama series including Small Axe, Sex Education and Baghdad Central.
As Gary Davy recalls, he was one of a number of casting agents vying to work with then-up-and-coming director Steve McQueen on his first feature film, Hunger. Keen for the lead role to go to a young, relatively unknown actor, Davy walked into his meeting with McQueen with a picture of just one actor – Michael Fassbender.
Twelve years later, their work together on Hunger – Fassbender did play the lead – paved the way for Davy and McQueen to reunite on the now Oscar-winning director’s long-gestating BBC anthology series Small Axe.
Set between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s, Small Axe is a collection of five films focusing on London’s West Indian community, whose lives were shaped by their own force of will, despite rampant racism and discrimination.
For his work on the project, Davy is one of four casting directors in the running for the scripted casting prize at this year’s British Academy (Bafta) Television Craft Awards. His fellow nominees include Kate Rhodes James for Baghdad Central, Lauren Evans for Sex Education (pictured above) and Shaheen Baig for The Third Day. It’s only the second time Bafta has recognised television casting at its annual TV awards, with the inaugural prize presented last year to Des Hamilton for his work on the third season of crime drama Top Boy.
“We had that relationship from Hunger so I knew what he wanted. I don’t think I would have been able to do Small Axe without that shorthand because we didn’t have a lot of time [for casting] when we were actually filming,” Davy says of working on the project. “Steve mentioned a project similar to this 10 years ago, so it’s been in his mind. I only wish we had a little bit more time to actually do it, because I used to have to go to set with a couple of actors during Steve’s lunch breaks. When he should have been eating and resting, I was auditioning actors.”
McQueen trusted Davy to bring him the best actors for the roles, and the casting director was excited to be able to showcase the breadth of acting talent in the UK. Shaun Parkes (Lost in Space), Letitia Wright (Black Panther) and Malachi Kirby (Curfew) lead the first film, Mangrove, while Lovers Rock stars newcomer Amarah-Jae St Aubyn and Bafta’s 2020 Rising Star award winner Micheal Ward (Top Boy). Red, White & Blue is headlined by John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Steve Toussaint (Prince of Persia); Alex Wheatle features Sheyi Cole and Jonathan Jules; and Education stars Jenyah Sandy, Sharlene Whyte, Daniel Francis and Naomi Ackie (End of the F***ing World).
“Honestly, there is so much talent here in the UK and the one thing I will always love from this show is to have been able to help showcase some of it,” Davy tells DQ. “Sometimes I only had time to bring one or two people in front of Steve, so my prep had to be absolutely on it. He just wanted me to do my job. That [confidence] goes all the way back to Michael Fassbender and for me to believe in someone enough to actually say, ‘Steve, this is who I think it should be. You need to meet this person.’ But it was a collaborative process.”
Small Axe earned widespread acclaim when it debuted last year, its impact made all the more powerful by the fact its release came as the murder of George Floyd sparked the Black Lives Matters movement around the world. The anthology, which was coproduced by Amazon Studios and released on Amazon Prime Video in the US, is now up for a combined 15 awards at the Bafta Television Awards and Television Craft Awards. As well as Davy’s casting nod, McQueen has been nominated in the directing category and the writing category with co-writer Alastair Siddons, while Boyega and Parkes are up for the lead actor award, Wright for lead actress, and Kirby and Ward for supporting actor.
Meanwhile, among its six nominations, Netflix comedy-drama Sex Education also has runners in the acting races, namely Ncuti Gatwa and Aimee Lou Wood, who have been nominated for best actor and actress in a comedy respectively.
Casting director Lauren Evans, who worked on the show since it launched in 2019, has been nominated for her work on Sex Education’s second season, which introduced three new regular cast members to support the large ensemble of actors already appearing in the show. The story centres on socially awkward teen Otis (Asa Butterfield), who opens a sex therapy clinic at his school after becoming a reluctant expert on the subject thanks to his sex therapist mother Jean (Gillian Anderson).
“It is quite tricky, especially when it comes to the age of them as well, because they don’t necessarily have a body of work that you can consider, like a showreel,” Evans says of assembling the largely young cast. “But it just means it’s a more explorative process. That’s always really exciting. The scale of it is sometimes quite daunting, and the characters written by Laurie [Nunn, creator and writer] certainly keep us on our toes, but we absolutely adore it. It is a total joy to work on.”
The nature of the school-set drama means finding instant chemistry among the cast is particularly important, and Evans says this was an especially formidable task ahead of the second season after the first became an instant hit for Netflix.
“It’s a relationship show and you have to get these people in a room together, or at least online together nowadays, to see what the chemistry is like, to see what the humour is like between people and how they gel,” she explains. “It’s certainly important, but this process is quite lengthy compared to other things that I do when we’re looking for the younger cast.”
When it comes to casting new characters, “we get told everything,” Evans continues. “We get to see all the scripts, which is really helpful. It’s good to know where this journey goes because the actor who’s coming in will want to know how big a commitment it is and what their character arc is. We’re armed with everything we need to find the perfect person, and Laurie, our producers and directors are key in giving us that information.
“Our three new regulars were brilliant. They’re all so different. Sami [Outalbali, as Rahim] had done a lot of work in France but not necessarily here, so it was nice to introduce him to a more mainstream audience. Then with Chinenye [Ezeudu, as Viv] and George [Robinson, as Isaac], it was just wonderful to launch these two guys into this world and see them really take off. It’s hugely exciting.”
Similarly, Kate Rhodes James was able to bring some new and unfamiliar actors to the screen in Channel 4’s Baghdad Central, the story of a former Iraqi police inspector searching for his missing daughter in 2003, a time when Iraq is occupied by a US-led coalition. She says she “adored” the job, not least because she was challenged to find a cast of Middle Eastern actors and not forced to deliver ‘names’ to the broadcaster.
“At the beginning, I said, ‘You’re not going to get ‘names’ here and you have to be prepared for that,” she tells DQ. Rhodes James initially wanted to cast Tahar Rahim, who was largely unknown to UK audiences at the time but has since led the cast of BBC drama The Serpent. However, Rahim was unavailable and production was then pushed back by an extra year, “which meant I had two years to research it properly,” Rhodes James explains.
“Me and my team, we just watched everything we could lay our hands on – Iraqi drama, Iranian drama… Palestinian series are extraordinary and Israeli television and film is huge,” she continues. “[The delay] allowed us to go off and watch everything and become more knowledgeable because we had to find actors who could not only speak Arabic but also spoke fluent English and were also right for the role. Right from the beginning, that was the ambition, but reality sets in very quickly. It’s a very limited pool, but the more knowledge I had about Middle Eastern actors, the more confident I felt about presenting them.”
Rhodes James would often trace actors via Facebook or Instagram, or contact local agents to see if they could set up meetings with actors who didn’t have representation.
“Where I started was simply, is the actor right for the role? Are they good? Will they bring what we need for it?” she says. As a result, the cast includes actors from across the region alongside American Waleed Zuaiter, who plays lead character Muhsin al-Khafaji and has been nominated for best leading actor at the Baftas.
For every show, “it’s essential you’re compiling a group of people who will work well together,” Rhodes James notes. “Especially when I was building Khafaji’s family, it was imperative they believably felt like his children. You don’t cast in isolation, you never do. When you’re casting a husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, girlfriend and girlfriend, whoever you cast reflects on both of those people.”
Sadly for casting directors, there’s no magic formula that will guarantee chemistry between actors once the cameras start rolling. That’s why so much emphasis is placed on being able to see actors in the flesh and have them audition in person with the director.
On Baghdad Central, “we didn’t have the luxury of bringing anyone together. We did everything online because no one could leave where they were, except Waleed and the British-based actors like July Namir [Mrouj al-Khafaji], Youssef Kerkour [Karl], Bertie Carvel [Frank Temple], Thalissa Teixeira [Florida] and Fady Elsayed [Ibrahim Jabani],” Rhodes James says. “Everyone else, we did online. We had some mad setup but managed to make it work.”
“I’m a bit in awe of actors; they are extraordinarily clever at their craft,” says Davy, who is now casting The Man Who Fell to Earth for US premium cable network Showtime. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave) and Naomie Harris (The Third Day) are among the leads. “I will give them the benefit of the doubt that they can do something. Even if I haven’t seen it before, if somebody’s a good actor, they’re a good actor in all mediums. Casting is really about reading the material, getting into the director’s head and then finding out who would be the best person for the role.”
Davy says the number of series now being produced around the world means it is increasingly difficult to secure top-level acting talent: “It’s got to be great work with a great director or else you may not get the talent because there’s so much work around. It just comes down to what’s on the page for people to make the decision about what they want to do. I’m just so pleased that we got to make Small Axe with loads of great actors.”
For Evans, casting is about trusting your instincts – and when she believes an actor is right for a role, “I shout it loud from the rooftops.” “I have been called persistent and direct, but I feel like if I really feel it then I want other people to know these are your guys, they’re really special and you should really take a chance on them,” she says. “Sex Education has thrived from these seemingly unknown people. We need more of that, new faces on our screens.”
Season three has now wrapped and is expected to arrive on Netflix later this year after being filmed during the pandemic, which has meant the majority of auditions over the past year have been forced online. Among the new additions this season are Jemima Kirke as the new headteacher of Moordale High, Jason Isaacs as Peter Groff, former headteacher Mr Groff’s more successful, not very modest older brother, and musician Dua Saleh, who plays non-binary student Cal.
“Part of the job I love so much is being in the room with the actors. It’s so immediate and it’s collaborative, and this [casting in a pandemic] is really tough, especially for actors,” Evans says. “We’re throwing things at them left, right and centre, not knowing they’ve also been asked the same from other casting directors. It’s tiring for everyone. Zoom castings are serving a purpose, but it’s really tricky for people to navigate and we’re just desperate to get back into the room.”
Rhodes James echoes Evans’ desire to return to in-person auditions, having spent the past year online casting actors for Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon. But right now, her mind is likely on a different online event – this year’s British Academy Television Craft Awards, which will take place on Monday, with the ceremony broadcast from 19.00 BST on Bafta’s YouTube channel.
“We’ve all had to recalibrate and adjust and not moan and be positive and be pleased that things are in production,” Rhodes James says. “It’s not as fun as it used to be. The fun is sitting in the room with the director, talking about the characters and about the actors.”
Technology has allowed Rhodes James to broaden her search for actors, however, and that is one benefit that could continue once normal service resumes. “I can get on the screen with an actor, we can chat away and it costs them nothing and it costs me nothing,” she says. “Actors are worried this will replace in-person auditions, which I don’t think will. Unless you can’t [get there in person], I would never encourage anyone to be cast without getting in a room.”