On a typical fall midweek day, the life of a television casting director can be hectic, and that might be a gross understatement. Consider the schedule of one such person in a single daytime span in her own words: “This morning, I have spent some time on the phone taking pitches and reading e-mails. I did some pre-read some actors for a role. I read with them and gave them direction and saw what they could do. I called back 40% of the people I read for one specific role. I have to do the budget. The assistant director who does the schedule shows which days people are working, and I have to know based on the SAG rules and minimums, and based on the person’s resume and what part they are playing, what I think it will cost. At 3PM, I am with the executive producer and we will read roles. Then I have to start booking actors for the table read on Monday with the regulars and guest actors at lunch while one episode is shooting. They start shooting the new episode on Tuesday.”
One small fact missing from the aforementioned notes is that this is the operation for what might be the most popular current show on television. “The way I explain it is that we are a human resources department for TV or movies,” said Laura Schiff, the casting director for the wildly successful American Movie Classics series, Mad Men. Though she did not cast the pilot which was done in New York, Schiff came aboard the series, set in Manhattan in the early 1960s, to cast episode two. The show, created by executive producer Matt Weiner, has gone on to win numerous awards and is one of the top-rated cable TV series of the past three years.
Of utmost importance to any series is finding the best possible performer for each role. Schiff noted that she is methodical about every casting choice from leading parts to the smallest speaking role. “We sit down with the director or writers or producers to determine what the parameters are,” she explained. “We know age and type, but we have to go out and find it. We are a little like headhunters. We talk to the agents and managers we know to talk about who would be the right fit for the job. If there’s someone we know well, we take them straight to the director or Matt. Then we take care of all of the various things that need to be done with schedules, studio and network clearances, and negotiating their deal.”
Now into season three, Mad Men has tremendous expectations upon it on the part of the viewing public. As such, that pressure translates right down to the tasks facing the casting director. Schiff is well aware of this reality. “Any casting director knows a phenomenal number of actors but we’re always looking for new ones,” she revealed. “Going to plays and movies and saying, ‘who’s that?’ Tomorrow, there’s a role that we’re casting and I’m taking it as an opportunity to meet a whole bunch of new faces. You can’t rely on just the people you know, especially when you are doing episodic television.”
As a Mad Men script comes to her, Schiff is always up against new challenges – and no two episodes are ever alike. “You may have two or twenty roles,” she said of each script, 13 in all per season. “You are maybe showing the producers 10-15 people. If you are showing the same faces all the time, they say, ‘we didn’t cast this person last time.’ Certainly there are people we bring back again because they did well last time and have a good chance of being cast on the show. But you must have a freshness to it.”
Part of the buzz of Mad Men is its unpredictability and uniqueness in every sense – including its largely previously unknown cast. “Matt doesn’t like to cast people who are too familiar to the audience because it removes you from just being immersed in it,” Schiff stated. “Most of the time, he really wants people who the audience won’t recognize. He really feels that as a period show, the fact that you don’t really recognize the actors makes you believe that you believe that it’s that point in time. It’s a good opportunity for young actors or actors in smaller roles who haven’t had that big break. On another show, it might go to an actor with a larger resume. Plenty of our people are still not that recognizable – they might work a lot in a lot of things, or they are chameleons and you don’t realize who they are because of makeup and wardrobe.”
To begin her process, after getting a script, that day or the following one, Schiff has a concept meeting with all of the department heads, including Weiner, the producers and the director to determine the entire goal of the episode. “We talk about everything page-by-page,” Schiff detailed. “As we get to a page that has new characters, we discuss what kind of person she or he is: their background, what their attitudes are even though we can’t share it with the agents and managers. In this show, we cannot be specific with agents because we want to protect the storyline on Mad Men. The overarching mystery on the show makes it more important to keep it under wraps. Part of the journey and enjoyment of the show is the discovery of it.”
In getting to make specific choices for each role, Schiff and her team must who exactly a script is describing on a person-by-person basis. “We want to find specifically what they are looking for,” she said. “We put out a breakdown which is a listing that goes through a service to all of the agents and managers. That could go out to 500 people. The description of the character is pretty oblique. ‘An intelligent poised woman’ and not much else. We don’t want to give away storyline. When we see the submissions based on that breakdown, agents and managers submit ideas to it through the online service. Because we know what it needs to be, we discuss it amongst ourselves and know what the subtle qualities are. We are looking for specifics in a particular character because we couldn’t be specific in the breakdown. We then hold auditions – we might read people just Carrie Audino [co-casting director] and I – then we will call people back to see Matt or the director later that day or the next day. Sometimes he looks at the videotape and calls them back to read them again before making his final decision. That entire process is between five and seven days.”
In television, even with a reduced cable schedule of 13 episodes, with only nine months of work, cast and crew have to move very quickly, and casting is no exception. “We have to very specific about calling in people for Matt,” Schiff said. “Between six and eight people per role, so you have to make sure that they are the right six-to-eight. With Matt, we have a good freedom to try different things, but you have to be specific because it happens so fast. In that seven days of an episode’s production, Matt is doing rewrites and doing post-production, going down to set to make sure things are going well, and meeting with department heads. We only have him for a limited number of hours for an episode.”
Of note, every cast member who has ever been on Mad Men has auditioned. “Matt wants to work with them in the room,” Schiff stated of Weiner’s process. “He plays with them a lot in the room. Someone putting themselves on tape in another city doesn’t work at all on Mad Men. We have never cast off of tape. When the actor comes in the room, they need direction. If they are on tape, they don’t have that opportunity.”
With that, Laura Schiff goes back to her day, both preparing for a future episode and taking care of current business, as Mad Men moves eloquently through its third season on AMC.