Awards Daily talks to Emmy-nominated casting director Aisha Coley about her extraordinary work on Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us.
Casting director Aisha Coley has a long history in casting some of the most socially relevant and important films and television shows of the last 20 years. Her work populated such critically acclaimed films as Spike Lee’s Malcom X, David Fincher’s Se7en, and of course Ava DuVernay’s Selma. Her fruitful long-term working relationship with DuVernay eventually led to Coley’s Emmy-nominated casting work in Netflix’s When They See Us.
The task of casting such a large cast of characters, including the actors playing younger and older versions of the same characters, would seem daunting for any casting director. But Coley’s near-shorthand relationship with DuVernay ensured that the actors ultimately selected for the limited series delivered the best performances possible for the material.
The outcome has been wholeheartedly embraced by the Television Academy. In addition to Coley’s Emmy nomination for casting in a limited series, the cast received a whopping 8 nominations in every limited series performance category, including one for breakthrough performer Jharrel Jerome.
Here, Coley talks about her collaborations with Ava DuVernay and what attributes they were looking for to cast the important and revolutionary When They See Us.
Awards Daily: You have a long-term working relationship with Ava DuVernay. How did that come about originally?
Aisha Coley: A filmmaker that we mutually knew told me about Ava. At the time, Ava was in publicity, and our mutual friend told me that she wanted to get into directing. I took a meeting with her, and we talked about her first project. Through Ava’s own efforts, she actually got it made, and we started our collaboration from there. She made another film, and we started the process of collaborating further. Then, it came to When They See Us. It’s been a very interesting and exciting journey.
Sometimes, I can tell what appeals to her specifically and sometimes we differ. Sometimes, she surprises me. She’ll mention someone that I never would have thought would be on her radar. Sometimes she’ll dislike someone that I thought she would most certainly like. For the most part, we have very similar tastes.
AD: When approach with working on When They See Us, what criterion were you looking for in actors to fill such a wide variety of roles?
AC: The first thing we started with was research. We researched the five young men to get an idea of them. People knew about the case but didn’t know them intimately – who they were, how they spoke, how they moved. Then, we started looking for the kids. We cast a wide net to really just bring together some good kids for the younger roles. After that, we started narrowing it down based on looks and so forth.
AD: One of the great breakouts of the series was Jharrel Jerome. How did you find him?
AC: He auditioned earlier on, but he was working on something that required him to have a beard at the time. He did a really good reading, but Ava really needed to see him without the beard because he was auditioning for young Korey. We waited, and his manager really stayed on it. She really gets a lot of credit here and really made sure he stayed on our radar. When he could shave the beard, he read for Ava in New York. When she saw him in the room, she realized maybe he could do both parts. He read both parts at the time. She sent me the tape, and he was amazing. He’s so talented and has a special quality that you see when he reads.
AD: What do you recommend for actors or looking to break into major events like When They See Us?
AC: The thing is to really know your craft and to be able to own it when you audition. When you go into auditions, each one is important. It’s important to show your best each time you walk in the room. Even if you don’t get this job, you may be under consideration for something else. Casting directors may remember you and bring you back for something else. Asante Blackk we read for another project before this one, and we remembered him for this. It’s just really important to make a great impression as well as keep studying and knowing your craft.
AD: Best Casting is a category at the Emmys and at BAFTA, and a casting director was recently announced as the president of the MPAAS. Do you think a casting Oscar is in the works? I’m assuming that’s something you’d support.
AC: Absolutely. It’s just important that the work that casting directors do gets acknowledged. A producer said to me that, despite what is put on film in any form, it’s the actors that you’re watching for two hours. I’m hoping that this is a big step toward that recognition, and I think all casting directors are hoping that that is something that happens sooner rather than later.