Finding the right actors to play in a playful comedy ensemble has to be hard enough. When you’re looking for actors who can hold their own in the world of the Palladinos’ The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, however, it’s like hunting for the right spice. Add too much and it will be overwhelming. With every role in the Maisel-verse (that can be a thing, right?), actors must be able to shine but not outshine the other people in the scenes. Emmy-winning casting director Cindy Tolan got to round out this latest season with some delicious performers.
The pacing of Maisel is hard to keep up with, so it’s delightful to see Sterling K. Brown and Liza Weil pop up this year as Midge tries to learn on her own and on the road. Both actors impress us by showing that they can do something entirely different from what we know them for. Stephanie Hsu, as Joel’s new love interest Mei, is a perfect example of someone that Tolan has seen for years, and she was able to provide her with a new opportunity to play on television.
Every casting decision that Tolan has made has only enhanced the show. You can tell that these actors love the material and it’s hard work to maintain that tempo and that rhythm. Tolan has found actors that have not only come to play but to excel.
Awards Daily: Is there a role in this third season that you thought was particularly tricky?
Cindy Tolan: Whenever you’re casting for Amy [Sherman-Palladino] and Dan [Palladino] it’s always interesting because they have to straddle so many worlds. The most challenging role to cast was Mei played by Stephanie Hsu. I was excited to cast that, you know?
AD: It’s a great part.
CT: It is. I knew it was going to be a large arc with 7 or 8 episodes. It was going to be specific with Mandarin Chinese. With Amy and Dan, it’s great because they are such theater animals. They understand theatrical actors, so I always usually look to theater for their style in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It’s fast, it’s funny, it’s real, but it’s rooted in reality and truth. It has to move very fast.
CT: You have to have technique and you have to have language skills. A lot of people who are in musicals can do Mrs. Maisel really well. Not everybody, but oftentimes a great many of them. Stephanie Hsu, I have to say, was someone I wanted to get in for the part. I wasn’t positive if she would nail it in the room, but I wanted her to be in the first five people that Amy got to see. I just suspected that there is something about her that they would like. At that time, Stephanie was on Broadway in Be More Chill. I also auditioned her previously for many TV roles like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I knew there was something about her that might work.
AD: It’s instinctual.
CT: When I, as a casting director, feel like I have that one person, it feels like it calms me down about being able to rise to the challenge, you know?
AD: That has to help! (Laughs)
CT: It feels like I have this person and this idea and I know what qualities I’m looking for to cast it. If they don’t respond entirely to something about an actor like Stephanie, they will give me a greater sense on how to move forward to find exactly who they are looking for. Stephanie had a callback and then she got it. That was a long-winded answer to your question.
AD: No! I love it.
CT: But definitely Stephanie and Moms Mabley. I never get daunted with the Palladinos because they are gifted at what they do and they really get actors and they know what works for them. You put in all these great ideas or present them with options, and, inevitably, you will get the person you need between the collaboration between my ideas, the quality of the actors, and the creators knowing what will work and what won’t work.
AD: The rhythm of Mrs. Maisel is so specific. I assume if you bring someone in to read and they aren’t used to that, they really risk being swallowed up by the script?
CT: Oh, yeah.
AD: Is that something you can maneuver in the room? Is that something that can be taught?
CT: Definitely. My associate and I call it “The Palladino Pace.” When we are in auditions, everyone comes in, they try it their way first. If they need an adjustment, we give it to them and oftentimes it’s the pacing of it. It’s a nice way to see if the actor can pick it up and not stumble over their words. That’s why I say it’s all about language skills because it’s so deceptive. It doesn’t need to just be fast. You need to be able to hit what you are saying and understand it in order to land the joke.
AD: You can’t let anything be muddled and you have to make sure the actors know what the characters mean.
CT: They have to be articulate. You can’t be mealy mouthed in any way.
AD: That’s what I love about Jane Lynch on the show. She knows how to change her voice and she can give it that grand theatricality that a trained actor would have.
CT: Exactly right. It’s a skill, right?
CT: It’s a technique and it’s developed. You can’t just do it. It’s enunciation, and it’s something that actors are trained for. There are those actors who can just do it, though. Bailey De Young is amazing at it. Joel Johnstone is also great. They are from the pilot and they are from Los Angeles, so it’s not just New York people.
AD: Can I ask about certain additions to this season?
CT: Of course.
AD: Sterling K. Brown surprised me. Every time he interacts with Alex, it’s so funny. What was the key to casting Reggie?
CT: It’s a good story!
AD: Oh, yeah?
CT: We were at the Emmys, I think, two years ago. I’ve known him since he graduated from NYU, and he was my audition reader in 2005 for a Bertolt Brecht play, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, that Al Pacino was in. John Goodman, Charles Durning, Billy Crudup. It was all these guys and Sterling was my reader, and he was with me the entire time, and we cast them in the play. Cut to much later, he did [The People vs.] OJ Simpson and we were both at the Emmys but I was looking for him. When I found him, I hugged him and he told me that he loved Mrs. Maisel. I took him to find Amy and Dan, and I said, “Sterling, tell them what you just told me.”
AD: Aww! That’s so great.
CT: Amy and Dan wrote him in.
AD: Oh, wow. I didn’t know that. He can do anything. Throw anything at him, and he knocks it out of the park. Someone I was excited to see was Liza Weil as Carol.
CT: Isn’t that great?
AD: I love how Carol is the only person who can connect with Midge about personal things, and there is a coolness to that character, too.
CT: The Palladinos have a long relationship with Liza. I know her from her New York theater days—sorry, they all grew up in the theater. They worked with her on Gilmore Girls and Bunheads, so when they were focused on casting it, we just had to work out with the show they were already on. In Liza’s case it was How to Get Away with Murder. It was Amy and Dan who thought it was perfect, and I totally agree.
AD: She makes it look so easy.
CT: She’s so great.
AD: I wanted to talk about seeing something in actors when you cast them in a small part initially. With LeRoy [McClain], we only get a dabble of him in Season 2, and he has this beautifully sad arc this time around. How gratifying is it to see them flex those muscles so long after you’ve cast them?
CT: It’s so great. With LeRoy, and with all of these people for the most part, you do know them for a really long time. I’ve known LeRoy and Stephanie for a decade if not longer. Even though I’m older than them, I get to know these people and you’ve been in the room with them for ten years or eleven years. You find out about them. Knowing who they are as people and having a sense of who they are and the qualities they innately possess help you cast them and know there is another dimension that they already have. That always makes everything that they are in deeper if the role they are going in for is right with their skill set. It’s something else that they can bring to the character.
AD: His performance is so great because he’s so confident on stage but his private life isn’t that way. One of the things I like about his scenes with Rachel [Brosnahan] is that he doesn’t act that way around anyone else.
AD: Is there something that you wish actors knew about the casting process before they get into the room?
CT: I always say this—and actors never believe me—there are so many things out of your control that determines if you have the job or not. So many things that you couldn’t do better. Even if it was the best audition of your life and you do it so well. Acknowledge that you had a great audition and then walk away. Approach the audition as an opportunity to do work instead of getting a job.
AD: Oh that’s so interesting.
CT: Try to have an artistic moment with another artist—in this case a casting director. If you’re going to come into my office and you have an opportunity to do some work. You are going to get an adjustment. The thing is we want to cast the role as quickly as you want to book the role. It only behooves me to make adjustments so we can do it together.
The third season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is streaming now on Amazon.