Defying past portrayals of female friendship on television, Dead To Me enamored audiences with its unexpected casting choices of Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini. Now in the show’s second season, casting directors Sherry Thomas and Russell Scott were tasked with the challenge of expanding on that world and filling out an ensemble that were able to keep up with Applegate and Cardellini. Finding actors that can understand the unique tone of the show, one that balances gut-wrenching trauma with unexpected comedy, is an intricate task. But Thomas and Scott have been able to channel their passion into rounding out the ensemble of the second season with big name guest stars from Frances Conroy and Katey Sagal to utilizing some of the best character actors working today.
Speaking with Awards Daily, the 2020 Emmy nominees walked us through the challenges of the second season from chasing down Natalie Morales as the second season’s biggest addition to a number of high-profile cameos. Closing out the conversation we were joined by their casting partner Sharon Bialy to discuss their second nomination of the year for their work on The Handmaid’s Tale. They also discuss what its like to be casting directors in the middle of a pandemic and if they think their profession is permanently changed by it.
Awards Daily: What was it like jumping back into Dead to Me after the first season became such a breakout hit? Did it make your job easier or was it challenging having actors come in with a preconceived notion of what the show should be?
Sherry Thomas: I think it is a little bit of both. The bar has been set and we set it for ourselves as creative people with high standards. But going into the second season, the world knows the show, and we don’t have to explain what it is. We received a lot of calls from agents and managers who loved the show with their clients who would love to be a part of it. That was a really nice way to come back into the second season.
From our perspective though we are still always trying to surprise the producers. Liz Feldman has a great knowledge of actors and comedic actors. Our job is to hopefully bring her people that she doesn’t know yet.
AD: One of the reasons the show has become so popular is because of the way it straddles this really thin line between comedy and drama in ways we rarely see on television. Did you experience a lot of actors who struggled to nail the specific tone and how did you help them get there in the audition room?
ST: I think that’s one of the reasons we love to be in the room with actors and why right now it is really hard with the world of COVID. We don’t get the opportunity to give immediate feedback and really do the other part of our title which is direct. It is how we really modulate a performance.
Russell Scott: The show is a comedy, but tonally it is pretty tricky because it’s also a mystery. It’s also a thriller. It’s also an emotional drama. You really need to find actors who can do all of those things which can be challenging. We are very passionate about not pigeonholing actors. Christina Applegate has done amazing dramatic work on the show, but she has largely been known as a comedic actor.
ST: Vice versa for Linda Cardellini, who has typically been known for drama to come in and wow everyone with her great sense of timing and comedic skills without ever making it too big. It’s about finding complex and compelling actors that can bring nuance even to comedy.
AD: Before we jump into the new characters of the second season, I wanted to talk about the shocking twist at the beginning of the season; the return of James Marsden with a new character. Was that something you were both conscious of when originally casting him?
ST: Not at all! It was a surprise to us. When we got the initial call we looked at each other, and we’re like ‘Isn’t he dead? Legitimately dead?’ We had no idea that was the plan. He fell in love with doing the show. Liz Feldman, Christina Applegate, Jessica Elbaum, and all of our producers fell in love with working with him and figuring out a complex way to bring him back. And it worked! He is fantastic.
AD: The biggest addition of the second season was the character of Michelle, who is played by Natalie Morales. How did you end up finding her for the role?
RS: We went through that entire process and read a lot of people. Natalie’s name came up at the very beginning, and she is someone who Liz liked but we were originally told she wasn’t available. She was shooting a movie here in LA. We ended up moving the schedule around a little bit for her through communication with her reps and our production team…
ST: Russell worked very, very hard on that. He’s being very humble right now, but it took a lot of strategizing and basically producing. Sometimes our job is basically that of a casting director/producer. Sorry I had to jump in because he is very humble!
RS: We worked through a lot of hard work and cooperation between our production and the movie because she is someone who really understood the tone of the show. We really needed someone for that role who would be able to come in and immediately keep up with Linda, Christina, and James who had already gelled.
AD: I imagine one of the more interesting challenges of that character is finding someone who can believably portray someone who has both dated Ana (Diana-Maria Riva) and Judy. Was that hard at all?
ST: It is a challenge when there are so many components beyond ‘Are they a great actor?’ and ‘Are they right for the part?’ The age had to be right so that it felt right appropriate for Diana. The age had to be appropriate so there would be chemistry with Linda.
The process when we started of course is making lists. We make several-page lists of actors who might be a good fit. Through conversation and through hearing about what the role is about in detail and where it will go, the list gets smaller and smaller. That’s how we kept bringing up Natalie Morales. Every time we had a conversation or auditioned actresses that weren’t a perfect fit, Russell would get on the phone and see if her availability changed. His instinct was that she was the perfect fit for the part, and he didn’t give up.
AD: The second season also featured two major guest stars in Frances Conroy and Katey Sagal. Were they names you wanted from the beginning, and did you go out of your way to reunite Katey and Christina Applegate?
RS: With Katey, we wanted someone who is very special because there is a lot to unpack there with Linda’s mother being in prison. There’s a lot of complexity to the role and we needed someone funny.
Women of that level and age aren’t coming in to read at that point in their careers, so we kept combing through this huge list. We were trying to find the perfect person that would excite Liz to the point where she would want to continue writing for if the character came back. At some point Sherry suggested Katey Sagal.
ST: We hadn’t discussed the idea in general, probably because of the previous relationship with Christina, and we didn’t want to pull anybody out of it. We started talking with her agent, and they basically said to make sure this was the direction we wanted to go in because if Katey found out she would certainly want to do it. We had to make sure all of the players were lined up, and from there, it was a lot of immediate yes’s.
We have been very lucky on this show. We’ve been able to give multiple women over a certain age really complex material. That has been nice because so many of these shows are aged for younger women. It’s just a wonderful place to be to be able to cast these amazing actresses from Frances Conroy to Katey Sagal to Valerie Mahaffey.
AD: What character in the second season proved to be the most challenging?
ST: I don’t think any character was as challenging as Natalie’s. The parameters of that character were a tall order to fill.
RS: It was a very extensive search. It was the biggest new role of the season.
ST: The challenge too isn’t necessarily one particular role. Instead its all of the supporting players, the day players, because you have to have great actors, the majority of who are in scenes with Christina and Linda. So, even though they might be doing under five lines, they’ve got to be able to hold their own. We were able to find actors like Ericka Kreutz who played Shandy’s mother, and you had Adora Bricher who played Shandy who is amazing as the dark, dark little girl. John Ennis is a character actor we’ve known for a long time and he was amazing as the exterminator.
RS: A lot of times those small roles are the hardest to cast. They have to be funny and in the moment with so few lines, and that is such a hard thing to do. With larger roles, you have time to build an arc, but with something so small, the challenge is how to make it memorable. Often times we are reading more people for those roles than anything else.
AD: I’m sure you can’t say anything about the final season, but I’m curious if you have a dream guest actor that you think would fit perfectly into the world of the show?
RT: Can we just put Rhea Seehorn in here? Like everyone else on the planet we love her.
AD: Except for Emmy voters for whatever frustrating reason….
RT: I know!
ST: I mean I can’t even… It’s ridiculous.
RT: I looked for her name before I even looked for ours.
ST: I think this year is so off kilter. When you work in television and when you work with really great material, you do get excited for this time of year. Sometimes the nomination day is like Christmas morning, but this year we completely forgot. I was doing a virtual Pilates class when I got a text from Christina that said, “Congrats lady! Fuck yeah!”
We’re in a very different time and our priorities are a little different, but it doesn’t take away from the pride of it and the love and passion we have for it. We are very, very excited for season three.
AD: This wasn’t your only nomination this year. You were also nominated for your work on the third season of The Handmaid’s Tale. What kind of challenges are there for a show like that where you are three seasons in already?
Sharon Bialy: There are always challenges, but this season there were a couple of roles that caused some particular challenges. The Commander that Christopher Meloni played [Commander Winslow] was challenging because often times the first script doesn’t tell you what the journey is going to be. When you’re chasing after an actor with a name, you need them to trust you. Luckily he did. You also have to believe that that actor is capable of things you haven’t seen them do before. I think Chris Meloni brought so much value to that role. Bruce and Lizzie were thrilled with him.
Casting Yvonne Strahovski’s mother, we needed someone who could be formidable. We didn’t want someone who would be instantly recognizable to the world. We went back to our theatre brains, and Laila Robins is someone I had seen over 25 years ago doing The Real Thing opposite Jeremy Irons. We checked in on her, and the challenging part was convincing producers to take a chance on an actor that you’re very familiar with but they might not be. We were really happy with the outcome of that!
AD: As our readers can imagine, casting can be a very hands-on role where you are meeting dozens of new people every day. In a COVID and post-COVID world do you think you’re job will permanently change?
ST: Not for us particularly. All of the shows we do from The Walking Dead to Better Call Saul to The Righteous Gemstones are all over the country. So we’ve always cast in a broad, worldly way. We’ve always requested self-tapes and explored actors from all over the world. Our approach to that is a direct line of communication. We always want to be readily available to talk as they prepare their tapes so that there is that sense that we’ve been in the room with them.
A lot of casting people their choices have shifted to self-tapes and some of them only self-tapes, but for us our choice will always to be in the room with actors. It’s going to be hard for us because we love to be in the room with them.
SB: It will change, but we are hoping once this is over to be able to go back to that mixture of in-person and self-tapes. Being in the room with actors is so exciting, especially when you’re discovering talent.
ST: Our goal will always be to safely get back in the room with actors. That’s what it is all about. I think within that the process will change a bit. Sometimes the casting session is slammed, and you have several actors in the waiting room. I think we will all be more mindful of that process, but I also don’t want to be in a room with an actor with a giant piece of plexiglass between us. Our job is to connect with people to bring out the best performance. If we can’t connect it’s very hard to do our jobs.