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Award-Winning Casting Director Says Diversity Isn't A Trend, It's Evolution

Aug 25, 2015
Originally published on August 25, 2015 6:19 pm

In today's crowded TV landscape, the casting director's job is no small thing. And that talent will be honored at the Emmy Awards next month. Jennifer Euston, who has been in the casting business for two decades, has been nominated this year for outstanding casting for a comedy series and for a drama series.

"I get the script, I read it, I break it down. Anyone who has a speaking part is my responsibility," she says. "Even if the person says, 'Hi' — one word."

Euston's first gig was on Law and Order. In recent years, she's been at the top of her game, crafting Emmy-nominated casts for shows like HBO's Veep and Girls.

Her most decorated show right now is Orange Is the New Black on Netflix. It's a women's prison comedy and drama that tells the story of not just its heroine — an upper-middle-class New Yorker locked up on an old drug charge — but also of the diverse group of women around her. On a different show, these actresses would likely have been relegated to bit parts — maid, cashier, city clerk.

While casting Orange Is the New Black, Euston says she thought of the many talented women she had worked with in the past whose skills were being underutilized.

Euston says she was given only the screenplay for the pilot episode when she made her casting picks: "I didn't realize how many of [these actors] were going to become such huge parts of the show and become such series regulars." It worked out, she says, because made sure to choose women she trusted, who could take on bigger roles if needed.

It's because of her work with shows like Orange Is the New Black that Euston is now recognized as a leader in diverse casting. But the question of diversity remains a sensitive and charged issue in Hollywood. Earlier this year, a controversial article in Deadline Magazine suggested the trend toward diversity in television casting was "too much of a good thing."

Euston says she makes casting recommendations, but the showrunners make the final call on which actors to hire. And it's the showrunners and writers who put together the storylines. Euston has often been handed scripts that almost exclusively feature Caucasian men. In those cases, she says, "you do your best to sort of offer alternatives, if you can."

More recently, Euston says she's been lucky to work on shows that feature diverse characters. "I've been given this gift in the past few years of these really amazingly strong women writing about women of shapes and sizes and ages and color," she says.

Regardless of which script she's handed, Euston says she often relies on her memory to make casting picks. "I worked in a video store throughout high school and college," she says, which is how she realized she had a knack for memorizing actors' names and faces. "It's sort of like a filing cabinet in my brain."

As she's rifling through those mental files, she says she's most often captivated by the actors who don't look like people you'd typically or traditionally see on TV — actors of all different races, but also actors with unusual or quirky looks.

As an assistant to the casting team for Law and Order, Euston was sometimes responsible for finding people to fill the small, side roles. "I never looked for people who looked like actors, or who were handsome or muscular or beautiful," she says. "I want people to look real; I want them to meld with the story."

Now the actors who might once have been relegated to smaller parts are starting to get starring roles. Take Adam Driver, for example. He plays a heartthrob on Girls, even though he's no Fabio. As one of the characters on the show says, "He has a face of an old-timey criminal."

Euston says she's pleased that shows are slowly starting to feature a broader range of characters. And she's optimistic that TV shows will continue to feature more women and minorities, especially with the growing popularity of online streaming services like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime — which don't rely on traditional advertising sponsorship.

"I don't think it's a trend," she says. "It's evolutionary." And more important, she adds, "It's successful."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Emmys are in a few weeks, and one of the things that makes the TV award unique - it recognizes the work of casting directors. The Oscars don't; neither do the Tonys. But in today's crowded television landscape, the casting director's job is no small thing.

JENNIFER EUSTON: I get the script. I read it. I break it down. Anyone who has a speaking part is my responsibility, even if the person says, hi - one word. That's my responsibility.

CORNISH: That's Jennifer Euston, a two-time nominee this year. She's been in the casting business for 20 years. Her first gig was on "Law And Order," but in recent years, she's at the top of her game, crafting Emmy-nominated casts for shows like HBO's "Veep" and "Girls." Her most decorated show right now is "Orange Is The New Black" on Netflix.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'VE GOT TIME")

REGINA SPEKTOR: (Singing) The animals, the animals, trapped, trapped, trapped till the cage is full.

CORNISH: It's a comedy and drama set in a women's prison that tells the story of not just its heroine - an upper-middle-class New Yorker locked up on an old drug charge - but of all the women around her.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK")

DANIELLE BROOKS: (As Tasha Jefferson) So you wind up in prison and everybody's up in your face.

SELENIS LEYVA: (As Gloria Mendoza) Hey, Blanca, you speak Spanish?

TAYLOR SCHILLING: (As Piper Chapman, speaking Spanish).

LEYVA: (As Gloria Mendoza) You see, my girl speaks Spanish.

LAVERNE COX: (As Sophia Burset) Such pretty hair - when those roots start to show, be sure to come and see me, OK?

UZO ADUBA: (As Suzanne Warren) Chocolate and vanilla swirl, swirl.

CORNISH: These are the women who, on another show, say, like, "Law And Order," would've been relegated to bit parts - maid, cashier, city clerk. I asked Jennifer Euston how she found these women.

EUSTON: I've known those women. I've known those women for many, many years - some 15 to 20 years of doing casting in New York. And I've seen them in theater. And I've seen them come in for those bit parts and cast them in those bit parts in movies and other things I've worked on. So I went in to casting "Orange" with a pretty great - I would have to say - arsenal of women that I knew already.

CORNISH: Who were essentially underutilized, right?

EUSTON: Very much so underutilized, yes. And I didn't realize how many of them were going to become such huge parts of the show and turn into series regulars. The pilot was what I used to cast most of the people that you see on the screen now - the major parts. And there weren't a lot of lines in the pilot for all those people. So that's what I had, and I brought in people that I trusted that could take on more if they had to. So that was sort of my strategy.

CORNISH: And so how do you keep track of actors that you like or that you've seen randomly in auditions?

EUSTON: In my brain (laughter).

CORNISH: Oh, really?

EUSTON: Yeah.

CORNISH: There's not, like, a scrap - like, a stack of headshots somewhere or something?

EUSTON: No, no, no, no, no, no. I've - one of the things, I think, that got me into casting originally was my memory of actors and actresses and what they've been in and what I've seen them in. I worked in a video store all through high school and college, and that helped with the memory, you know (laughter), when you're putting video boxes away. I do have a memory, so I specifically remember things and they just kind of pop up, you know, when I need them to, thankfully. It's sort of like a filing cabinet in my brain. I don't remember everything, but when it comes to film and actors and things that I need to recall, I can envision people and envision what they've been in.

CORNISH: In looking through your biography, I understand that shortly after going to school for film studies you, at one point, became an assistant to the casting folks at "Law And Order." What did that teach you about what to look for in faces, right? I mean, there's stuff that the directors may want, or the show runners, but kind of how did that hone your sense of understanding character and a character's face?

EUSTON: I had been a big old film buff since I was a teenager. I was obsessed with films from the '30s and '40s and especially screwball comedies, you know? And there would be the movie stars, of course, but the background players, all of those people in the '30s and '40s, they all looked like real people. They didn't look like actors, you know? They were old men and they were old women and they had significant parts, and they were funny. And they contributed something to these movies that meant a lot. And I think in my aesthetic that came with me when I went into casting that I never looked for people who looked like actors or were handsome or muscular or gorgeous or beautiful because I felt like if you put those people in the background of anything, you would be taken out of the story. And so I just want people to look real. I want them to meld with the story.

CORNISH: In looking at "Veep" or "Orange Is The New Black" or "Girls," it seems as though those faces - maybe the unusual faces you're talking about - are now getting to be center stage, right?

EUSTON: I know. They're becoming the stars. It's crazy. I mean, like, I laugh about it because somebody like Adam Driver who I loved so much when I met him when he got out of Juilliard.

CORNISH: And just for people who may not have seen Adam Driver, I remember there's one scene in "Girls" where a character says, like...

EUSTON: His old-timey face.

CORNISH: (Laughter) Yes, he's an old-timey murderer or thief or something like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GIRLS")

AMY SCHUMER: (As Angie) I'm sorry. He has the face of, like, an old-timey criminal.

SHIRI APPLEBY: (As Natalia) What are you talking about? No, he looks like Peter Pan.

EUSTON: He does. He does, and that's the face I like, you know? So if this is the new leading man esthetic, this has made my life just in - personally 'cause now these are the kind of movies that I would like to watch, you know, and not these pretty boys.

CORNISH: Here's the thing. In addition to finding unusual faces that challenge our standards of beauty, Jennifer Euston has been recognized as a leader in diverse casting. But the question of diversity remains a charged issue in Hollywood. Earlier this year, a controversial article on the website Deadline suggested the trend toward diversity in television casting was, quote, "too much of a good thing." I asked Jennifer Euston - who is ultimately responsible for those choices? Is it the show runners or casting directors?

EUSTON: I've worked at - on both sides of it, you know? I've been given a gift in the past few years of these really amazingly strong women writing about women of all shapes and sizes and ages and color. And I've been really lucky. But I've also been on the other side of it, working for, you know, men directors, men show runners, and you do get a script and it is mainly men and it is mainly Caucasian and you do your best to sort of offer alternatives if you can. And I don't make the decision, you know? The director or the show runner makes the decision of who's cast. So I again show choices and if I show, you know, half African-American choices, half white choices, they make the choice. So I don't know how casting can be blamed. If I didn't show those choices then maybe there can be a finger pointed. And I don't know what other casting directors do. I can only speak for myself. But I do have many friends and I know they do the same thing I do, you know? So there's always going to be a blame game, you know? Nobody wants to take responsibility for it.

CORNISH: People have talked so much about the diversity of television casts in particular. Is this a trend or is this something you think might have staying power beyond, you know, this TV season and the next TV season?

EUSTON: I hope it has staying power. I mean, it's hard. Change is slow. It might take a while. It might take, you know, several more television seasons to see it in its fruition. But I think that it's evolutionary actually and I think it's going to take time. But I don't think it's a trend. I think that it's here to stay hopefully because I think it's made such an impact on people's lives, and it's successful, and that in and of itself will make it not be a trend. I think a trend is something that's hot for one second and then loses its grip, but I think this is successful and will continue to be so. And I think with the introduction of streaming and Netflix and Hulu doing original programming, Amazon doing original programming because there is no sponsorship necessary, it will be able to continue because you're not going to be answering to any kind of corporate sponsors.

CORNISH: Jennifer Euston, thank you so much for speaking with us.

EUSTON: Thank you.

CORNISH: Jennifer Euston is an Emmy award-winning casting director for film and television. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.