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Photo Courtesy of Allison Estrin.

Allison Estrin Talks Breaking into Casting, ‘Billions’

When you know actors, you inevitably hear horror stories about casting sessions or shows, sometimes even casting directors themselves. There’s always some kind of tale that makes an actor’s hair stand on end. So, when you hear stories about great experiences, you sit up and take notice.

Several different actors, each with lots of experience in rooms and with self tape, refer to their interactions with the casting department of The Other Two as the best they’d ever encountered. Well, that department was led by Allison Estrin, who also earned an Emmy nomination for casting Inventing Anna, and is perhaps best known for her seven seasons casting the Showtime mega hit Billions.

Estrin has been at it for more than 15 years, and in that time has not only built up an impressive resume of credits — including Ramy, Still, Alice and the current Peacock hit Bupkis — but has also obviously built up a lot of creditability with the actors she casts. With the seventh and final season of Billions in full swing, she spoke with us from her home in New York City.

How did you get into casting in the first place?

I read your other articles, and I feel like everybody starts with “Well, interesting story.” And I was literally about to say, “It’s an interesting story.”

Well, if it’s interesting…

(Laughs) Yeah, I had gone to acting school and tried to act a little bit in Los Angeles, where I’m from and then moved to New York, mainly just because I wanted to live in New York.

I was sleeping on my best friend’s couch and his roommate at the time was a casting director at Binder Casting. Jay Binder did a lot of big Broadway musicals and plays. Just in trying to get me off of her couch and help me make some money, she said, “Well, do you want to come and help out around the office, and you can be a monitor for the big dance calls and be a reader and that sort of thing, if that interests you?”

I ended up doing that for about a six-month process of coming in for a couple of weeks a month and assisting Jay that way. Then, when an actual job came up in his office, they offered it to me. Within just about a month of working with him and working on those shows, it was pretty clear that that was a better career choice for me.

What was it about working on that side of it that was so appealing?

Well, I think it was realizing that everything I loved about acting wasn’t actually for me, the part of being on stage. What I loved was the rehearsal process. I loved working with writers and directors, helping an entire story come to life in a way that I wasn’t able to do when I was trying to act, and seeing the bigger picture of that, the whole process. That was just always more enjoyable to me.

It gives you so much more of a direct hand in the construction of the production. Because while you’re an actor, you’re playing one small part, if you’re casting, you’re helping to create the entire mosaic.

Correct. And I realized when I actually looked back, hindsight being 20/20, that I was always doing that all through the plays in junior high and high school that I was always sitting and talking to the director. Well, why did you choose this person for this role? What about this? I always loved the full construction.

So in a sense, you were training yourself for the role you ended up having without even realizing it.

(Laughs) Yes! Yes.

It’s interesting that you have such a strong theatrical background, because Billions has that feel to the writing and the performance, and so many local New York actors are in the production. I’m curious if that’s something that you feel has really been a boon to your work there.

Absolutely. When I met with [show creators] Brian Koppelman and David Levien, theatre was a huge thing that we talked about. They wanted to make sure that the show felt like it was New York. What better way to do that than to use some of the best actors in New York, which are on the whole working in theater? It’s one of my proudest moments now that I can go to any Broadway show and look at a program, and it’s not just that everyone has been on Law & Order, there’s always at least one person who’s been on Billions.

You’ve been on the show for now for seven years. Does it get more complicated, the longer you’re doing it? Or is it the other way around?

That’s a really interesting question. I think yes. And no.

I think there’s one aspect that is wonderful in that people know the show really well. There’s really such a style to the show. But I think in the other sense, there’s something that makes it a little bit harder because we have created such a strong world. It’s really kind of more fine-tuning and making sure that every single person we bring in really fits that because I think at this point, if someone doesn’t, that sticks out more.

My final question is always what advice would you give to an actor reading this as to how they should approach your room or any kind of audition process with you?

Something I really wish the actors knew more [about] is that I’m on their side. I am their biggest advocate, their biggest fan, I want them to get the job, and when they get the job is one of the most exciting things for me, too.

I think coming into the room and knowing that you have the fan in there, and knowing that I am there to work with you and help you to get this job. I always say that when people ask why I do what I do, I say I help people’s dreams come true. And that’s a really amazing gift.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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