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Photo Courtesy of Leah Daniels-Butler.

Casting Director Leah Daniels-Butler Talks Casting Apple TV+’s ‘Manhunt’ and Her Approach to Historical Dramas

Leah Daniels-Butler, a seasoned casting director renowned for her work on historical projects like The Butler and The United States vs. Billie Holiday—both directed by her brother, Lee Daniels—recently undertook the casting for the Apple TV+ mini-series Manhunt. The project is based on the real-life 12-day manhunt for Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

Butler, whose expertise has earned her Artios Awards for Billie Holiday and the hit TV series Empire, discussed her latest venture with Casting Networks. She shared insights into her approach to casting historical dramas, her thoughts on participating in remakes and why working with her brother is “easy.”

Casting directors like yourself often have regular filmmakers or studios they work with, but with Manhunt, this was your first time working with the showrunner and Apple TV studios. How did you all come together?

It’s a combination of things. There’s always a handful of other casting directors you are up against, if you will. It’s like acting, where everybody is vying for the job. I don’t know what I said that sealed the deal.

Other than that, I’m always authentic in my meetings and come well-prepared. For this particular project, I knew it was going to be a challenge. It was important for me to do as much research as possible, not just on the group involved in producing the show but also on my research on the characters. I’m not a huge history buff, so it was insightful to learn so much about our history. It was very enlightening.

What made Manhunt particularly challenging?

I cast The Butler, which was also a historical piece (about real-life figure Eugene Allen, who spent 34 years serving as a White House butler). I understand there’s always that challenge in trying to match people to those figures – especially those who were so prominent and well-known throughout history.

For example, there is a clear picture of who Abe Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth were. But for some of the other characters, like Stanton or other supporting characters, we didn’t know who they were. That was the challenge. As a casting director, you want to find similarities in the character’s appearance with who you’re casting, but you don’t always find that. So, it’s more important to capture the essence. These figures are from long ago, so you’re relying on the source material and hoping to get it right.

When you came on board, the studio was already in negotiations with actor Tobias Menzies to play (lawyer and politician) Edwin Stanton, but the rest was in your hands. Let’s talk about casting the most well-known figures on this show – Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth, played by Hamish Linklater and Anthony Boyle, respectively.

With Lincoln, his characteristics are very well-known. He was tall and had olive-colored skin and a cadence to his voice. It was about not necessarily matching the voice but getting as close to it as possible. The studio has very high standards for their talent, so they supported collaboration with me, the casting department (show creator) Monica Beletsky and the producers. 

We all worked closely together, coming up with lists. We had some actors that weren’t available, or we probably thought about first. When you’re casting someone like Lincoln, so many things come into play. You have to meet with the actors and make sure they understand the expectations, and the producers must also understand where the actors [are] coming from. Because the actors are taking that journey and taking us all on this journey that others have been on before. Getting it right, with the right actor who understands that, was important.

Hamish Linklater portraying Abraham Lincoln on a closed set. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+.

Did Hamish go through an audition process for Lincoln?

He didn’t at all. It was meetings. It was a collaboration between him and the creators. It was making sure this was the right fit. When you have actors of a certain caliber, they want to make sure they’re doing justice to the role. You have to respect that process as well and make sure it will be a good fit, not just for all involved but also the best fit for the actual show. Lincoln is a supporting character, but he’s very prominent. It’s a very fine line.

What about Anthony Boyle for Booth?

He auditioned quite a few times. There were meetings, there were auditions, there were callbacks. He went through a very strenuous casting process, but it all paid off so well because he’s just brilliant. 

Lovie Simone plays Mary Simms, a slave to a physician with ties to Booth and the assassination. She ends up playing a pivotal role. Tell me about casting her.

Lovie is such a wonderful young actress. We had a list of actors, but it wasn’t an extensive list. There are not a lot of black actresses in that age range who necessarily move the needle. We auditioned tons of people, but [on] the short list of people that auditioned, Lovie was one of them. Once Monica and the rest of the group saw her audition, we knew almost immediately. There was this quiet strength that she had. It even came across in her audition through Zoom.

Lovie Simone in 1800s clothes sitting at table outside. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+.

Was there anyone who came to audition for one role but then ended up with another?

We saw a lot of people, and because there were so many characters in the same age range, sometimes a person would read for one role, and then we’d read them for another. We were like, “Okay, well maybe he’s not right for that, but we love him so much, let’s see where that goes.”

Spencer Treat Clark (who played conspirator Lewis Powell), read for Booth. I think he might have read for Edward Stanton Jr. too. They loved him, and it was like, “We have to figure out where he fits in this project.” That was a lot of the casting process as well. There were so many good actors that we were like, “Okay, they belong in this world, but where do they fit?” 

Casting famous or real-life figures or historical films is something you’ve done before. In addition to The Butler and Billie Holiday, there was also Brian Banks, and Love and Murder: Atlanta Playboy just to name a few. How do you cast real-life characters, and what do you expect from actors when they audition for those roles?

It’s a combination of things. If I’m casting a historical figure or someone who is a real person, I constantly keep photos of them on clipboards, around my desk and on my laptop. I want to visualize them and keep their persona in my head at all times in case I even see the slightest thing in someone that might make me go, this actor is right for this role in some way.

And for the actors auditioning?

What I would encourage an actor to do if they’re auditioning for something that’s period is to be mindful of that period. Many actors will contemporize [their audition]. If they don’t have the proper training, they will likely [revert] to what they know. The ones who are classically trained usually understand what that period feels and looks like and bring that essence. I wouldn’t have to tell them, “Don’t wear a top hat” or “Don’t wear what a sharecropper would wear,” but they would instinctively know to wear muted colors or not to make eye contact because sharecroppers were so close to slavery, which had just been abolished. Those nuances – the cadence of your voice, not looking your superior in the eye – today, you would not necessarily think about that, but someone like Lovie knew instinctively to do [that in her audition]. 

You’ve also worked on remakes or reimaginations like the recent White Men Can’t Jump series based on the 1992 film, a contemporary remake of The Wonder Years TV series and Coming 2 America, a 30-year sequel to Coming to America. What’s your casting process when contemporizing titles that are already so ingrained in pop culture from the first time around?

It’s frightening! It’s always going to be compared to the original if it’s a remake or if it’s a continuation. For me, I must get a clear understanding of the filmmaker’s vision. You can’t make something like the original Coming to America today. There were so many things in there that we could never get away with in this day and age in terms of how far they pushed the envelope.

Everybody needs to understand that at the end of the day, we’re just trying to entertain people, and we want to get the best actors. It may not necessarily be as funny or original as the first one, but as long as we can entertain the people and there’s a core fan base for it, then I think we’ll be okay. It is frightening though; I’m not going to lie. Whenever someone comes to me with, “Oh, we’re going to redo this,” I’m like, “If it’s bad, casting will be the one that gets blamed!”

Anthony Boyle in 1800s clothes inside staring blankly. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+.

Speaking of remakes, you’re attached to cast a remake of Terms of Endearment which your brother is attached to direct. You have a personal and professional relationship with him. There’s a different level of collaboration, trust and knowing what’s inside his head that makes this remake less daunting, right?

That’s exactly what it is. I feel comfortable working with Lee because I know how he thinks. I know what his sense of humor is. I know the type of actor that he will be attracted to. I know him so well that it’s easy. But for someone I don’t know, you only have a short time to gel with them. It can be a bit intimidating, especially over Zoom. 

With Zoom, it can feel like an awkward first date when you meet these creators, producers and directors. Before, everything was in-person, so you could vibe and feel the energy and get to know them. Thankfully, many people I have worked with are repeat people. I know them, and I’ve met them prior to the pandemic. We know each other on a different level personally, so that’s good for me. Sometimes, with new people I’ve never met, it’s harder to gauge their energy. I’m very big on energy.

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