There are a plethora of heavy-hitting titles from which to choose when introducing the casting work of Wendy O’Brien. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Dave, Sons of Anarchy, and Mayans M.C. are just a few that come to mind. But should you want to get to know the person behind the impressive casting résumé, we’ve got you covered. O’Brien made time to sit down with Casting Networks via Zoom and give insights into everything from how she works — including a window into casting Quinta Brunson’s Abbott Elementary — to what sport she competes in when off the clock.
It’s great to virtually meet you, Wendy, and I’d love to start with the beginning of your career. When was the moment you knew that casting was the job for you?
It happened when I was still at the University of Washington and was interning for a casting director in Seattle named Patti Kalles. I worked with her on a show called Northern Exposure. That was back before everything was online, and we had books of photos for the roles being cast. I remember turning through one book and seeing Russell Johnson, who played the professor on Gilligan’s Island. He was great for a specific role on Northern Exposure, and I was able to help figure that out. I think that was the moment I was hooked on casting.
It sounds like a very clear moment, and now jumping to present day, congrats are in order for your recent Emmy nomination for Abbott Elementary. What can you tell us about the process of assembling the cast for its inaugural season?
It was incredibly fast — the entire process took about three weeks. I think a huge reason behind that was the clear vision that [creator/star] Quinta Brunson had. Everyone, including the studio and the network, was onboard to see it through. There wasn’t any politics or red tape — it was just truly about bringing her vision to light. We didn’t read a ton of people for the roles and quickly established who the right voices were for them. Having an ability with the documentary style of the show was key, which included looking at the camera. It was a matter of finding actors who could keep the comedy grounded and not wink at any of the jokes. Plus, they needed to have a certain realness to them in order to keep that Philadelphia integrity you see in the show. It’s a tribute to Quinta’s mom, whose life inspired the series. So, I think everything just aligned in such beautiful harmony to create this efficient and special experience, especially with the show’s subject matter being so positive and significant at a time when the world felt upside down. Everyone really cared about the whole process, which was lovely, getting to see all the heart behind it.
I appreciate that insight into how it was such an all-around positive experience.
Switching gears, here, it’s time for my favorite question to ask casting. If someone made a series about your life story, which actor would you cast to play the role of Wendy O’Brien?
I guess it would be Laura Dern, only because I get told all the time that I look like her. We were watching Jurassic World Dominion the other night as a family, and my kids pointed it out. They were like, “That’s creepy.” Even my husband looked over at one point and said the resemblance was uncanny. I don’t see it, but I get the comparison frequently. I guess she and I have aged together, though, so I’ve gotten it through all the different stages of my life. But, she is the queen, so …
So, it’s a great comparison! It’s also a very accurate one in my opinion. As soon as you popped up on this Zoom call, Wendy, I literally thought, “Laura Dern.” And before we wrap, I have one last get-to-know you question. When you’re off the clock, how do you recharge?
Covid has actually been very generous in giving us our family time back, and that’s how I spend a lot of my time when I’m not working. I also enjoy rowing and competing in the sport very much. I’m quite a competitive person — if I didn’t have that outlet, no one would want to be around me. [Laughs]
You’re the first casting director I’ve met who’s a rower. How did you get into the sport?
I grew up near St. Catharines in Ontario, Canada, and I believe the city has more rowers per capita than anywhere else in the world. It’s also kind of a misfit sport. For example, it doesn’t require hand-eye coordination like volleyball or basketball. When I played the latter, I was great at rebounding and stealing the ball, but I just couldn’t get it in the net. And the rowing coaches kind of pulled me aside and told me they had a better sport for me. It’s height specific — being tall is good for rowing — and it’s kind of a hybrid sport that requires you to utilize both fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers. Most people’s bodies tend to be dominant in one or the other, but us oddballs that really use both tend to find the sport. So, it just happened to be the perfect fit for me, and I went on to row for the University of Washington. After that, I just stuck with it. I love the sport and still compete all over, including overseas. I guess I’m technically in the “old lady” category now, but we don’t row like old ladies. [Laughs] You activate so many different muscle groups rowing, and it’s low impact. In theory, it’s a sport you can do for your whole life.
From O’Brien’s passion for her work to her passion for competitive rowing, this has been a window into the person behind all the casting credits. Those interested in learning more about the stacked list of TV and film titles on her résumé can find them listed on IMDb.
This interview has been edited and condensed.