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Photo by Nicolas Boyer, courtesy of Juliette Ménager.

‘Franklin’ Casting Director Juliette Ménager Talks Working With Suzanne Smith, the Challenges of Finding English-Speaking French Actors

Juliette Ménager, a distinguished French casting director, was tasked with selecting the French actors for the Apple TV+ mini-series Franklin, featuring Michael Douglas as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.

Adapted from Stacy Schiff’s acclaimed book, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America, the historical drama delves into Benjamin Franklin’s eight-year mission in France, where he sought to secure the King’s support for the American Revolutionary War. The series brings to life numerous well-known historical figures.

In an exclusive interview with Casting Networks, Ménager opens up about the challenges of finding English-speaking French actors, her experiences on various U.S. projects, and the critical mistakes actors must avoid when auditioning.

Suzanne Smith, a UK-based casting director, brought you on board for this project. Can you share your experience working with her on Franklin?

I’ve been working with (U.K.) Suzanne Smith for many years. We recently worked together on (2022’s) Marie Antoinette for Canal Plus and the BBC, which is the same period as Franklin. On Franklin, about 85% of the casting was French, so we were looking for great actors who spoke English because the characters speak in dual languages.

For example, Thibault de Montalembert (Comte de Vergenes) starred in a French TV show Call My Agent that was known in America. Assaad Bouab (Beaumarchais) was also on that show. Ludivine Sagnier (Madame Anne-Louise Brillon) is one of the most talented French actresses. She has done many films in English (most recently Napoleon). During that period (late 1700s), people were dying at the age of 40, so we had to cast an ensemble that made sense.

What is your casting process on a show like this?

I’ve been working for American productions most of my professional life. I start with doing my homework: understanding the period and the characters. Then I work on a master list of who is available or not. I send out the sides and the actors come in and we work on the scene.

I have my studio with my lighting. I’m against actors being in costume and makeup (for the audition) because it’s about the character, not the costume. For certain roles on Franklin, we had one or two callbacks, for others, we only did meetings because the actors were considered big names here in France so they did not have to audition.

Were there any particular casting discoveries on Franklin that you’re especially proud of?

Théodore Pellerin, who plays Marquis de Lafayette, is French-Canadian. He worked with Kirsten Dunst on On Becoming a God in Central Florida. I think he and Noah Jupe (who played Franklin’s grandson Temple) will be the next big stars. 

Were there any casting challenges you faced during this project?

The biggest challenge was casting Le Chevalier d’Eon, who went to war as a woman, but when she died, they found out she was a man. The casting brief called for a woman in her 30s, so I started looking for a really good actress because the role was a guest role opposite Michael Douglas.

I brought important French actresses; I brought in theater actors. Men. Then one night I ran into Romain Brau (The Shiny Shrimps), whom I knew. He was younger than the role called for, but it’s about the character, not the age. He ended up getting the role.

There are several well-known French actors in small roles in Franklin. Can you tell us about that?

Maria Dragus, who was in The White Ribbon, pays Marie Antoinette in Franklin (two episodes). In France, you can do that. In America, it’s very expensive to have a big name for a cameo and the challenge with Franklin was the budget constraints we were working under.

You have worked on numerous American projects as the go-to for French casting. What a great niche to have! Can you share some of that work?

I cast Emily in Paris, including Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu, who plays Sylvie, the antagonist. The role was written for a 35-year-old, but Philippine was 55. I had to discuss it with (showrunner) Darren Star, and he changed everything and today it’s one of the successes of the show. 

Francine Maisler called me to do it (2006’s) Babel – I did all the Moroccan casting. I worked with Oliver Stone on (2004’s) Alexander with (casting directors) Billy Hopkins and Lucinda Syson. I did [the 2022-2023 scripted Julia Child TV series] Julia because the show came to Paris. I did Sex and the City when they came to Paris.

Any other big wins in your career?

I found Eva Green and Louis Garrel for (2003’s) The Dreamers. They’d barely done anything prior. I worked with Spike Lee when (casting director) Kim Coleman brought me in for Da 5 Bloods and I cast Jean Reno and Mélanie Thierry. Spike Lee flew in from New York. He spent the day with me and he saw the auditions.  

Mélanie is 35 but I’ve known her since she was 16. Here in France, the pool of actors is very small compared to America. France has a big film industry but a small pool of actors and an even smaller pool who speak English.

I’m working on a new show from Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino called Etoile [starring Luke Kirby and Charlotte Gainsbourg]. I’m working with [casting director] Cindy Tolan and I cast someone who has not yet broken through to an American audience, Lou de Laâge. She is going to be amazing! 

When actors come into a studio to audition for you, what can they expect?

My job is to lead the actor (in such a way) where they can open themselves up to be their best. I usually let them do one pass because sometimes they have a creative idea (for the character) and I want to let them have that.

I do believe that less is more. Also, if an actor doesn’t know their lines, they are never allowed to come back to see me!

What would you want actors to know about casting directors?

They need to understand that when they are in the room, it’s as important for us that they get the part as it is for them because we need to move on. We need them to succeed. We have no time to lose!

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