For this installment of Get to Know the Casting Director, we’re featuring one half of the casting duo behind the hit CBS series Ghosts, which recently got renewed for a second season. Elizabeth Barnes has a number of other impressive titles on her résumé, from cutting her teeth on HBO’s The Comeback to casting series such as ABC’s Revenge and Netflix’s GLOW. We virtually sat down with the casting director for a window into the person behind all the credits, including the journey that took her from Taiwan to Hollywood.
It’s great to virtually meet you, Elizabeth, and I’d love to kick things off with your route to casting. From Taipei to Arkansas to Los Angeles, can you share how you ended up in the profession?
I did not watch a lot of TV or movies growing up in Taipei. The storytelling medium in my family was mostly either books or Bible stories at church — we were very religious. I had a lot of catching up to do later in life because I basically missed the ‘80s and ‘90s, as far as TV and film. My relatives are from Arkansas, and when my family moved there from Taiwan, I got to audition for a high school play for the first time. That was it for me. I fell in love with theater and ended up getting a degree in it after a focused study on directing, acting, play analysis, and costume design in college. The education still informs my work, including the latter component, since I really see casting as a design element of the finished piece.
That’s a fascinating way to look at it!
Thanks. Then I got married very young in college and moved to LA after graduation with my husband, Brandon Keener, who’s an actor. I also briefly pursued acting out here — for like five minutes — before I realized it was not for me. I didn’t have the psychological makeup to audition every day or week of my life. I really wanted to still be a part of storytelling, though, but on the other side of the camera. So, I eventually got a job working for Meg Liberman and Cami Patton, which turned out to be one of the best gifts I could have received. Their office felt like a family, and I met some of my best friends working there. I got to know Jen Euston, for example, and she’s since brought me in as a collaborator on some of my favorite projects like GLOW and American Princess. Meg and Cami have both been mentors to me over the years, and I learned from them how to assemble a team of people that work well together who also possess different strengths and interests. Meg always referred to it as “casting the office.”
I haven’t previously heard that expression.
People on the team should complement each other and essentially form a nice little ensemble. I learned so much from Meg and Cami — I couldn’t have asked for a better start in casting — and that’s just one example of a takeaway gleaned from them that I use to this day. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some great people as a result. Some have gone on to other offices and I’m still actively working with others, but we’ve all remained friends.
It’s lovely to hear how tightknit a casting office can be. Now switching gears, it’s time for one of my favorite questions. If someone made a film about your life, which actor would you cast to play the role of Elizabeth Barnes?
That’s a tough question, but one of the most inspiring movies I’ve seen lately is top of mind and helping inform my response. Thanks to The Lost Daughter, I’d want to be played by Olivia Colman for present-day scenes and Jessie Buckley for flashbacks. If they weren’t available, Maggie Gyllenhaal could just play me across the board! Or, I could ask Rebecca Wisocky. Anyone who works with me will tell you that I share a lot of qualities with her Ghosts character Hetty, so I think that would be an appropriate casting.
Speaking of Ghosts, congrats on all of the show’s success and its renewal for season two! What can you tell us about the process of assembling its ensemble cast?
One of my favorite things about looking back on a project is the casting seems inevitable at that point, like it was the actors’ destinies to play those roles — you can’t imagine anyone else in them. But of course, that’s not the case at the beginning of the process when you have no idea where things will end up. When [fellow Ghosts casting director] Tannis [Vallely] and I were originally reading the script, we would pitch actors for the various roles to each other, and there are in fact a couple of cast members from our original brainstorm lists. Every actor on the show earned their role through the audition process, though. You can never really predict how casting will unfold, and I think it’s important as a casting director to have some humility and be present for the journey. You need to be open to meeting new people and seeing actors in a new light, allowing them to do the work and surprise you.
I’m sure our actor readers will appreciate that approach to casting.
I’ll add that the process of finding our cast for Ghosts reflects how it goes with most broadcast series, in that it was very much a collaboration. I’m not only speaking of the wonderful Joe Port and Joe Wiseman, who took the original BBC Ghosts and then wrote our show. We also were working with Lionsgate and the BBC, along with having our CBS casting partners in both LA and New York. So, there was really this piece-by-piece process and overall team effort that resulted in our cast for Ghosts.
It certainly paid off, and before we wrap, I’d love to hear the types of stories you’re passionate about telling with your work in general.
In the past, I never really put my finger on what made me respond to material or not — it took me a while to really articulate the determining factor. I finally discerned that the stories with which I most connect are those that have kindness at their core. They may not end happily, but they’re thoughtful and bring people together in a certain way. I’ve also always gravitated toward female protagonists, which started with my book selections as a child. Plus, I believe that stories have the power to promote empathy by allowing us to see the world through another person’s eyes. I’m definitely attracted to projects that help me do that, and I love good, fun writing. I may hear one scene from a script played out hundreds of times throughout the process of casting something, so the desire to dwell in the material for a while also factors into which projects I do.
Those interested in learning more about Barnes can check out the bio section of her website. The casting director and avid reader can also be found as @imisspluto on Twitter, where a link to her list of top books also resides.
This interview has been edited and condensed.