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Legendary Casting Director John Papsidera Talks ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ and More

Casting Director John Papsidera has had an extraordinary start to 2024. His involvement in the critically acclaimed film Oppenheimer swept the Academy Awards and Ghostbusters: Afterlife opened number one at the box office and quickly became a hit.

Furthermore, Papsidera’s collaboration with Taylor Sheridan on his “Taylorverse” introduced audiences to several new franchise shows last year that he cast, including 1923, Lawman: Bass Reeves and Special Ops: Lioness.

In addition to these successes, Papsidera cast the Apple TV+ miniseries Lessons in Chemistry. The historical drama stars Brie Larson as a chemist who becomes a cooking show host, leveraging her scientific expertise to enlighten her primarily housewife audience on scientific principles.

In an interview with Casting Networks, Papsidera provided insights into the unique challenges of bringing the show to life, and his experience attending the SAG Awards for the first time earlier this year.

Were any actors already attached to the project when you came on board to cast?

Brie was already attached. She was a producer and had worked in developing the piece. Hannah Fidell, the original showrunner, called me and asked, in conjunction with Apple, if I would be interested. Hannah and I got off to a great start. I had seen the show she did with Kate Mara and Nick Robinson, A Teacher, so we talked about that when I first met her. I found out later she is friends with Jason Reitman, who I’m friends with and work with a lot (Author’s note: Papsidera cast the filmmaker’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife and its sequel, Frozen Empire.)

Were there any special requirements for casting this show?

We wanted to capture the time period in the right way to make it as authentic as we could to that world – in which women were second-class citizens in many ways. We needed it to come through authentically rather than cartoony or over the top because the show was also mixing humor with very serious subjects. I knew going in that it would be a mix of comedy and tragic things, but also with a very female-driven point of view. We wanted women to look like women, not just beauty queens. We wanted men to feel like they were from the 50s and represent that in the right way. Those were the biggest things we talked about.

Aja Naomi King and Brie Larson in 50s clothing outside talking to people. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+.

How do you accomplish that in terms of look and voice?

It’s subtle. It’s about vocal style and diction. The English language has been trashed over the years, so it’s very different now how someone speaks – in terms of what they say and how they say it – than it used to be in the 50s. During the audition, we had people with a perfect look but not the perfect tone. Others had the tone but looked too contemporary. We’d go back and ask them to do something with their hair, like pull it back, for instance, to try and fit those pieces together. Because some people can get the tone and presentation, and some need a little adjusting.

Shouldn’t casting directors be able to see past hair and presentation?

Yes, we do see it. That’s why we’re asking actors to make that adjustment. It’s not for us. It’s for executives and producers and directors. I’m working on something now where the person said to me, yeah, ‘He’s a good actor, but in that picture, his hair’s not quite right.’ I was like, you’re going to talk about somebody’s hairdo from a resume standpoint, as opposed to the role we’re talking about? Sometimes you have to help those people see the actors in the light that they are looking for. It’s a reality that we deal with all the time.

With Lessons in Chemistry, what were you looking for in terms of look?

Certainly, there was more softness back then. The look of the 1950s was not rail thin and lip injections, you know what I mean? You have to pay attention to those things. Women had curves, and men didn’t have their teeth perfectly capped or their hair filled in.

Lewis Pullman and Brie Larson in a chemistry lab producing experiments. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+.

But many actors – and in today’s culture – do have lip injections and filled-in hair because we live in a culture where that’s very prevalent right now. It’s also associated with youthfulness – and actors usually want to look as young as long as possible to extend their careers.

At the end of the day, you have to be a human being and do what you want to do as a human. That’s more important than what you do in life for a career to make money. Just be mindful of the fact it is going to inhibit you at times. However, it also depends on the piece you’re working on, and how important it is or isn’t. Not for every character, but if there’s nudity for women (on period projects), you can’t have augmentations because people will be like, ‘That’s not true to the time.’ All those things come into play.

Unfortunately, I think women are subjected to (scrutiny) more. Part of that is the male gaze and that whole mindset. It can be a hard line for actors to do what’s right for their career and what’s right to make themselves look beautiful and youthful and not surgery themselves out of a job.

Let’s talk about how some of the supporting characters were cast.

Stephanie Koenig, who played Fran, I had known her and thought she was a fabulous actress. My associate, Jennifer Cram, who I’ve worked with on and off for 19 years, wrote and directed her own film [Sick Girl], and Stephanie was in it. I produced it, so we knew what Stephanie could do. She’s one of those actresses who got the tone, look, and style all at once. The [showrunners and studio] didn’t even know what she had done. They just were blown away by her audition. We weren’t bound to have a name for every character so we opened the doors and had people read to find the most realistic people that we could set this world.

Aja Naomi King, [who played Harriet Sloan,] was brilliant in her audition. She was such a force. She and Patrick Walker, [who plays Reverend Wakely,] through their performances and auditions, acted their way into elevated writing because the writers started to write towards them, and beefed up that storyline during the process because it wasn’t there initially. The writing was enhanced by their casting.

Kevin Sussman, [who played the cooking show producer Walter Pine], I’ve known for years and always loved his work. I honestly thought on some level, the producers would be drawn to a big name for that role. But Kevin read, they watched his tape, and they said, he’s perfect.

Aja Naomi King in a kitchen wearing 1950s clothing smiling. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+.

Speaking of bigger names, how did Lewis Pullman come aboard as the Brie’s leading man?

He was coming off Top Gun: Maverick. He had other stuff that he was about to go to, but we made the schedule work. I was thrilled because not only does he read incredibly intelligent, but he has a real sense of humor and can do physically comedic stuff. I was thrilled that we got Lewis and I thought he and Brie had an amazing chemistry.

You were invited to attend the SAG awards for the first time in your career this past February because of Oppenheimer, which you cast. The room must have been filled with actors who have auditioned for you over the years. Any memorable encounters?

The SAG Awards were a lovely experience because I got to see so many actors that I don’t get to see on a regular basis because they’ve all become big stars! I congratulated Margot Robbie, and she said, ‘It’s all because of you.’

What did she mean by that?

I was her first meeting when she came to the United States from Australia. I flipped for her. I happened to be doing the remake of Charlie’s Angels, the television series. I immediately got Margot into that, and she tested. The studio was like, “We don’t really see it.” I’m like, “What?” A week later, she was cast in [the short-lived ABC series] Pan Am, and that was her first big project in the States.

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