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Photo Credit: Deanna Baldwin Boyd, courtesy of Sherry Thomas.

Sherry Thomas on How Casting Directors Also Have to Audition for the Job, Casting Apple TV+’s ‘Sugar’

Sherry Thomas, one-half of the dynamic casting duo behind Bialy/Thomas & Associates, is synonymous with some of television’s most culturally relevant shows. Collaborating with Sharon Bialy, she has shaped the casting landscapes of iconic programs such as Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, The Walking Dead, The Handmaid’s Tale, Barry and Dead to Me.

In an exclusive interview with Casting Networks, Sherry Thomas shares her invaluable insights into the casting process behind the Apple TV+ series, Sugar. This streaming show stars Collin Farrell as private investigator John Sugar, who is drawn into a labyrinthine mystery surrounding the disappearance of a Hollywood movie producer’s troubled granddaughter.

You previously collaborated with Sugar producers Audrey and Simon Kinberg on the Apple TV+ series Invasion and the recent Twilight Zone on Paramount+. That must have been rewarding to join them for a third project.

Yes, we have a relationship with them, but you still have to connect and develop a relationship with the creator (in this case, Mark Protosevich). We still had an audition to get the job. I don’t think people realize that casting directors have to audition for the job!

What was that audition like?

I am from Massachusetts, and my dad was declining in his health, I was going back to Massachusetts every four to six weeks while working on this show. I remember sitting on my parents’ back patio with a rigged desk with my computer, trying to find a quiet place with good internet outside to meet on this project. We talked about aesthetics but mostly about what our process of casting looks like.

People may meet with us based on our bodies of work, but also, they want to make sure that it’s a good fit all the way around. And to make sure we’re not crazy people!

One look at your IMDb and all the award-winning and culturally iconic shows listed, why wouldn’t they choose you to cast Sugar?

Thank you for that. Sharon Bialy and I have been business partners and best friends for 25-plus years, and we don’t take anything for granted – ever. We go after a job or an opportunity today the same way we would have 25 years ago. It’s who we are as people.

There are a lot of amazing casting directors out there. A lot of them are our friends and colleagues We don’t take for granted the good fortune that has been presented to us and we continue to try and maintain the high standards we have.

Let’s talk about these high standards when it came to casting Sugar. With Colin Farrell already attached to the project, how did you go about selecting the supporting cast? Did you focus on filling the roles in Sugar‘s immediate circle or prioritize casting the family of the missing girl?

Every project is different. On this one, I have a relationship with Kirby (from casting her in Barry) and when I read the script, I knew in my head, the part of Ruby (Sugar’s handler) was perfect for Kirby. I wanted audiences to see something that Kirby had not been previously allowed to do and shine a light on her. She auditioned and then there was a callback. Her materials, along with that audition, were shared with Colin. Everybody was inspired and knew that she was also right for Ruby.

Your process highlights the significance of nurturing long-term relationships with actors, a facet that self tapes alone can’t fully capture. Were there any other instances on this show where you cast actors based on established connections or intuitive instincts?

Nate Corddry was in one of the first batch of auditions (to play David Siegel, a B-movie actor and half-brother to the missing girl). I kind of envisioned him for this in my head, even though at the time, we hadn’t yet cast his movie-producing dad (Dennis Boutsikaris) or his movie mogul grandfather (James Cromwell). I knew that Nate would be able to toe the line between comedy and drama beautifully. One of his many skills is that he finds comedy where there might not be any. His take is always just a little bit different. That’s inspiring to me.

Did you work with him previously?

We’ve been reading Nate Corddry for years. He’s a fantastic, beautiful character actor who can fit into many different genres and many different tones. You can’t learn that about someone just by watching self tapes or seeing them on film. It exists in a vacuum so it’s easy to automatically say, oh, this person’s not quite right. There is an art to cultivating relationships, to learning about an actor and who they are as people, in addition to their craft.

Were there any actors you’ve long admired that you were thrilled to finally cast in a role for Sugar?

I had been obsessed with Amy Ryan for many, many years. Like, I just wouldn’t shut up about it. We had many discussions (about her playing Melanie Matthews, the missing girl’s mother) and we were figuring out her availability.

Once we got the process started, we sent the materials to the producers and they talked to Colin. Then we all talked together, and then it was like, “Let’s go for it!” She had a meeting with Mark Protosevich to make sure they were on the same page about what it would look like. When that deal closed, I was teary. You have these dreams of casting certain people in your project. I got Amy Ryan!

How significant are your relationships with agents in the casting process?

Jon Beavers, who played the homeless man – I’m very close with his agent, who years ago told me I should meet with him. I did and he was so interesting.

When you have young kids, you watch certain shows, and Jon was on a very famous kids show for a long time called The Fresh Beat Band (on Nickelodeon). On that kid’s show, he was everything you’d imagine him to be. I kept bringing him in for different things. For example, he did a tiny, tiny role opposite Jada Pinket Smith in the pilot for Gotham back in 2014. 

For Sugar, I called his agent and said, “Look, on the page, it is not going to look like much, but I know what this is going to be. And it’s all with Colin.”

Jon is the kind of actor who trusts, and we developed a relationship over the years, so he trusted me. He was like, “Whatever it is, I’ll do it. I trust you.” The part turned into what I think is a very meaningful part of the whole story and shows us who Jon Sugar turns out to be. 

What is the importance of an actor seeing the potential in small roles?

On the page, an actor at that level maybe would’ve said, “There’s not a lot to do there.” It takes the art of conversation with the agent, and the trust of an actor who elevates the role, and not just looks at it and says, “It’s just a couple of lines, no thanks.” It’s about making a moment out of it. 

Why was it crucial to cast the right actress for the character of Olivia, the missing girl who is seen only through her social media feed and videos?

It was important to find an actress that when that camera is on her face (via shots of her Instagram), the audience thinks, ‘They have to find her!’ It’s in the eyes at that point. It’s an essence. The foundation that I try to come from is when the soul of the actor meets the soul of the character. The rest can be modulated from there. 

How did you end up casting Sydney Chandler for that role?

Rebecca Mangieri is a wonderful casting director who joined us on this particular project. She had just watched the limited series Pistol that Sydney starred in (portraying singer Chrissie Hynde). I wasn’t as familiar with her, but the second Sydney came in, I was like, ‘That is her!’

What casting projects have been particularly significant in your career?

Breaking Bad is very, very special to us. It shifted the paradigm for us and brought some wonderful opportunities. I had a showrunner tell us he saw Breaking Bad and thought, “What a great cast!” Then when he saw our names on The Walking Dead, he realized casting was a craft, not luck. 

You’ve also done comedy such as The Righteous Gemstones and I Love That for You.  Was it a challenge to transition from casting dark and gritty shows to comedy projects?

Working with Danny McBride on (2016’s) Vice Principals was a huge thing for me because I started in comedy as a casting assistant and loved it. I always wanted to get back there.

Breaking Bad brought us into a world of very real, gritty, raw casting. A lot of dark things. We couldn’t even get a meeting on a comedy.

I saw Eastbound & Down and I was like, “I’ve got to work with this guy.” It blew me away. I just had a baby. I didn’t even know what I was doing, but I was laughing so hard with this three-week-old baby, watching the show going, “I feel joy!”

How did you manage to cast McBride’s Vice Principals (and later his Gemstones)?

I heard that Danny was doing a new show, and I made the right phone calls and I said, “I don’t know if he uses anybody regularly, but if he’s going to be meeting with people, we would love to throw our hat in the ring.”

I knew an actress who knew him, and I reached out to her and said, “Let me know if you think it’s a good fit.” She was like, “You’d be perfect for him.”

I think I prepped for three weeks for that meeting. I was so nervous walking in! I didn’t know a thing about him as a person, or what his taste was. I only knew what I saw on TV. My palms were sweating. I was a little giddy and said to myself, “If we get this, it’s a miracle.”

And you did get it!

That’s what opened the comedy door for us. Casting directors want to grow as an artist like anybody else.

Do you get sad when shows end, like with the recent finale of Barry?

It’s hard and it’s sad. I miss having Bill Hader in my life on so many levels. He and I worked together in such an interesting way that I loved it and I miss it. I miss his talent his vision and his enthusiasm for making film and TV. There is sadness there.

How did the pandemic affect the casting process, especially in terms of professional development within the industry?

What we lost during that time is the trajectory of casting assistants becoming casting associates, casting associates becoming casting directors and the next generation of casting directors learning the craft by listening to their superiors on the phone, listening to them in the room as they give direction to actors and watching them cultivate relationships with actors over time.

How does that get rectified?

I think it’s a choice, quite frankly. Sharon and I have always believed in mentoring our staff. A lot of casting offices do not grow with their staff. They have them for as long as that is beneficial to both. Sometimes the assistant or associate may want to grow and there might not be room for them to grow, so they go elsewhere, which is okay.

Everybody has a different path. Russell Scott and Gohar Gazazyan are full-time casting directors in our office.

Gohar started with us as an assistant, and Russell started as an associate, so we have four casting directors at Bialy/Thomas. The partnership within Bialy/Thomas isn’t always between Sharon and I. I cast Dead to Me and No Good Deed with Russell.

Our associates, we have three of them: Stacia Kimler, Alyssa Morris and Katey Rampey. Stacia been with us 12 years, Alyssa’s been with us 10 and Katie’s going on eight or nine. We nurture that. 

In what way?

You have to be able to give up control a little bit. Casting is your taste and your aesthetic, but it’s like raising a child. You have to give them independence and say, “I want you to cast these two roles. Go through the breakdown, talk to the agents, read the pitches and set up the people that you feel are the best. Make a list. Take some chances; be creative. Do the first pass watching the auditions and then we’ll go in.”

That’s how they’re going to learn. You have to teach them, just like somebody taught me.

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