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Photo by Rachel O’Meara, courtesy of Suzanne Smith.

Suzanne Smith Talks Casting Michael Douglas-Starring Mini Series ‘Franklin’ and Audition Advice for Period Pieces

London-based casting director Suzanne Smith has had a whirlwind few years, casting for shows such as InvasionOutlanderGood Omens, and Silo, the latter of which just wrapped its second season for Apple TV+.

Now, Smith teams up once again with the streamer for the mini series Franklin, starring Michael Douglas as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. This project also marks a reunion with director and executive producer Timothy Van Patten, with whom she collaborated on the series Band of Brothers and The Pacific, nabbing herself Emmy wins for each.

Franklin is based on Stacy Schiff’s book, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America. The series delves into the true story of Benjamin Franklin’s eight-year mission in France, where he endeavored to persuade the King to support the American Revolutionary War.

In an exclusive interview with Casting Networks, Smith discusses her work on the show, shares insights into casting period pieces and emphasizes the importance of taking ‘little breaths.’

Michael Douglas was already attached to star in the title role. You teamed with French casting director Juliette Ménager and began building the rest of the cast. What was the first order of business?

When I came on board, we didn’t know where we were going to be shooting. They talked about the UK at one point and naturally, it came to be France.

We put together lists of actors: French, English and Brits playing American. From there, you get the main characters and then you start talking about who goes with who.

Noah Jupe (who played Franklin’s grandson Temple) came early on. There was English actor Daniel Mays as (physician and chemist turned double agent) Edward Bancroft, and (French actor) Thibault de Montalembert as (French diplomat) Comte de Vergennes.

Casting is like a rich tapestry. You get one person and then you build out. We had such a great time because it’s such an interesting part of history that not many people know.

Was it a challenging project to work on?

Not really because we loved it so much, so it didn’t seem like a challenge. Some jobs can be a challenge, but this was not because it was fun to do. Everybody was happy to receive our tapes and our thoughts.

We also had discussions with everybody about the characters and it was so interesting. I liked that we got a lot of older women in the show. On the page, at first, it seemed there wasn’t much, but the characteristics became more expanded. It was interesting dynamics in those times in terms of who was a free spirit and who wasn’t.

What were a few of the interesting things you had to take into consideration with certain roles?

The role of Paul Wentworth, a spy (played by British actor Tom Hughes). We wanted an actor who could fit in and not be pointed out by the audience as someone who stood out too much where the audience goes, I’m not so sure about that guy.

Exactly, you don’t want them to be suspicious of him right off the bat.

Also, with Danny Mays’ character, Edward Bancroft, you had to like him even though he ultimately is a duplicitous character. But Bancroft is an intelligent man with a sense of humor and is likable. That’s what Danny is so great at playing – all those layers.

In addition to Franklin, you’ve cast many period pieces including Marie Antoinette, Carnival Row, Outlander and Shadow & Bone among others. What advice do you have for actors auditioning for period projects?

If you’re a woman, less makeup than more. If you put a red lipstick on, it says something. It’s a lot more modern. Also, the way you hold yourself because women wore corsets and guys had breeches.

How proficient do you expect actors to be with accents?

For Franklin, we had French actors who spoke in French and English, so they had to be bilingual.

Noah Jupe is British, but he loves France, so he went for the French accent. In Outlander we have people who are Scottish, so you have to be able to do a Scottish accent for that show.

Brits do play a lot of Americans. I cast Band of Brothers and everybody had to audition with an American accent so we could see if they could do it. Yes, you do get voice coaching for the shoot, but initially, it’s important to show you can do an accent.

Do you get Americans coming to you for auditions in the UK?

There are quite a few American students at our drama schools here and they are allowed to work here for two years after they graduate. It’s very useful for us as casting directors.

What is a misconception that actors have about casting directors?

Sometimes they think we are the gatekeepers and we’re not. My team, we genuinely look at every single audition that we get.

Unless we’re doing a list of A-listers, we put those parts out to every agent and we give notes. If we think that somebody has a wrong steer, we will speak to them and let them do it again.

We always give them the opportunity to call us and say, “I don’t understand this.” Because sometimes when you’re only given scenes, you are not given the full history. Sometimes you don’t know who your character is speaking to.

We try and give as much information as possible that we can. Sometimes you can’t because the project it’s a secret squirrel.

Casting directors have their styles. What kind is yours?

I love putting actors on tape and working with them. I enjoy reading scripts. I’m dyslexic, so it takes me time to write things and I sometimes miss words that I think I’ve written down. I’m quite visual, so that’s my compensation for that perhaps. I picture things and people when reading a script.

Do you have any advice for actors who are auditioning?

We realize that everybody gets nervous. We cast a show last summer called Insomnia (on Paramount+), which hasn’t come out yet. We had actors who were coming in and meeting the director. They were going, ‘Oh my God, I’m meeting with the director, I’m so nervous. I’ve not been in a room for three years because of COVID.’

We recognize that people are nervous so always take time just before you start. If you are already in a room, just take those few little breaths.

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