Finding Orange Actors: Casting Director Jennifer Euston on “Orange Is The New Black”
BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor
“I’m busy working; I keep my nose to the grindstone,” said Euston. “When award season comes around, I’m always shocked to get that call.”
Since 2010, Euston has received four Emmy nominations; two that resulted in wins (2010’s “The Pacific”, 2012’s “Girls”). This year marks her fifth nomination for her efforts behind the Netflix hit comedy “Orange is the New Black.” Now in its second season, actors are eager to jump into the mix of the female-centric cast. When Euston began the job, however, Netflix had yet to release “House of Cards,” its first successful foray into content creation.
“Actors get hesitant. For example, in casting ‘Girls’ people knew HBO, they knew the brand and its quality,” said Euston. “If ‘House’ had been out it would have been a lot easier.”
Euston had been casting webisodes in 2004 when that medium first emerged and was familiar with handling actors stepping into a new arena. One of her greatest concerns was casting actors for supporting roles who could blossom into developed characters despite having little if no personality exposed in their earliest scenes.
“You know all the characters involved (from the start) but most had few lines. For example, the Taystee character had no lines in the pilot; all she does is sing in the shower,” said Euston. “There was no other character development there.”
Euston chose not to read the book and based all character notes off creator/director Jenji Kohan’s character concepts. Aiming to provide Kohan with a few options for each character, Euston began searching for actors that had a natural sense of comedy. With all actors she casts for any part, she speaks with them before and after their auditions to get a feel for their personalities. If she doesn’t cast them for the role at hand, she’ll call upon them for a more appropriate part. Several actors cast in “Orange” were women she’d previously auditioned, as well as those whose careers she’s been following. Most of the inmates she cast with theater actors, or actors who have had consistently busy careers, without the bulk of the public being fully aware of their names, as in her first choice for Russian inmate/cook “Red.”
“Growing up I loved actors. My mom would watch “Ryan’s Hope’ every day, and I remember loving Kate Mulgrew,” said Euston. “I knew she’d be great for the part.”
It is not unusual for a director to have specific actors attached to lead roles. In the case of “Orange” Kohan had a few actors she worked with on her previous series, “Weeds”, for specific roles: Michael Harney as Sam Healy and Pablo Schreiber as George “Pornstache” Mendez. To cast leads Piper and Larry, Euston did do some online research to get a flavor of the real personalities behind the public figures. She wanted to understand the essence of their personalities and wasn’t concerned with finding physical matches to the real public figures. Her early choice for Piper, Taylor Schilling, was an actor she chased across the country until their paths connected.
With all casting choices in “Orange is the New Black” Euston worked to find actors with authentic beauty that fits slightly outside the Hollywood norm.
“I am not looking for cookie-cutter, I want the actors to look like real people,” said Euston. “I want the focus to be on story and writing. I love faces with character and life. Conventional pretty doesn’t do it for me. It takes you out of the believability of what you are watching.”
Finding a balance of ethnicities who represent the inmates at Litchfield Prison hasn’t proved challenging, there are a plethora of women from all ethnicities and backgrounds performing on the stage and screen. Finding specific traits, such as actors who could speak with an authentic German accent for one of the cultural backstories, proved much trickier.
Euston credits a close collaboration with Kohan for having a great vision for both the story and casting. Kohan often would see an actor she wouldn’t like for a specific part, but would have another character in mind for them further into the season. She also gives credit to Netflix for allowing Kohen and all department heads to create the best world for the series.
“They give us the freedom to do this, its creatively satisfying,” said Euston. “The shows on networks like HBO and Netflix are successful because they trust the filmmaker’s vision, instead of casting by community.”
While Euston is proud to have the recognition of her peers for a job well done, she see the nominations given to many of the other departments involved with the creation of “Orange is the New Black” as a validation that everyone’s efforts have resulted in creative excellence. She is particularly enthusiastic about the numerous actors who received nominations this year.
“I am so much more proud of their nominations. They all deserve them, they work very hard,” said Euston. “It is proof of the collaborative effort, that the right people are in the roles. I am so proud of them.”
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