“There were never any other names we considered,” says Tim Minear as he and producers behind four other Emmy-nominated limited series reveal how they landed the right stars for the story.
Earning a limited series Emmy nomination this past season was no easy feat. It helped to have a pair of battling brothers who make Cain and Abel seem like the Hemsworth boys. Two doyennes of the silver screen also came in handy, as did a bunch of well-to-do liars, some theoretical physicists and a group of complex convicts.
But to make those characters leap off the screen, it took a boatload of exceptional acting performances, the kind that garnered Emmy nominations of their own. The five limited series nominees — Fargo, Feud, Big Little Lies, Genius and The Night Of — earned nearly all of the limited series/TV movie acting noms this year, including for all of their leads.
The showrunners certainly appreciate this embarrassment of riches. Fargo‘s Noah Hawley jokes of his stellar cast this season, which included nominees Ewan McGregor (a BAFTA winner and Golden Globe nominee) and acclaimed breakout Carrie Coon, “We’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel, aren’t we?”
Adds Feud executive producer Tim Minear: “Our cast was the gift that kept on giving. We all had to realize what a rare opportunity we were getting.” The FX drama, starring Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford, clinched six acting noms alone — two for the leads and four for supporting players Stanley Tucci, Judy Davis, Alfred Molina and Jackie Hoffman.
“We knew we wanted Jessica because we have many years of experience with her, courtesy of American Horror Story, but if [creator] Ryan Murphy couldn’t get Susan, we may not ever have done Feud,” says Minear. “There were never any other names we considered. Was it fate that brought them to us for this? I do know that if you took one of them out, it wouldn’t be what it was.”
Murphy had recruited his central stars even before he had a script to show them. In fact, the other nominated actors in the series also signed on even as Murphy, Minear and the writing staff were piecing the story together. A useful side effect was that Sarandon and Lange had a lot of time to immerse themselves in Davis and Crawford. “They 100 percent took these parts very personally,” says Minear.
The result? During a particularly long, talky scene in the third episode, in which Davis and Crawford are having a drink together and Crawford casually talks about losing her virginity to her stepfather at age 12, the producer stopped seeing the actresses. “It really was Bette and Joan; it felt like an intimate moment that was happening in front of us. It was one of a million moments where they could both say something just with their eyes.”
Genius executive producer Ken Biller had a much different experience on National Geographic’s Albert Einstein biographical series, in that he had to start the project picturing anyone but his Emmy-nominated star, Geoffrey Rush, in the lead role. Along with fellow EPs Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, Biller wanted Rush to star as the older version of Einstein, but the actor turned the part down.
“He’d seemed so interested at first,” says Biller. “We looked into it and discovered Geoffrey was technically available, but being such a perfectionist and taking on an iconic personality like this, he felt he wouldn’t have enough time to prepare in the way he wanted. Ron was going to direct that first episode, and he was also on a tight schedule, but then we thought, if we could rearrange the schedule and shoot the younger Einstein scenes with actor Johnny Flynn first, that would give Geoffrey a month or so to get ready to go.”
The rejiggered schedule didn’t leave much time to shoot the limited series, but it did afford Rush the chance to meticulously work through his personal process for becoming, rather than just impersonating, the physicist. Biller is still in awe of how his star would present him with all kinds of suggestions, right down to the type of pipe Einstein would smoke or what watch he would wear. Every step of the way, he says, “it was impressive how genuinely collaborative Geoffrey was. He wanted us to discover together what the best choices for the character were.”
McGregor pulled off a slightly different disappearing act, becoming not one but two characters — brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy — in FX’s Fargo. Hawley hadn’t written his first script with McGregor in mind, but after an initial phone call to suss out the actor’s interest, he became the only person Hawley went after, especially because of one particularly hairy situation he was grappling with early on.
“When I heard Ewan was willing to shave his head, it made all the difference,” says Hawley. “He was going to have to make a physical transformation to play two different people, so that gave us leeway for the look of both. Ray would be balding, and we could create a wig for Emmit. That suggested neither brother looked like the other, and he liked that.”
Fargo‘s other Emmy-nominated actors — Coon and David Thewlis — may not have undergone drastic physical transformations, but their characters did experience unique and challenging developments. Coon’s Minnesotan police chief, Gloria Burgle, took what Hawley says was “a weird, existential romp” in Los Angeles in the third episode. Meanwhile, Thewlis was a villain who suffered from bulimia, among other idiosyncratic characteristics.
“It’s rare for any movie to offer that much of a range for any actor to play,” explains Hawley. “Actors often call me six months or a year after being on the show to say they felt spoiled on Fargo. It’s hard to go back to just being the usual hero or villain.”
HBO’s Big Little Lies was a bit reverse-engineered, in the sense that its Emmy-nominated stars, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, first acquired the rights to Liane Moriarty’s best-selling novel and boarded as producers. They then engaged David E. Kelley to come on as writer-showrunner and Jean-Marc Vallee as director.
Once Kelley started, he was immediately struck by the “honesty and intelligence” his leads were bringing to their roles as seemingly happy housewives who harbor some dark secrets. Along with fellow nominees Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Alexander Skarsgard, Kidman and Witherspoon “did their own research … this was a very professional and committed ensemble, which set a high bar for everyone.”
The end result, according to Kelley, was a display of “utter humanity” that each character projected, including Skarsgard’s abusive husband, Perry. “The monster that Perry was, Alex still made him human and vulnerable. He managed to evoke sympathy,” says Kelley. “I even felt a little bad for him when Celeste [Kidman] smashed his urethra. I got over it.”
HBO’s other Emmy-nominated limited series, The Night Of, didn’t have as assured a start as Lies. A pilot actually had been shot in 2012 featuring the late James Gandolfini in a lead role. After the actor’s death from a sudden heart attack in 2013, it took several years for co-showrunner Steven Zaillian to revive and recast the eight-episode series.
After seeing the original pilot, Emmy nominee John Turturro signed on to play Gandolfini’s role of John Stone, an attorney working with a young Muslim man, Naz (Riz Ahmed, also nominated), sent to prison on Rikers Island in New York. Ahmed didn’t come on board until very late in preproduction and had only read the first script when shooting started. All of this uncertainty might explain why Zaillian was a bit nervous about how The Night Of was going to play out, until he saw Turturro, Ahmed and the series’ two other nominees, Bill Camp and Michael Kenneth Williams, working together.
“It isn’t until you see the characters with each other that you know if the choices in casting, in terms of chemistry, were right,” says Zaillian. “Since we shot in sequence, those scenes when Detective Box [Camp] first questions Naz in the interview room, when Stone first talks to Naz in the precinct holding cell, and when Freddy [Williams], in his Rikers cell, compares Naz to a baby lamb in a dark crate — I was very pleased as we were shooting those scenes to see who Naz was to each of them and who they were to him. All of the cast brought the things to their parts that all great actors do — skill, dedication, themselves, who they are as people and their life experiences. The writing was right for them, and they were right for the writing.”
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.