The FX series Baskets is certainly one of the more unique new shows on television. Zach Galifianakis portrays a man who flunked out of a prestigious French clown college and is now trying to continue his dream of being a clown by performing in a rodeo in his hometown of Bakersfield. With such a unique concept, casting director Dorian Frankel faced challenges in finding the right actors for the series. However, she calls the series one of his favorites to cast because it involved working with so many unknown actors. In the “Asking a Casting Director” feature on Observer.com, Frankel talks about developing the cast of the series and why authenticity was more important than a well-known actor.
Frankel reveals that his favorite part of casting is finding people to fill the weird and unique supporting or minor roles for a show like Baskets. She explains, “This is the aspect of casting that I enjoy the most. I had conversations with Jonathan Krisel about the world he was envisioning – I assume the vision came from the three of them [Baskets creators Louis C.K., Galifianakis, and Krisel], but he was the one I talked to on a day-to-day basis. I’ve worked with him before and I felt like I had a feel for the sensibility he described. After that, the process is very intuitive. We didn’t have any pressure to cast names or anyone recognizable – quite the opposite. So we were able to read anyone who felt like they fit in the world, and so many people were just remarkably wonderful. We (myself, my partner Sibby Kirchgessner and our amazing associate Marlise Gunzenhauser) read actors on tape and sent the best choices – there was no callback process in front of the director. Everything was cast from tape. Our aim was to send a variety of excellent options, and Jonathan would make the final choice. There was one role (Kevin, Martha’s boss at Costco) for which we loved so many people that we simply couldn’t narrow it down as much as usual. That’s the beauty of great material – actors just bring so much to the audition, they enjoy it so much, which makes them bring their best. We’re looking for believability in an odd world. If the characters feel 100% authentic even if they’re doing or saying something strange, that helps create a world that feels recognizable, even if it’s absurd.”
Part of the reason why Frankel enjoys that aspect of casting is because she was able to cast unknowns. She continues, “As I mentioned, we didn’t have any pressure to hire known actors. It’s incredibly freeing not to have to worry about anything but who feels most right, most wonderful, most interesting. We started the pilot audition process before there was a script – we had some character ideas and a few simple scenarios, and we had actors come in and improvise. We had people speaking other languages, we had people doing performance art. It was a blast. And from the beginning we knew it was a special world we were helping to create and we wanted to bring the utmost care to that process.”
Unlike a film, casting for a television series is an ongoing process — new actors are needed for roles in every episode, and its important to ensure that those actors fit in the “world” of the show. She explains, “I feel like the day to day, week to week work of auditioning guest cast is the bulk of what I do. Pilots are different – you’re building something for longevity. But that’s a one-time thing. After that, you’re filling in the world. Or, rather, continuing to build the world. That’s the ongoing assignment. And I have to say I don’t think of this as a show with so few speaking parts. I think we hired 84 actors over 10 episodes, so that kept us busy…Were there any interesting requirements for any of the roles? For instance, did you need to go out and find an actual clown for the French university professor in the pilot? We were less concerned with things like that, for the most part, as long as they could do what the role required. A great sense of physicality, rather than specific clowning knowledge, for instance. We did have stunt people and real rodeo guys read for a couple of roles where that was important. Mostly, we were just looking to fall in love with people as these characters.”
One of the rewards of being a casting director is hearing the positive feedback from the actors she casts on shows. She says, “I think the most remarkable part of this experience has been hearing from so many people we cast that it was one of the best, if not the absolute best, working experience of their careers. They had such wonderful things to say about Zach Galifianakis and Jonathan Krisel, and I think that’s because they felt respected, felt that they were given the opportunity to be co-creators, participants rather than puppets. When people tell you they like what you’re doing, when they let you try things, encourage it in fact, you’re going to bring a higher level of commitment and boldness. I think, I hope, that’s what happened on this show.”