“We wanted actors who had great faces, we couldn’t have actors who looked like they were so contemporary. There’s hair and makeup but to that point we wanted to feel like they had an authenticity, that they felt like they were part of that era.” – Casting Director Kim Coleman
The seven-episode miniseries The Good Lord Bird, produced and starring Ethan Hawke, is based on the 2013 historical fiction novel about abolitionist leader John Brown and is a wild ride through the pre-Civil War frontier of the United States. Casting Society of America Award winner Kim Coleman served as the casting director for the limited series. Speaking with Awards Daily, Coleman spoke about casting the series and how the period setting made it more challenging to cast.
Because the miniseries is set in the late 1850s, one challenge that Coleman had was to make sure she cast actors who could look like they lived during that era. Coleman explains, “We wanted to make sure we had actors who had that skill level but we had to make sure that it was the right actor. We wanted actors who had great faces, we couldn’t have actors who looked like they were so contemporary. There’s hair and makeup but to that point we wanted to feel like they had an authenticity, that they felt like they were part of that era. That was a very important part of who we cast in all of the roles.”
The film’s cast includes many actors that Hawke had worked with before, including Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood) and Hawke’s daughter, Maya Hawke. Coleman says that was by design, noting, “It was essential that the actors be collaborative. By bringing in people he had worked with before, he knew how they worked and they knew how he worked. It was a more comfortable fit, and my job was to add on to that with the multiple other cast members who fit right into that groove.”
One actor that Hawke hadn’t worked with is child actor Joshua Caleb Johnson, who plays Henry ‘Onion’ Shackleford, a young slave who serves as the point-of-view character for the series. Coleman explains that casting Onion was a particular challenge, but Johnson was always her first choice from early in the process:
“Initially we did a massive search, we saw so many great kids, but when Joshua walked into the room and I auditioned him, he had this sparkle in his eye. He’s a young actor, but he was willing to put in the time. He was smart, he had the humor, he had the knowledge, he wanted to learn more. He was one of the first kids that I auditioned and there was just something very special about him. He was funny and I think he had the qualities. I said to my team, ‘This kid is special. I think it’s worth him meeting with Ethan.’ Ethan met with him and we talked to him, he talked about the book, we talked to his parents, and he was just willing to put in the work and he did a fantastic job. I wanted to make sure that this role of this kid, who is a boy dressed like a girl, that we did this the right way. At the end of the day, it worked on so many levels. He was always that young boy. I thought he did a really great job with his portrayal. Ethan took him under his wing and really worked with him and he really listened. That’s one thing about a young actor, he really listened to Ethan and Ethan was guiding him all the way.”