“It’s really just paying attention to the material and doing it justice and being truthful in that way. There’s no trick. That is the trick.” – Alexa Fogel
If you watched Black Bird, the excellent new limited series on Apple+, then you no doubt noticed the terrific cast that populated the show. If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, the show stars Taron Egerton, as a prison inmate who’s just been told that if can get a confession from a suspected serial killer (Paul Walter Hauser), he can walk out of jail a free man. The series also stars the late Ray Liotta, Sepideh Moafi, Greg Kinnear, and host of other fine actors and that’s thanks to casting director Alexa Fogel.
For years, Fogel has been responsible for casting some of the best — and most talked about — films and television shows. The Wire, Oz, Ozark, The Prom and Judas and the Black Messiah are just a few on her long resume.
In this interview, she talks about casting Black Bird, casting smaller roles and what makes a good audition. These are edited excerpts from that conversation. For the full interview, check out the video below or watch it on YouTube.
You’ve done so many incredible shows and films. How do these great projects find their way to you?
Alexa Fogel: I think that casting is a repeat business. Once you have a good working relationship with people or directors or producers or writers, that tends to continue. So, the David Simon crew goes back for me to The Wire and all the stuff we’ve done. And Dennis Lehane came out of that. We knew each other a bit because of those group of novelists who are now writing television. But I think occasionally something will just come up because people have seen things and are interested. But I find that it’s kind of a circular business in that way.
Did Dennis Lehane call, like email you or something and said, “Hey, I got this project?”
Alexa Fogel: Yeah, I think so. Something like that.
That makes things easy.
Alexa Fogel: It makes things easy. [laughter]I loved working with Dennis. He’s just perfectly my kind of showrunner, writer, producer.
Does he and David Simon have a lot of things in common? Because obviously you have worked with him a bunch of times too.
Alexa Fogel: Well, it’s just the quality of the writing and the development of character and it’s a kind of attention to detail and storytelling that goes pretty deep, and that makes my job more interesting and, in some ways, easier because you are tackling complex relationships and characters.
When you say, yes, I’m going to do this, are any of the actors already attached to it or do you start making lists immediately?
Alexa Fogel: Every project is different. In this case, Taron was attached to Black Bird. So that happened before I came on. There are a lot of really wonderful producers on this project who I had worked with previously on HBO projects. So that also is incredibly helpful when you’re working with people who are really knowledgeable about how to make good television.
For each role, do you make a list of how many people you’re interested in?
Alexa Fogel: It depends on what the role is. Sometimes you’re making lists and showing the body of work such as this to the creative decision makers, and sometimes you’re doing auditions. Greg Kinnear came out of a list, Sepideh Moafi auditioned.
What about Paul?
Alexa Fogel: Paul, everybody had been talking about for some time and we did one kind of work session with him.
He’s always fantastic and just blew me away here. When you first talked with him and he came in, did he have that character pretty much fully formed?
Alexa Fogel: You know, nothing is fully formed until you start rehearsing and you get going. But he is a meticulous preparer. He does an enormous amount of research. Every actor is different, but you need to get yourself to the place where you’re comfortable enough to just be in the moment. And a lot of it was there.
Had you seen a lot of his work before?
Alexa Fogel: Yeah. And I’ve read with him before. The thing about what I do is, you usually not meeting people for the first time over a certain age.
What was the hardest role to cast for in this?
Alexa Fogel: Well, it for sure would’ve been that role if he hadn’t been so singularly able to get in there.
I’m trying to think what was hard. You know, casting is just hard, but there was nothing in this that presented what felt like huge obstacles.
It’s also just not the way Dennis and I work. We just get down to it and do it. And he’s very articulate, very clear, and very fast, which is great for me.
When you’re reading a script do images of certain actors come to mind? Actors who who would be perfect for certain roles?
Alexa Fogel: Never. I read scripts the way I read novels. So, I see the character, but until I’m actually working on something, I don’t fit actual living breathing actors into it. [chuckle]It helps in a way because this is all about the connective tissue of the whole story that you’re telling. It’s not just about who’s right for something when you’ve only read this much. I need to sort of understand the whole.
When you are just sitting around watching TV or a movie on a Friday, Saturday night, are you always working? Scanning and watching actors? Can you ever just enjoy something?
Alexa Fogel: Yeah, I can, but I watch a lot of Scandinavian crime dramas and things where I’m not as familiar with the actors because it helps me to just pop into story.
How involved are you in the day-to-day parts of a show, besides your casting aspect of it.
Alexa Fogel: Well, casting is a lot of admin as well. A lot of the guest actors aren’t in it for the whole thing. If the schedule changes, we have to redo the deal and hire them and make sure they’re available. So, you’re working the whole time.
You’ve cast so many of, not only my favorite TV shows, but a lot of others, including as a former Marylander, one of the best shows ever The Wire. As you were in the middle of it, did it ever feel like you are working on greatness?
Alexa Fogel: No. [laughter]We all loved it and I think we knew that it was unique and that it was authentically telling a story about real people. But you have to understand in any David Simon project, it is a triage all the time. There are 50 people in every scene. When we did The Deuce, it’s the same thing. You’re just in it and trying to get through it, making sure that you’re doing the most creative and appropriate casting so you can to get from A to B.
In something like The Wire, this was true on The Deuce too, when you’re casting the principle characters in the beginning, it is actually the casting process that’s helping you to understand who those characters are and that somebody who read for this might be better for this and blah, blah, blah. It’s putting a puzzle together.
Alexa Fogel: Guys and Dolls.
Right, yeah. But does that make you feel good that you kind of helped jump start all of these now hugely famous actor’s careers?
Alexa Fogel: If I thought about it that way, I don’t really. I think the joy is that matching a great actor to a great role, which creates something sort of magical that you can’t really put your finger on. It’s just great for them. That part is really thrilling.
And also, I think the bonds that casting directors and actors have is very singular. We have no skin in the game. We don’t get a commission. A lot of the people I cast in Generation Kill and The Wire, there’s a purity to that kind of friendship that really comes out of that shared experience.
There’s a saying where you don’t try and book the audition, you try and book the room.
Alexa Fogel: Okay. I’ve never heard that.
No? I hear that quite a bit but maybe it’s because I’m an actor. With that tough, you cast Lee Tergesen in a lot of things. I was thinking that’s what he did, he booked the room, and you keep on calling him back. I’ve interviewed him and I think he’s great, but what is it about him that you keep calling him back?
Alexa Fogel: Well, he’s lovely, and the thing is Lee is fearless. He will go in whatever direction. He’s an incredibly skilled artist and he is not afraid of going wherever a character needs to go.
You also cast a lot of shows with smaller roles throughout every episode. How do you go about finding actors for these smaller roles? I know you’re in the New York area. Do you go see shows or theater?
Alexa Fogel: Well, before the pandemic everybody in my office would be in the theater multiple times a week. But it’s just the job, you know? It’s your job as a casting director to know as much about the people who will be great at doing one or two lines and the people who can carry the whole thing. It’s just understanding what’s appropriate. And you read people, you know?
What makes a good audition for you? Where, even if they’re not right for the part, you’re like, “I want to bring them in for something else down the road?”
Alexa Fogel: It’s so simple. It’s really just paying attention to the material and doing it justice and being truthful in that way. There’s no trick. That is the trick.
And finally, what’s your craziest audition story?
Alexa Fogel: Gosh, this is in the ’80s. I was at ABC and [laughter]… It’s not an audition story, it’s just the lengths people will go to and somebody came to the office dressed as a giant bunny to present their resume.
Was it around Easter?
Alexa Fogel: I can’t remember. [laughter]But it was definitely something that leaves you rather speechless.
I don’t really have crazy audition stories. I feel like we’re both there to do our jobs and for the most part that’s what happens. If people come prepared or maybe I have a reputation that you should be prepared because I’m there to work too.