Interview: Casting Director Cami Patton on SILO, Virtual Auditions and Self-Tapes

"I miss terribly being in the room with actors. I love that more than anything, but I have seen so many more people, been exposed to so many people I didn't know, hired people from places that I can't be."

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to audition for casting director Cami Patton, it’s almost guaranteed have a project will be pretty stellar. Patton, the winner of two Prime-time Emmy Awards, has cast shows like The King of Queens, Pushing Daisies, The Pacific and my favorite, Las Vegas. Her current project is the Apple TV+ sci-fi series, Silo, about a community of people who live in a deep underground silo, away from the toxicity of life above ground. The show stars Rebecca Ferguson, Rashida Jones, Tim Robbins, Common and David Oyelowo and as usual with her project, the cast is terrific.

In this interview, Patton talks about casting the actors in Silo, self-tapes and virtual auditions and crazy things that have happened in the audition room. This interview is edited for length and clarity. For the full interview, check out the video above or on our YouTube channel.

Silo is great and the cast is perfect. When you were finished casting this, did you kind of kick back and think, “Heck yeah.” Or was it more of a sigh of relief?  

Cami Patton: We went straight to series and because it’s a complicated show to shoot, we were really getting it on its feet when people were still trying to figure out how to work during COVID. So, it took a long time. And then even once we started shooting, the first block was a combination of all five of the first episodes. So, we really were halfway through shooting before myself and my British counterpart felt like we’d cracked the back of all of the big characters.

I would say we started casting in November or December of 2020. We started shooting October of ’21 because of various COVID delays and it probably was February or March of ’22 before we felt like, “We got this.” It was huge. It was fantastic to do, but it was huge. It was a beast.

Did you know going into it was going to be huge?

Cami Patton: No. Partly because now that we’re in this streamer world, things have changed. Each project has its own way of being. So, I’ve worked on so many different hybrids of how we’re shooting, whether it’s… Even in network television, we used to cross-board often but when you did that, you were only talking about two episodes maybe at a time. And streaming, it’s sort of allowed for having maybe one or two directors and cross-boarding more than that at one time, which means you’re prepping all of those episodes from a casting perspective because at any point, they can be introduced into the schedule, not how they normally would if you were just shooting an episode, moving on to the next episode.

We knew we were creating a world and we cast Rebecca [Ferguson] as well. There was no one attached when we came in, so it was, let’s tackle the lead and then the first series regulars that we see beyond that. David [Oyelowo] and Rashida [Jones] and Geraldine James and Will Patton were gonna get us through those first four. Those were like what we started with, but it was really a lot to get it on its feet and cover all five of those first episodes kind of right up front.

When you first read a script, are you immediately wish casting?

Cami Patton: It goes one of two ways. Personally, unless something just feels so unbelievably obvious to me that I cannot think of anybody else, which does happen occasionally, I try really hard not to. If I start getting ideas, I will write them down, but I tend to be someone that can focus in on something. I want to stay as open as I possibly can in the beginning of the process. There are some roles on some shows where I’m just like, “Nobody else can do this. This is who it is. This is the answer.” And we’re done. But rarely. I try not to limit myself as much as possible at the beginning.

On those rare times when you’re like, “This can’t be anybody else.” Have you gotten them? What’s the percentage range?

Cami Patton: Pretty darn good. I mean, honestly, it also depends on who I’m working with. Silo was created by Graham Yost, who I have worked with for 25 years and adore, and we have shorthand, and we have very similar tastes. I know who he knows. Sometimes he surprises me with new people that he will turn me on to. But in general, I have a pretty good sense of the tone he’s going for and who feels right, and we are usually in sync.

For example, when we were doing Justified, when they created the character of Mags Bennett in season two, the first person I thought of was Margo Martindale but she’s based in New York. We didn’t have a budget to fly people. It felt like a long shot. So, I made a list and then I auditioned people, and it turned out she happened to be in LA doing press and came in and was everything I thought she would be. I

It happened on a couple of roles on Silo as well where I mentioned who I thought would be right and they got the role. But there was a process before they did where other people were also seen and it just turned out that, yeah, they felt the most right.

What was the hardest role to cast?

Cami Patton: Juliet. Juliet was a really hard role. We didn’t go out to a lot of people. We did read a lot of people and we had the list of ladies that we felt could be right, that were offer only. It didn’t have to be a big name but certainly that’s a wonderful thing if we get it. So, we kind of did both approaches and it was really informative about the character and the more you saw of people reading it, the more you realized exactly how difficult a role it is to cast and what you’re asking of that person. And when we went to Rebecca, who if I remember correctly was the first person we actually officially went out to, at least once I was on board. And initially she passed. She read it, she took her time, she read the books, she really responded to it and took it very seriously but passed.

It was really hard to think of who else we wanted to offer it to that was going to feel as right. So, we started the process of testing people and just before we were ready to test, she called her agent and said, “Can you find out if that role is still available? I can’t let go of it.” Thank God. And I only tell that story because she has told that story. We were all just like… “Oh my God.” Through the roof excited when she said yes.

When she passed, did a part of you want to call her and try and twist her arm a little bit?

Cami Patton: It’s a tricky thing. It’s a very personal decision to take on a role or not. Same as for me to take on a project or not. You have your reasons and if fundamentally one of those reasons is you just don’t think you can do it justice, it doesn’t serve anybody to talk you into doing it. Do you know what I mean? You kind of have to trust people’s instincts at some point. I don’t think there was ever for her a question of whether or not she would enjoy working with Graham, who is just the best. She’s got a lot going on in her life. At that time, she was still doing Dune and Mission Impossible. She’s a very busy lady. So, I think honestly, it was more, “How do I pull this off?” And she somehow figured out a way to reconcile that.

There have been times where I’ve had talent on the show reach out to whoever might have passed to say, “You’re missing an opportunity. You gotta come do this.” Whatever. And that sometimes often works. I’m sure it means a lot for someone to hear from someone who’s actually in the process on the show to speak to it. But rarely will I try to really talk somebody into something if they’re thinking they don’t wanna do it.

I know you and Graham have a good track record with Justified but when you bring on somebody like David Oyelowo, I would think that other actors would be beating down the door to work with him.

Cami Patton: Sure. I mean, I’ll tell you that was an incredibly hard role, both Allison and Holston and it was hard from a casting perspective because you need someone that is going to pull people into the show and really make them care about the world that they are just being introduced to. And what was so beautiful about David is that he makes such an impact because it really does inform the entire show. It sets up why Juliet is put in the position she’s in and it’s fundamental to it. But he’s magic. So, he managed to thread the needle of setting the show up on its feet and letting us know what kind of a world and project we’re in for and making us remember him throughout the whole thing.

And then in comes Rebecca who, thank God, also infuses and you’ve got Tim Robbins and you’ve got Common and Harriet Walter to come in and pull you in with the rest of it.

With the streaming era, a lot of bigger name actors are working on shows like this. Is it because most of the seasons are so short? They’re not committed to a year and a half like on a film. Because of that, is it easier for you to cast?

Cami Patton: It is. Yes. It is. I think not all of them are shorter seasons. Even though we did a shorter number of episodes, it was a decent length of time. However, there are ways to combine things so that people aren’t spread out through the whole schedule. But there is a little more flexibility when you’re not having to know that you’re gonna air in the fall or air in January where everything has to be done by that time. Streamers generally are willing to delay a second season if that person is off doing some huge project because it’s only gonna benefit the show for them to have been a part of that project.

So, I think that’s part of the appeal because they’re generally not of a mindset of having exclusivity with something and maybe you do a one season or a limited series and then you’re done. And with this you are asking for continuing seasons, but because they aren’t having to necessarily give up a big project if it comes their way, I think that makes it a little more palatable.

How do you like casting pretty much virtually now? You can see a lot more people, I would assume.

Cami Patton: You see way more people. That doesn’t make it easier. If anything, it takes up a lot more of my time. I don’t have a commute; I’m working from the minute I get up until whatever time I end up stopping. It used to be agents, managers, people kind of respected the fact that your office hours were 9:30 to 6:30, and if there was some reason that they needed to reach you outside of that, okay. But all bets are off now and you’re just reachable all the time. So, unless you set up your own boundaries, that can be a little wearing.

I miss terribly being in the room with actors. I love that more than anything, but I have seen so many more people, been exposed to so many people I didn’t know, hired people from places that I can’t be.

I did an entire series for David E. Kelley that shot in New York. I did the pilot and they’re like, “You know what? There’s no reason you can’t do the series if you want, because we’re not having in-person sessions.” So, I did the series and it was incredible.

It opens up a lot of opportunities, exposes me to a lot of people. I think the balance is there are people who it makes that more difficult for, if they’re trying to self-tape and don’t have someone to read with them or don’t have a great setup. We’ve always offered to Zoom with anyone that has any difficulty doing a self-tape. And I really love doing that. It’s the next best thing to being in the room. At least I can give some notes and work with someone, and we do that a fair amount.

So, I guess there’s a happy middle ground. I don’t think we’re gonna ever get back to the place of having hundreds of actors come in a week into the office, which makes me a little sad. But in its own way, I think as hard as it must be for actors to get so many audition requests, it also gives them way more opportunities than they were getting before. I guess there’s a win-win there somewhere.

I wish more casting directors would offer Zoom auditions. A lot of times my wife reads for me, and I don’t think she’ll see this, but she’s not… the best.

Cami Patton: Well, I’ll tell you, if it makes you feel better, we never care about the reader. I’ve heard some of the worst possible readers ever. I had someone do an audition with a jackhammer going off next to him. I don’t know why he chose to be out on the streets of New York, but he did. It really is about the performance at the end of the day. And particularly if somebody can be good when someone is giving them nothing, if anything, that’s nice. So, don’t let that get in your head.

But, I feel like that’s a no-brainer, that if someone needs that support, it should be offered to them. I would’ve done it in my office, so why wouldn’t I offer it? I think a lot of people cherish being able to do it in their home, in their privacy when they’ve had the opportunity to rehearse, send the take that they like. It’s not just one and done. For me, if I think someone’s close but didn’t quite hit it, then I will schedule a Zoom to redo it with them and tape it.

But often it’s really telling to see what someone’s own interpretation of the material is, and they may think without me giving them any information ahead of time, they bring something to it we wouldn’t have thought of. If makes sense.

What’s your biggest sort of one piece of advice for self-tapes that you like to see?

Cami Patton: Oh my. Do I have one thing? I gotta think about that. I guess you just want to make sure you’ve got decent sound, and it doesn’t mean you have to go spend money, it’s just you don’t want a lot of things fighting in the background if you can help it because that can really be distracting and very hard to follow what someone is doing.

But outside of that, I’m not hung up on if it’s perfect quality, if they’ve spent money on a camera. Use your phone. It’s not about all of that. It really, at the end of the day, is about what you’re doing. And the more we can see what you’re doing, the better. Otherwise, make a choice.

You’ve cast so many great things, The Pacific, Band of Brothers. But for me, I was a huge fan of Las Vegas. I’ve probably watched each episode five times. Do you have any casting stories or something you could just give this rabid Las Vegas fan guy?

Cami Patton: I won’t say their names, but we tested four guys for the lead. Jeff Zucker was the head of NBC at that time, and he literally said to my producer, “I can’t believe you brought me four incredible leading men. You can have anybody you want. We could make this with any one of them.” I’ve never heard that ever, ever at a network session. He’s like, “Who do you want?” And from the start of the project, Gary Scott Thompson, who created the show, had someone that he was really interested in and excited about who was one of the four that tested. He looks at me and he is like, “Come outside.” So we stepped out into the hallway and he goes, “Who do I want?” And I said, “That person is the best show you’re not watching. Josh Duhamel is the cover of TV Guide.” And he’s like, “Well, thank you.” He walks back in, and he goes, “I want Josh Duhamel.” It just fit him so well. He was so right for that part.

And it was a hoot to cast. We had a great time. We cast Rihanna. I didn’t even realize, I forgot because she wasn’t Rihanna yet.

And James Caan.

Cami Patton: I mean, for my father that was, forget anything else I ever did. The fact that I hired, “Sonny Corleone,” as my dad would say, was the be all and end all of my career. And it was fantastic. He was fantastic.

Finally, what’s the craziest thing that has happened to you in an audition room?

Cami Patton: I had an actor come in. My associate was sitting next to me and he stood up on the chair and turned around. He was going to pull his pants down. And I’m like, “Whoa. Whoa, whoa, whoa. Turn around, get off the chair. What are you doing?” And he said that he had been in an acting class… This is years ago; he’d been in acting class with Jennifer Tilly and she told him to do something crazy to get the casting director’s attention. And I was like, “Okay. I’m sure that that is not what she meant.” [laughter] I said, “I am an employer. You don’t do something that makes me never want to send you to a professional setting. Why would I send someone to my set who does something crazy in my office?” It just was so shocking. I think that probably takes the cake.

We did have someone on an audition we were doing on The Pacific. Meg Liberman was the lead on The Pacific and Band of Brothers. I was just grateful to be around. But we did Boomtown with Graham Yost together and it was one of the only projects where the two of us were able to really be side by side in the room for everything and it was amazing. And when the series was going, Meg was running it and they brought in an actor who, in the course of the audition, smacked the floor so hard with his hand, he broke it in the audition. And we had to get him to the hospital. I mean, it was… Talk about committed.

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