“What makes a good self-tape? Just making the character you’re own, committing to it, making a strong choice, and going for it.” – Casting Director Jill Anthony Thomas
Have you watched Loot on Apple+? It’s about a recently divorced woman (Maya Rudolph) who now has to figure out what to do with her $87 billion dollar settlement. It’s wonderfully funny and the cast is terrific, which should be obvious since casting director Jill Anthony Thomas was involved.
Thomas has cast dozens of films and TV shows like Gilmore Girls, The Real O’Neals and Santa Clarita Diet to name just a few. With Loot, she’s yet again brought together a perfect cast that includes Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, Nat Faxon, Joel Kim Booster and Ron Funches.
In this interview, Thomas talks about how she found her actors and what was the hardest role to cast. She also has some great advice about self-tapes and auditions in general, resumes and the best thing about her job. These are edited excerpts from that conversation. For the full interview, check out the video below or watch it on YouTube.
When you’re working on a show like this, do you get super excited about the possibilities of who you can cast?
Jill Anthony Thomas: Yes. [laughter] Yes, yes, yes, yes. Yeah, I was just saying the other day, working for Apple and doing an Apple show really opens up the possibilities because you can pursue maybe some people who wanna do something a little more cutting edge and cool that you might not get in other venues. And with Matt and Alan as producers and Maya as the star, I knew we could aim high, so I was going for all my favorite comedy people. Ron Funches, Nat Faxon, they’re just some of my favorite people for years and years, so happy to have them all in one cast.
When you’re first reading the scripts, do you immediately start casting in your head?
Jill Anthony Thomas: Yeah. If I don’t start reading a script and start jotting down ideas while I’m reading it, it’s probably not the right one for me to cast.
I’ve passed on scripts where I read it and I’m just not getting any ideas coming through. This one, of course, I sat down, I’m reading it and I’m writing in the margins like people, as I’m reading it.
Was there anybody already cast in the show by the time you started working on it?
Jill Anthony Thomas: Just Maya. They had had Joel Kim Booster in mind for the Nicolas role, but there were some availability issues, so we did start looking for backups just in case it didn’t work out, and it was pretty down to the wire, the 11th hour. It all worked out. So, thank heavens ’cause he’s phenomenal. [laughter]
When you first get this, do you just start making lists for every single role?
Jill Anthony Thomas: Yeah, I read the scripts, make lists for every single role, talk to the producers, say, “Here’s my initial thoughts,” hear what they have to say. Adjust lists accordingly, and then put out the breakdown to all the agents and start taking pictures and everything, but yeah, I have a pretty significant list before anyone even knows that I’m casting the project.
Obviously, number one on your list is the person who you really want. Was there a time when the number one on your list was actually the person that you got?
Jill Anthony Thomas: There was a time once on a CBS pilot where I was reading it and it was a romantic comedy, and the two actors I thought of Jane Levy and Nicholas Braun, I thought, “Oh my gosh, I would picture Jane Levy and Nicolas Braun,” and six weeks later, those two people were playing those two roles, that’s pretty rare.
That’s got to be like shooting a perfect basket.
Jill Anthony Thomas: Yeah, nothing but net, nothing but net. Usually the person who gets the part was on my initial list, maybe not first choice but things throughout the casting process morph, change when you’re putting together all the pieces of the puzzle. Sometimes the person you thought was perfect now doesn’t make as much sense opposite this person. So, there’s a lot of moving pieces when you’re casting.
What’s the hardest role to cast here?
Jill Anthony Thomas: Nat Faxon.
Oh yeah? He’s great.
Jill Anthony Thomas: He is. He’s phenomenal. But yeah, we just did a lot of different types for that, a lot of different looks, ages. So that was the hardest one.
Was this all cast to self-tapes?
Jill Anthony Thomas: Zooms, live Zooms, reading with the actors and self-tapes. Yes. We did do some chemistry reads on Zoom, like when we got down to the wire on roles, we would do Zoom.
How is it doing a chemistry read on Zoom?
Jill Anthony Thomas: See the boxes with you and I right now? [laughter] That’s how it goes. [laughter] It really is not ideal, and hopefully, we can do away with the chemistry read Zoom soon and be back in person.
But the one great thing about chemistry read Zooms is, I was doing a feature a few months ago, and I had an actor in London, an actor in New York, an actor in LA, and an actor in Toronto, all reading a scene together. Because they were on Zoom, which you’re not going to get all these people in a room together.
You can tell. You just have to trust me on that. You can tell chemistry on a Zoom and not chemistry, lack of chemistry on a Zoom. You really can.
For the smaller roles, I would guess, casting through self-tapes or even Zoom is phenomenally easier, I would think.
Jill Anthony Thomas: It’s more efficient. It’s not easier. It’s more efficient. Because when I was doing live auditions, I could see 30-40 auditions a day. When I do them at home, there’s no getting up to get the next actor, I can do it while I’m having my coffee in the morning, I can do it before I go to bed at night. I’ll see 80 auditions a day. So, it’s much more efficient.
However, not having an actor in the room and being able to tweak a performance on the spot is a real drag. Actors are having to make choices about characters in a vacuum. Unless you give really specific notes about what you’re looking for, you’re leaving it to their interpretation, which can sometimes miss the mark. If I had them in the room, I would make a quick adjustment instead of having to call their agent and have them re-tape. Or sometimes I’ll say, “Hey, I have notes for them, let’s get them on a live Zoom and record it.” But yeah, so that’s the part I don’t like.
Also, there’s an undeniable X factor in a casting room, a presence someone has that may or may not always translate on self-tape.
Just personally, self-tapes and not having people come to your office, does it give you more time just to do things for yourself? Does it give you more time on the day?
Jill Anthony Thomas: No, actually I feel like I’ve never worked harder. [laughter] I’m at my home, so my home is my office, so I never leave my office, so I’m constantly doing it.
And also I’m meeting so many more people than I used to and taking so many more chances on auditions. It’s, “I’ve never seen this person, I’ve never heard of this person. Oh, it’s a self-tape, let’s give it a try.” So, I’ve met so many new people in the last two and a half years of self-tapes, I have a whole new stable of people I’m going to for roles. So, for that, I am grateful, but yeah, I miss being in a room with actors.
What makes a good self-tape?
Jill Anthony Thomas: Lots of things. I find that if they’re not completely static during the whole audition… some people think they need to sit and just read right into the camera, right off to the camera, you don’t need to do that. It’s more engaging if you have some movement, some organic movement in there.
A lot of times when people lose us is when they add too much improv, because it’s hard for us to edit that out.
I like two takes. Sometimes people send four takes and then I have to wait through all four takes and that’s a lot. I like two takes, and if you’re going to do two takes, make them different, don’t do the same thing on both takes.
What else makes a good self-tape? Just making the character you’re own, committing to it, making a strong choice, and going for it. Sticking to the script, unless it says, “Feel free to improv.”
Do you mind if they’re memorized, or can they hold the slides in their hands?
Jill Anthony Thomas: Whatever works. I can tell a lot of times actors have the scene up on their computer. I don’t care.
I do that sometimes. [laughter]
Jill Anthony Thomas: Our office really strives to give at least three days’ notice for a self-tape, if not more, so we don’t expect people to be memorized. Whatever works for the actor.
What’s some of the biggest mistakes you see in self-tapes or even auditions?
Jill Anthony Thomas: A big audition mistake is coming across too needy, too much of the chatting, needing validation, insecurity in the performance, that’s a big one. What else? Like I said, just doing too much improvising with the material. Especially since I do primarily comedy, the script is written with such specific beats, when people change it, it can derail an audition. Sometimes people add stuff and it’s great, but you know? Yeah, I’m trying to think of some others.
What’s the best thing about your job?
Jill Anthony Thomas: Launching new talent, like giving that person their first job, their first break, that’s my favorite part of the job. And seeing a cast come together. Truly, not just because of this interview, the Loot cast is one of my all-time favorite casts, and when you have that first table read and it works and it works big like that, it’s the greatest feeling.
Do you go to all table reads?
Jill Anthony Thomas: Yeah.
When you’re there watching it, what’s going through your head? Are you just trying to see if everything comes together acting-wise?
Jill Anthony Thomas: The first table read of a new show, yes, I’m hoping, “Please let this work.” [laughter] “Let’s hope we put this together right.” But then, once we get into a groove, I just like to sit and enjoy the show. I like to just watch the performances, I don’t look down at the script during a table read, I just watch the actors.
I was doing a table read once, and after it was over, they recast somebody. And I was just like, “Wow, does that happen a lot?” I thought that was nuts. And people were running around like the sky was falling, it was crazy.
Jill Anthony Thomas: It’s the worst. I once, years ago, had to replace a 16-year-old girl in a pilot on her birthday. And still to this day, I get a pit in my stomach when I think about that. Sometimes changes are made for many different reasons.
I can imagine that would be just horrible news. For someone without an agent, is it possible to get in front of you?
Jill Anthony Thomas: Yeah. I get unsolicited emails to my work email account or post cards when I was in an office. And when we were in the office and we were getting post cards, we used to have the lucky pick of the week. We’d pick one out, and you know, “What can we bring this person in for?” I have a whole file in my computer, ‘audition favors’, like people who send me stuff or reach out and I just think that it was ballsy of them to do that and make that introduction, and so I’ll keep them in mind if I have something to try them for. I just did that this week. There were three people from my ‘audition favors’ and I had some co-stars in my ABC show, and I just was like, “Let’s try these people.” So yeah, it’s harder now that we’re not in offices.
When you’re looking at a resume, what’s the one thing that stands out to you? Training?
Jill Anthony Thomas: For me, I’m looking for comedy credits usually. Like have they done any comedy? Even if it’s UCB, if it’s just theater comedy, I’m looking for some kind of comedy credits usually.
Has there been like an audition that you thought was great and just fantastic, but they didn’t get cast because they just weren’t right for the part?
Jill Anthony Thomas: All the time. All the time. And then I keep those people in mind for the part they are right for. Like, we’ll go into screen tests sometimes for series lead and there will be two people or three people who are phenomenal and you think in your head, “Shoot, these two are so good and they’re not gonna get it. Like, that one’s gonna get it”.
So yeah, I see that a lot, and that’s why I just tell actors, all you can do is go in and do your best performance, leave it out there on the dance floor. And the decisions are made in many different ways for many different reasons. You can’t control the outcome. All you can control is doing your best.
What’s your craziest audition story, if there is one?
Jill Anthony Thomas: There are many. [chuckle] I had staples in the back of my head… Well, there’s one that’s like too traumatic to talk about where someone pulled a gun out during the audition, and I had a real hard time coming back after that one.
I’ve heard stories about that, those exact incidences. It just boggles my mind that happens.
Jill Anthony Thomas: Yeah. And when I started to have a panic attack, he aimed it to the wall and discharged to show me that it was empty. But that didn’t help me. [chuckle]
No, but one of the craziest was the staples in the back of my head. We were doing a movie of the week; I was a casting associate at the time. I was reading with an actor, and I was sitting in a chair with wheels that rocked, you know, rocked with wheels. And the guy was doing an intense scene and he grabbed the arms of the chair and the wheels went back out from under me and I cracked my head open on the back of the filing cabinet behind me and had to get staples in the back of my head.
Oh my God.
Jill Anthony Thomas: So that might be one of the craziest auditions story. [laughter] I’ve had people do tearaway pants in an audition; I could write a book of all the things that have happened in the audition room.