Interview: Casting Director Kim Coleman on ‘Five Days at Memorial’, Self-Tape Tips and Portraying Real People

Casting Director Kim Coleman talks about the puzzle of casting, finding actors to portray real people and self-tape and audition tips!

Casting Director Kim Coleman Interview

“A lot of times, getting a job has nothing to do with your performance… It could be a lot of different factors.” – Casting Director Kim Coleman

If you were trying to pin down the types of projects that casting director Kim Coleman works on, you’d have a difficult time. From comedies (House Party) to biopics (Till) and horror (Nanny), she has literally done it all. “It keeps everything fresh and exciting for me,” she said recently.

With the mini-series Five Days at Memorial, her legacy of finding terrific ensembles has only expanded. Starring Vera Farmiga and Cherry Jones, Memorial chronicles terror of Hurricane Katrina and the fallout it placed on a New Orleans hospital.

In this interview, Coleman talks about the puzzle of casting Five Days at Memorial and finding actors to portray real people. She’s also got some great self-tape and audition tips! These are edited excerpts from that conversation. For the full interview, check out the video below or watch it on YouTube.

Casting a show like this, or any show really, is like a massive puzzle. How do you start an undertaking like this?

Kim Coleman: First of all, I’m so blessed and fortunate to work on so many different things and every show is different. We usually start by maybe identifying one or two roles that we start with to set the tone. And then we sort of build from there.

Not everyone makes sense sometimes in the same world, just like in real life. So, I try to uncover as many stones as possible within the world to create the most authentic energy as possible.

I like to pair veteran actors with up and comers and then throw in some new faces as long as it all feels cohesive and inorganic. It’s just exciting to see different groups of actors come together and they learn from one another. So that’s what I tried to do.

Was anybody attached to this before you started?

Kim Coleman: No one was attached. I came on a little early to consult for the Vera Farmiga role and Cherry Jones role. Those two roles were the anchors, and I came on board and I did some preliminary lists for Carlton [Cuse] and John [Ridley]. And then from there we built the world. Cherry was someone that we cast in American Crime, so she was definitely always on my short list and Vera as well. And Vera had worked with Carlton Cuse on Bates Motel. So, it was a very short list. .

Both are great, but man, I would cast Cherry Jones in everything.

Kim Coleman: Everything. Every show. She’s on every list that I do, no matter what, because she’s fantastic. She can do anything.

I’m assuming they didn’t have to audition. How does it work when you approach them?

Kim Coleman: It’s just, “Hey, did you read the script? Would you love to do it?” It depends, again, on each show. Cherry, we knew, we love, we know she’s great and the same with Vera. And they established, you know that they can deliver.

What was the hardest role you had to cast?

Kim Coleman: Oh gosh. What was the hardest role? I don’t know… Diane Robichaux (Julie Ann Emery) maybe? Dr. Bryant King (Cornelius Smith Jr.) in some ways. I just wanted to get the essence of who those characters were, but it wasn’t difficult. It was just figuring out who, what actors could deliver and really bring that essence of the character.

Not so much physically. When you’re casting for real people, a lot of times it’s not all about physicality. It’s about who can really transform and make you feel like this is the person. It was just getting the right mix together.

You mentioned real people. Were most of the characters here based on real people or actually real people?

Kim Coleman: The show was based on the non-fiction book written by Sheri Fink and yeah, a lot of those folks were real people.

Do you feel a certain sense of responsibility when you cast somebody to play a real person?  

Kim Coleman: Yeah. A lot of times, and not so specific to this, but I’ve cast other shows and films of actors playing real people. And look, there’s some aspects of physicality that you have to look at. If the real person is 6’2, you don’t want to cast anyone who’s 5’2.

I may post some photos of the real people for inspiration and to sort of get the creative juices flowing and do whatever research I can do. And then when I start casting, I’m looking for certain aspects or similarities in the performance.

Do you watch everything that you cast when it’s finished?

Kim Coleman: I try to, I really do. And then it’s almost like when I’m looking at it, it is so surreal. I love looking at the actors and seeing what they do and what they actually brought to the table, besides the audition and the big picture. I feel like an actor does, you can’t really look at your own work.

For this show, I would think you’d sit and watch some of these more emotional scenes and just think, “Yes, they nailed it.” And then in the back of your mind saying, “…and I nailed it too.”

Kim Coleman: I don’t think it’s ever, “I nailed it.” The casting process can be intense. It’s emotional. It can be fast paced. So, when you have time spent away from a project and wrapping it up, it’s just exciting and rewarding. I’m like, “She was really great,” or “He was really great.” And I really feel proud of it. I just always feel proud of the end result. Not for every show… Not for every actor, but I would say yeah, 90% of the time, yes. [laugh]

Were most of the auditions through self-tapes?

Kim Coleman: Just about all of them were because we were in the time of COVID, and casting the show, vaccines were just starting to come out and everything was uncertain. I would look at self-tapes and I would have positive, negative reactions to it. Carlton, John and the team allowed anyone to be considered for a role no matter where they were in the world. .

Oh, nice.

Kim Coleman: Yeah. We allowed actors to feel comfortable in their space when performing and I would look at some of the self-tapes and maybe have them re-tape, make sure the lightning is a little better or with this setting, try not to have the kids running across. [chuckle] Everyone was just learning.

I learned a lot and met a lot of new actors during that time. The only downside is that you don’t necessarily get to work with the people in real time. Having auditions in the room, there is some something that happens, there’s some magic that you can’t capture over Zoom. But actors go off their instincts and we try to make it work.

I’m an actor too, and I sometimes miss being in the room.

Kim Coleman: Yeah, I miss that interpersonal interaction because it’s like, if you and I are sitting there, I may say, “Why don’t we try this?” Or you may say, “I was thinking about it this way.” So, some of that, I do miss.

But we’re slowly getting back into the rooms. I had a couple in-person chemistry reads today. So, things are slowly getting back to normal. Slowly.

Keeping on self-tapes and auditions, do you have any self-tape tips or audition tips or things that you see all the time that you just wish actors would know?

Kim Coleman: It’s funny. In the very beginning, everyone was really learning their way, but I think now actors have become pros. They have the backdrops, they have the great lighting, they have the diva lights. The sound is great. They get a friend to read with them.

I think in the beginning, finding a reading partner… which I know may be hard for actors… but if you have someone that’s so distracting reading with you it can take away from your audition. So, I always say just try to get an actor friend as a reader because a lot of times, they’re reading too slow and we’re focusing more on that instead of the actor.

Lighting is important. I tell actors, “Don’t go spend a lot of money on this expensive equipment.” You can get a little diva light for $39.90, and it’s the best investment you could ever make.

Make sure you frame yourself. Make sure your facial expressions are clear and just be prepared. Do it as if you were in the room with them.

My wife is my reader sometimes, and she’s terrible. I hope she never sees this.  

Kim Coleman: We get it. Now, look, I take that into consideration. I don’t hold that against anyone, but if it’s something that I don’t feel like I can send on, I would say, “Why don’t you re-tape it?” And then I would even maybe try to help them get a reader or someone to read with them.

A lot of casting directors have their niche that they’re in, but you float from dramas to comedy, even science fiction sometimes. Is that just the way things panned out for you?

Kim Coleman: Yes. It keeps everything fresh and exciting for me and it’s how things worked out. I love all movies. I love television. I try to watch everything and be open to everything. For me, a good story is a good story no matter the genre. I like to do a lot of different things.

I have a movie called “Nanny”, and it was a new young director and it’s a the horror genre that I really haven’t gotten into. But it was fun. It was great. It was interesting and from a different point of view, just creatively just putting that group together.

If an actor doesn’t have an agent, how could they get seen by you?

Kim Coleman: Back in the day, we’d have showcases. Now on social media or Instagram, actors know how to find you. Let me tell you, [chuckle] they know how to find you.

I’ve had so many actors reach out to me personally and say, “How can I do this? How can I do that?” It’s like, I can’t get you an agent, but if you guys get a reel together, even if it’s a monologue when you’re at home, just put something in front of me. Then if I have a group of my colleagues around, I can say, “Hey, this is a young actor.” And we talk all the time, that’s what we like to do. We love to be introduced to new actors.

It’s not like before, where you would send your headshots and the little cards with all of your information on it.

Those cards. Yeah.

Kim Coleman: Yeah. I miss those. I really did like those.

And I know, actors used to think that Casting Directors would never look at them, but we do, we do. I would keep them all in my office, in my desk and when certain smaller roles came up and I felt like someone was right, I would always try to give young actors a chance to audition or bring them in.

What’s the weirdest or craziest audition you’ve ever seen?

Kim Coleman: Oh man. An actor was in my office and he was doing a scene. It was a very emotional scene, and we were so close to each other talking. And he was so mad and so into it that he hit the wall in my office and put a big hole in it. I still stayed reading with him in the moment. But afterwards I was like, “You know you have to pay for my wall. [laughter] It was a huge hole. He never did, but that’s okay. [laughter]

Did you ever call him back in?

Kim Coleman: I did, I did. [laughter] I try to have fun with actors. I respect actors so much. When we were in the office and even now with self-tapes, I’m like, “Keep your head high.” I never wanted anyone to leave my office with their head down, where they would think that they didn’t give the best performance.

A lot of times, getting this job has nothing to do with your performance. You know what I mean? It could be a lot of different factors. I would say, “I always remember actors. This may not be the one for you, but something else is coming along.” I always want to be encouraging.

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