Interview: Casting Directors Brett Benner and Debby Romano Talk ‘Shrinking’, Finding Actors and More

Benner and Romano talk about casting Harrison Ford and also get into auditioning actors and what it takes to bring them back again and again.

Casting Director Interview - Brett Benner and Debby Romano

“We watch everything that is sent to us, and we go through all the submissions that are sent to us, because you never know.” – Debby Romano

Veteran casting directors Brett Benner and Debby Romano have been working together for over 20 years, casting shows like Scrubs, One Tree Hill and Cougar Town. And if you’ve ever watched one of their shows, you know that each actor, for the series regulars down to the day players, are perfectly cast.

Their latest endeavor, by frequent collaborator Bill Lawrence, is called Shrinking and stars Jason Segel and Harrison Ford about a grieving therapist who starts to tell his clients exactly what he thinks. The show is wonderful and as you can imagine, so is the cast.

In this interview, the pair talk about casting Harrison Ford and Lukita Maxwell and Luke Tennie and working with Bill Lawrence. They also get into auditioning actors and what it takes to bring them back again and again. And you will not want to miss their crazy audition story because this one is nuts! These are edited excerpts from that conversation. For the full interview, check out the video below or watch it on YouTube.

When you first start working on a show, do you get excited about all the possibilities of who you can cast?

Debby Romano: Oh yeah. Especially on a streaming show with Apple because it attracts the best of the best and you can put names on your list, like a Harrison Ford and not be laughed out of the room for putting a name like that down. So, it’s a luxury to get to work on something like this. It really is wonderful.

So, he wasn’t attached to this?

Debby Romano: No. Only Jason Segel.

I would think this took some like major like cojones to just even put him on a list. He’s the biggest movie star in the world. Did he already do 1923?

Brett Benner: No. We had him first.

Debby Romano: You have to understand the person with the major cojones is Bill Lawrence. So, we put together a list and it was our first conference call about the show because it was such an important role and we put Harrison down, but in a way where Brett and I were like… “But it doesn’t necessarily mean, you know, we’re gonna end up there.” And we went through our list with our producers, and they narrowed it down to maybe like five top choices. And then Bill said to us, “Look, I’m gonna say something and you’re gonna think I’m crazy, but he’s my neighbor, and I really wanna see if I can approach Harrison Ford, and if he would be interested, I think he would be great in this. And it’s gonna take some time. because I think he’s overseas shooting a movie. I’m not sure when he is coming home, but let’s get into it with his agent and see if this is at least scheduling-wise a possibility.” And he really took it and ran.

Besides putting him on a list, we can’t really take credit for Harrison, because, oh my God, Bill did it. And Brett Goldstein did it. Like Brett Goldstein was the first person to meet with him because Harrison was in London and was shooting Indie, I believe. And he asked to meet with someone and Brett happened to be in London and they met for dinner. I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to walk into the restaurant and see Han Solo and Roy Kent having dinner. But that was the beginning and he loved Brett, and he loved the script and it just kind of snowballed from there.

For Lukita Maxwell and Luke Tennie, did you guys know those two before you started casting?

Debby Romano: I knew Lukita from Generation, which was an HBO show that she was on, but I did not know Luke. Brett?

Brett Benner: Yeah. I didn’t watch Generation. I didn’t know either one of them. They were both fresh to me.

They’re both great. How far in advance do you know a character’s arc throughout the season? Because when we first meet Luke’s character, he’s like this angry young man, and now we see him  and he’s evolved into someone more sweet and kind. When you first bring him in just for that first audition or self-tape do you kind of sense that? Or do you just want to go forward because he was so good?

I think when we start like a start a pilot for this in particular, they have a general sense of a kind of an arc for the character of what they want to do or where it’s gonna start. You don’t have, and we didn’t have a multitude of scripts. You don’t see episode four or five. You have a pilot script and in some cases, we’d have stuff like for Lukita for example, we were pulling stuff from the second episode, which they had pages for because we needed it and because there wasn’t a lot in the initial episode. There is so much you’re getting depending on the producers, but Bill Lawrence is someone who very much does this. He’ll talk to an actor beforehand in a session to kind of get a sense of them.

But I think, and Debby, you can correct me if you think this is wrong, but I think what also kind of transpires through the process of once somebody is cast, they’re also learning more about who that actor is and their strengths and weaknesses, and learning how to write to them to continue to develop character. And that’s what kind of happens as the season goes on. But I think going into it, they absolutely have a kind of general arc of where they’d like the character to go.

You just hope, and we have been in this case, certainly lucky enough to have actors who have enough going on, and enough to pull from, to be able to show a lot of variety of color and both of them do in spades as well as the rest of the cast I think they all do.

Debby Romano: Bill Lawrence is always a producer who says like, “We’re gonna cast this person and then we’re gonna learn more about them and write towards them.”

What about the day players? Do you rely heavily on people you’ve brought in before, and you’re like, “Oh, you know this person hasn’t booked before, but let’s bring them back in.” Or do you just really wanna meet new people? How does that work for you guys?

Debby Romano: I think it’s both. We’re always looking to expand our knowledge of who’s out there, but we also have people that we love, and we wanna see them score. And maybe they haven’t so far. And if they haven’t, it’s not their fault. Like, it’s rarely anything that they did, it’s just that somebody else was more right, or it’s the producer’s trainer or who the hell knows? There are so many things. So, I just think that it’s important to be open, and we are those people that maybe it comes from a bit of insecurity, but we don’t wanna miss anyone great.

We watch everything that is sent to us, and we go through all the submissions that are sent to us, because you never know. And it takes time. We learned very early in this process and a project that we did before this, which were the first things that we cast during COVID and involved self-tapes completely, that if you give an actor three scenes, you have to watch the three scenes especially when it comes to comedy, because you don’t know when they’re gonna tap in.

And there were a lot of people that the first two scenes might be very good but not funny, and then in the third scene all of a sudden they make you laugh and you’re like, “Oh, okay. They just need a couple of notes on the first two and we can sort of steer them in the right direction or give them a suggestion or something to look for to apply.” So, I think dating back to our first projects, discovery is something that’s really exciting to Brett and I. It’s not fun to just work off of lists.

Brett Benner: No. And something else that Debby said in the beginning, which I’ll speak to in terms of for actors… we do bring in people that we know who possibly haven’t hit. If you are going in regularly for casting offices who call you back, and call you back, and call you back, even if you’re not necessarily booking it right away, in the casting office’s mind, you’re doing what you are supposed to be doing, and they have a belief in you. And we in particular have a belief in you if we’re bringing you back. If you never hear from us again, it can be any number of things. It could be like, well, you’re so specific that there’s only certain things. But for many actors, we bring them in a lot because they haven’t hit it yet again, and we do believe in them, and we do believe in their talent and think it’s just a matter of time.

And there’s other times when we think, okay, we can’t bring them in right away again because we just saw them for this role. So, you don’t want the producers to be like, “Why are they pushing this person so hard?” But certainly, and there’s certain people we’ve seen, and it happened with this project where we read… There was an actor in particular who we read for the role that Michael Urie got who we loved, Debby and I loved him. Our producers didn’t totally get it for this, but will we absolutely bring him in again? Yes. Will we… Do we absolutely call his agents even and say, “He was so good and we will remember him?” We say that a lot, “We will remember.” And that’s part of our job.

And so, I only say that because I don’t want people to get discouraged. If you’re going in repeatedly for the same casting office, for different projects or the same projects, those casting directors believe in you and they want you to succeed. It’s just a question of when, that’s all.

Do you guys watch a lot of demo reels or clips on Actors Access?

Debby Romano: Yeah. When we’re casting something, for sure.

What do you guys prefer? A full demo reel, or a clip of something from a show specific to what you’re looking for?

Debby Romano: I think for us and for this type of thing, something comedic is definitely helpful. And not everybody has that kind of stuff up there whether it’s because they haven’t had the opportunity yet, or they don’t have a film yet, the clip to put up there. It just depends what we’re casting. We’ve cast dramas too, and we love casting dramas. We don’t get to do it a lot because we’re known for comedy, which could be worse things. But I think you look for what you need.

You guys have worked with Bill Lawrence a ton. Do you have this shorthand now where you automatically know what each other, or everybody wants?

Brett Benner: We pay him really well. [laughter] We have been together for a long time and there absolutely is a shorthand that goes on, and there’s a comfortability there. Look, I think everyone from any facet of the business, any department, as you will, wants to be able to develop relationships, to be have a shorthand and go-to. At this point, as much as we’d love to meet new people, there’s also some comfort in the fact of someone calling and saying, “Hey, I have a script. We’re getting… We’re getting the gang back together,” so to speak. And that’s really what it is, and we’ve developed friendships with some of these people that we’ve known well over 20, 25 years of working together. And so, you know what you’re getting into, and you know what to expect, and there is a niceness to that.

And to be able to have someone like Bill who, for the most part, trusts us to then be able to say, “You need to look at this person, you need to trust us on this. This particular person is great, they’re not gonna… They’re gonna do a great job.” That’s a gift, and I think we are so grateful to be able to have that.

What is the craziest audition story you guys have?

Debby Romano: Oh boy. Okay, I’m gonna go with One Tree Hill, Brett. I’m gonna go with One Tree Hill. Okay. So, we were casting this role of this Russian drug lord, or mobster, I don’t know what you would say. Anyway, in the scene, he dumps… And he has James Lafferty‘s character bound in a chair, and he walks over as he’s berating him and he douses him with a bottle of water. And in the audition, I was behind the camera, and Brett was reading with this actor who took a bottle of hand sanitizer, walked over to Brett, and started to dump it on him. And so, I had to stop everything. I was just like, “This is unacceptable. I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but you never touch a casting director, and I think you need to leave right now. We’re done with this audition.” And he eventually wrote a note saying he was sorry and his manager called, and whatever, but, like, who does that? I just don’t know.

Brett Benner: The best part of that story though, for me, was the note that came afterwards. And it was so… I was like, “Okay, this is his process.” But the note that came afterwards, it said, “To Debby Romano and her assistant.” Which is what they thought I was. Which is like I was like, “Oh my God. Not only did you dump sanitizer on my head, but you thought I was the assistant.” [laughter]

But we’ve had many crazy things. Debby’s had condoms thrown at her, we’ve had guns pulled on us in a scene. And I’ve had someone sit on my lap and start to undress me. I’ve been kissed by actors. There’s crazy stuff that happens. Yeah, crazy stuff that you’re like, “Wow.” And by people that obviously know better, who work a lot, who are well-known actors. And sometimes you kind of laugh at it and go with it.


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