Interview: Casting Directors Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas on ‘The Shrink Next Door,’ Self-Tapes and More!

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Name one of your favorite television shows and it’s a sure bet that Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas were the casting directors for at least one of them. The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Barry and many, many more, they are one of the top casting offices out there. And, speaking from first hand experience, they are the best people to audition for.

One of their latest shows, the wonderful The Shrink Next Door, just finished it’s run on Apple+ and the pair took some time out of their busy schedule to talk about casting the show, their thoughts and advice on self-tapes and much more! These are edited excerpts from that conversation. For the full interview, check out the video below or on YouTube.

You guys cast this while everything was locked down. I mean, that had to have been completely… It was all brand new. And, I’d imagine, completely challenging.

Sherry Thomas: Yeah, it was. And also, it was shot in LA, in Los Angeles, so everything is large and on a big scale. There were large party scenes, and large office scenes, and so you had to be very, very careful. And at that time, there were not vaccination mandates in place. The testing was very rigorous and I think production did such an amazing job with what they had to accomplish in the way that they had to accomplish it.

Was it all like self-tapes and Zoom?

Sherry Thomas: Yeah. So, we really didn’t do any producer sessions over Zoom. Everything was requested self-tapes, so we would discuss ideas with them for the series regulars, our main players in the piece. And then they would audition and then we would present the people that we really felt were the most right for it. And from there, we would have further discussion or conversation.

But oddly enough, on this show, because on others, we have done producer callbacks over Zoom, we didn’t do any. It was really sort of a meeting of the minds and people coming together on the choices.

With Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd attached to it, if I went in for an audition, I’d automatically think, this was like a more comedic sort of thing. Did you specify that in the breakdowns or did you have to redirect people?

Sherry Thomas: Fortunately, I feel like everybody did a little bit of research, which was interesting. And I think you can do that because you have more time, you’re at home. You don’t have to drive an hour and a half to two hours for an audition when you’re getting the pages two or three days before. So, there’s time to do a little bit of research and we tried to educate people as much as possible that this was based on the podcast based on a true story. We would give a little context of the tone. And then there were some people that we redirected and from the day players up to our more significant roles that were prominent in the piece.

But Cornell Womack, he’s a pro, we know him. We’ve been bringing him in and casting him for some time, so he was somebody right from the start. He felt just perfect for Bruce. Robin Bartlett, we have cast many times and she is, kind of in my brain, there was nobody else for it. She’s just perfect. We really relied on people that we have cultivated relationships with over a period of time as casting directors do.

Alyssa Morris is our associate on this project and it was really, honestly the first time we’re working on a project where all of us are not together. We rely so heavily on the loudness, and the shoutiness, and the calling out ideas and really kind of collaborating in that way.

How do you like the way casting is right now? With self-tapes and zoom callbacks. Do you think you guys will rely on that still?

Sharon Bialy: I think there’s going to be a hybrid. I think we all miss being in the room with actors and I think a lot of the actors miss it as well, because there’s something that you just get from being in the room with someone and the ability to play. And if an actor does the wrong choice and they come in the room, you can easily give them direction and play with it and get them more relaxed and support them. And when they feel that support, they just blossom right in front of the camera. So, you give each actor more of an opportunity to really get the role in some ways.

But what the self-taping does is give so many more people opportunities because we can see 25 actors for a role. You can see so many more people for a role, because you can take chances because you don’t have to slot people in to 15-minute time periods with the producers.

Sherry Thomas: Over a three-hour window.

Sharon Bialy: Right. And also sometimes not having all the producers in the room gives the actor, even on a zoom call back with us, we can play with them more and they’re not trying to please everybody, they’re just concentrating on the work. So there’s some benefits to both.

I remember going in for you guys a couple times and unlike a lot of rooms, you guys made it so comfortable, and it was just so warm. I mean, I was still completely nervous, but I felt more comfortable in that sort of nervousness. And then, Sherry, you redirected me to do something. And then when I did it, you kind of jumped up in your chair.

Sherry Thomas: Did I hug you?

No, but it made me feel like just more confident. So, I love self-tapes. I don’t have to deal with traffic or anything like that, but being in the room, I totally miss.

Sherry Thomas: There’s an energy. We all miss it. And I think we’re all waiting for the moment in time where we can be together again, for sure.

We will never, ever be an office that is strictly self-taped. A lot of offices have become that even prior to pandemic, to COVID, but that’s just never been the way that we like to generate the work.

Sharon Bialy: Also, because sometimes you’re only getting a couple of pages, so you have to guess and when you’re in the room, we can give you context. We can explain things like tone.

I think in this particular project that Georgia [Pritchett’s] writing was incredible, and the tone was on the page, but still it helped. It might help for other projects more so than this, just to get a sense of it when you’re in the room with us. Better Call Saul, we’re not even allowed to give you anything. And sometimes the sides are fake. So we can say, ‘No, this is the Bob Odenkirk character you’re reading with.’ And it’s like, ‘oh’, a light bulb goes off, but we can’t in email.

When you guys watch a self-tape, how long do you spend on it until you move on.

Sharon Bialy: I mean, I watch the whole thing.

Sherry Thomas: Yeah. Unless it is really not… There’s a couple things going into play. If it’s somebody who we’re like, ‘I’ve never seen them audition for us before. I want to get a sense of who they are, and how they handle text, and what they bring to the table in terms of choices,’ we’ll watch it the whole way through because we’re educating ourselves. And that’s part of our job is to continue education.

If it’s somebody that we have known for a long time and we just say, ‘not sure if it’s right, but just want to see if there is something there that connects the spirit of the actor to the spirit of the character’, but it’s not right, then we can sort of move on and with respect because we know it’s not the perfect fit.

Sharon Bialy: Sometimes we’ll know somebody really well and have them read and literally in two lines, I’m like, that’s it, she’s the one. Send it to the producers.

Do you guys prefer two takes on the self-tape? Two different ways?

Sherry Thomas: Yep. If it’s a co-star role and it’s one scene, a few lines, two takes. Three if there’s one in there that you just want to give it a shot. We really kind of leave it up to the actor.

But if it is a more substantial role with several scenes, two is fine to send to us. We ultimately will probably only send one take, unless we’re really questioning… We don’t edit it ourselves too much sometimes because the producers could come back and say, “You know, they’re missing a moment,” and that’s exactly what was in the other take. So, you have to just be mindful of the process or the questions and anticipate what they’re going to ask, the producers or the director.

What are some self-tape tips that you have?

Sherry Thomas: Good reader who’s not too close to the camera and not trying to audition for themselves.

Sharon Bialy: Right. A good reader.

Sherry Thomas: If a reader is really distracting, it’s not about the reader, it’s about the actor. So find somebody who really is going to, give you a little bit of something to play off of, but not try to sort of make it about them, because that’s not what they’re there for.

Good lighting is typical, and shooting from the right angle, and just be yourself in the slate. You don’t have to try to crack jokes and just be yourself.

Sharon Bialy: I think that’s a really good note. And especially for kids, don’t try that hard in the slate to be liked and all of that, it’s just, ‘Hey, I’m Lance Carter, I’m five foot 10. I’m in LA. I’m fully vaxed.” Boom”

My wife is my reader and she’s terrible. I hope she never sees us. So, I got that part covered. I forgot to mention Casey Wilson. She’s fantastic. How did you guys bring her on?

Sherry Thomas: I’ve been a longtime fan of Casey. And I think that people know her in one lane and it was very exciting. We had read her for The Handmaid’s Tale one season, and we had read her for an independent movie that was a really deep and layered character. She had to go to some places and the work was beautiful. But then she had also read with us on Danny McBride‘s Vice Principles.

So, to be able to support her in a role like this, where she really gets to show what she can do as an actress and the layers and the levels that she has and that she is nuanced, is it’s exciting. And I also just love her as a person. It all kind of comes together. She was kind of in my head when I read it.

Sharon Bialy: I think that’s the exciting thing about casting, and I’ll speak for my partner. She was the lead casting director on this one and what she did was really take actors that are known for one thing and respect them and the breath of their talent and say, “I’m going to try something else here”. And our associate, Alyssa Morris, did the same with the smaller roles. Someone was really good when they read for Better Call Saul, a drama, but there’s something there. Let me try it. And tonally, you’d had to have both here. A naturalistic performance, I think, is what was required in The Shrink Next Door.

And it was in Georgia’s writing…

Sherry Thomas: And the show director, Jesse Peretz, just really kind of took everybody and, everybody shines. I mean, it’s just, it’s incredible. It’s really wonderful to see that.

Sharon Bialy: I think actors often think, “Oh, they only think of me for this”. And it happens. It’s a natural human thing to think of somebody in one way. And what’s exciting for us in casting, and it keeps us 23 years later together excited about things is to try new things, and to see an actor as a whole. And say, “Let’s try them for this.”

There was somebody we just couldn’t hire recently that is absolutely not known for comedy. And Sherry was like, “She’s so smart. She gets it. Let’s try it”. And that’s exciting when we’re able to do that. I think actors don’t think it happens, and it does.

That’s why you guys are so successful and all the shows you do, which are fantastic. You are known for bringing in people who are looked at one way, and then you sort of have given this whole new sort of light, this new career almost to them.

Sherry Thomas: Thank you, Lance.

Sharon Bialy: What a nice way to start the day.

What is the craziest audition story that you have?

Sharon Bialy: There’s so many, Lance.

Sherry Thomas: Well, it’s crazy. It’s not recent, but it is really funny. It’s when I really first started, when I was having a lot of autonomy with Sharon. When we started out, I was her associate for about two years, and then we became partners. And one of the first things that we did together as Bialy/Thomas was The Unit with Shawn Ryan and David Mamet and Eric Haney. To say I was enthused was another thing. The Shield was my favorite show at the time, and it’s still in my top five. So, I was working with Shawn Ryan and Sharon was working with David Mamet, I mean, it was like a big deal. And so I said, “Oh my God, oh my God, Michael Rispoli is going to be in town from New York and we need to get him in.

Sherry Thomas: They called him, pitched him and Sharon says, huh. And I said, ‘Yeah, I think it’s going to be really cool and really interesting. I think we got to try.’ And she says, “You feel really passionately about it. I don’t see it. But if you feel like you want to give it a shot. Okay”. And I said, “Yeah, I really feel like it could be really cool”, and okay, great.

And so, we’re sitting in the session, and he walks in and everybody says, ‘hi.’ He’s a wonderful actor. Everybody knows he is a wonderful actor. And I write on something next to me, “I had Michael Imperioli in my head. Oh my God, this is completely the wrong actor that was in my head.”

And everybody was so nice and so lovely because he’s a wonderful actor. And he even said, coming in, “I don’t really know why I’m here. I feel like this is not in my wheelhouse, or I’m not right for this at all, but wanted to come and meet you guys.”

Sharon Bialy: And it was the hardest thing in the world to not be hysterical, laughing when she wrote, “I meant Michael Imperioli.” And then we had to go through the audition and I’m biting my lip so that I laugh.

Sherry Thomas: But everybody was generous and kind. And he even was like, “I’m not right for this, but I’m here”.

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