Interview: Casting Director John Papsidera on ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ and His Advice on Self-Tapes and Demo Reels

"What stays with me really is when I feel like I'm in the presence of an artist... that you just realize, "Oh, this person's really special. There's something really that I can't touch, I can't talk about it, I can't equate, but I feel it," Papsidera said.

From Oppenheimer, the recent Ghostbusters and the upcoming Superman film, to TV shows Fallout and Yellowstone, casting director John Papsidera has a track record of casting perfection that can’t be beat. His latest project, Apple TV+’s Lessons in Chemistry, only enhances those achievements.

The show, set in the 1950’s, stars Brie Larson as woman whose dream of being a chemist is put on hold when she finds herself pregnant and alone. When she accepts a job on a TV cooking show, she soon finds herself teaching more than recipes.

Papsidera took time out of his busy schedule to talk about casting the show, Zoom auditions and finding B.J. Novak for the voice of Six-Thirty, a dog who plays a pivotal role in episode three. He also gives some advice on self-tapes and demo reels. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve cast so many incredible things. Your track record is fantastic. Has there ever been anything where you’re like, “Oof, what happened with that one?” Don’t tell me what it is, but I can’t imagine that you even have one.

John Papsidera: There’s something in my head, [laughter] but even if I felt that way about it, I really fight and are proud of the casts that I put together. So, if I look at it just in that perspective of, “Well, did I do my job and assemble the best actors that I could?” I feel like I do and that I don’t have a lot of regrets in that way. I’m probably looking at it through a different filter a little bit, but I try never to hire and/or advocate for people that I don’t think are right for the job.

I would imagine your success at doing a job is different from me watching it, you know what I mean?

John Papsidera: Yeah, for sure. And believe me, if I combed over the resume, I could absolutely go, “Ugh, this didn’t work.” But so much of that is out of anybody’s hands really. A director can make a brilliant film, and if there’s a snowstorm, or a hurricane, all those things… It always amazes me how many things have to go absolutely right for something to open and perform and find success. It’s really mind boggling.

At the end of the day, I care about the people that I make projects with. And so, there’s very few, if any, where I’m just like, “I don’t give a sh*t what happens to them.” I can somewhat mistakenly consider people that I work with friends and so it matters to me how their projects do.

Let’s talk about Lessons in Chemistry. That’s another good one too. Was Brie Larson already attached to this when you got it?

John Papsidera: Yes, Brie was, because she was a producer on it, so she had worked on the project for a while before I came on, but there was nobody else, just Brie.

I read that this was cast almost entirely over Zoom?

John Papsidera: Yeah. We were in that time-frame, so much of what we had to do was just be able to work off of Zoom. And I have mixed feelings about it, I think as many actors do, as many other people do. TV has really, in my experience, embraced it, because there’s so many people involved and so many different camps. I think they’ve come to it in a different way of like, “Well, this is a real time saver. I can go back to the writer’s room. I can meet with people that are not even in this city,” those kinds of things. So, it’s worked out well for that.

There’s still feature directors that really want to be in the room with people, and there will be the option if there’s callbacks, if there’s a chemistry read, the people still do that live and in-person. But yeah, we did pretty much everything, I think everything over Zoom for Lessons.

How do you like that? I would much rather have an audition over Zoom than do a self-tape. Because I feel like you can still get that energy from just doing it with casting or whoever else is on there.  

John Papsidera: I get that and I’m sure the adrenaline mixture is higher when you’re still in front of people. It’s funny, it used to be such a thing for New York actors or actors in London and where people would say, “Oh, I hate self-taping.”

And I understand it but the only thing I can say to people, though, is that there is a quality of control that you have as an actor that you never have in a room. Whether a producer or a director gets a phone call or text or somebody sneezes in the room in the middle of your audition, whatever that is, once you walk in that door, you’re out of control. And you hope that the casting director’s there to protect it and create an environment that works for you.

But if you look at it as taping, you can do that 15 times until you get the right tape that you want to send. There’s a lot of negatives, but there is that flip side too, that it gives an actor control over their product and what they want seen as opposed to haphazardly going into a room that may or may not be friendly, may or may not be conducive to creating a perfect moment.

I want to ask you about Aja Naomi King. Apparently, she came in and wowed you guys and the showrunner created an even bigger character for her than what she read for?

John Papsidera: Yeah. That happened with both Aja and Patrick Walker. They both came out of the wing strong. And Aja Naomi King is just such a brilliant actress to begin with, but it really did turn into more of a complete ensemble once they started to write other storylines. Aja’s storyline and Patrick Walker’s storyline was not really as strong when I first read it. It was certainly a B or C level storyline, but it really got elevated once we cast those actors and the new producing set and showrunner started to take over and write towards it.

And then, also Alice Halsey, she seemed like she was the actual child of these two actual characters, was just wonderful.

John Papsidera: I think she’s such a little discovery. Jennifer Cram did the project with me. And Jen and I have worked together for, off and on for almost 19 years, as my associate. And she’s a filmmaker in her own right, but she came back to do this with me and I couldn’t have been more just blown away by how talented she was. Alice captured exactly what you said, the brilliance, and yet the heart of both of them. I thought she was fantastic in the show.

How do you cast a dog’s voice? B.J. Novak was so heartbreakingly good.

John Papsidera: I’ve had to do it before in A Dog’s Journey and other things. With this, we started talking about ideas, and I forget who had a connection to that, but somebody reached out and suggested him and they were like, “Yeah, it’s the perfect dog voice for Lewis’ character to have.” And I thought it was so amazing.

But animals to me get to me 90% more than humans a lot of the time. So, whenever that device is used, I find it so moving in a lot of different ways, either funny or heartbreaking or charming.

Oh my gosh that episode just, man…

John Papsidera: Yeah. You didn’t see it coming. It’s funny, somebody in the office also had not seen it and recently watched it, and they were like, “You guys, you didn’t tell me that that happened. [chuckle] We were like, “Shocker.” It did come out of the blue, and it was such an instrumental moment obviously in the whole series. But you were really rooting for them and when that went sideways, yeah, it’s devastating.

For the day players, when casting something that’s set in the ’50s, I feel like there’s a certain tone that people just automatically are ingrained in their head. Did you have trouble finding that, or do you emphasize that on the sides?

John Papsidera: No, I think it’s a matter of searching, it really is. Some people get it, some people don’t. It amazes me at times how people don’t get the tone of things. And as actors, it’s like, “Well, you really gotta watch something if you don’t know the tone of it, and it’s specialized in that way to get a feel of it, to get a sense of it, it would just help.”

I think some people it comes to innately, and some people have to find it a little bit more. So, whether the look is right and you work back to the tone, or the tone is perfect and you work towards the look, you just keep searching until you find it.

With self-tapes, if you’ve seen that look or maybe they had the tone, would you go back and say, “Hey, this person is really good, but can you modify that?”

John Papsidera: Yes. Somebody that you see potential in, in either category, we would go back and then give notes and say, “Remember that it’s 1950s, or remember the relationship between you and a man in that world.” You know what I mean? It was very different than looking at it through 21st century eyes. We would remind people of that and ask for re-tapes. We try to still give that feedback and direction along to the actors when we feel like they’re really right and just something’s missing.

When you first get a self-tape, do you watch the whole thing? Or on some tapes, you’re like, “Okay, next.”

John Papsidera: I think it depends. You usually watch most of it, you know what I mean? Honestly, I’ll usually look for a few specific moments that really matter in the scene to me, whether it’s a moment of a joke, whether it’s a moment of real connection, or even if it’s as simple as a one-liner, if people are making too much out of it, then you know that it’s not going to work.

Somebody that just does it freely and without too much effort, you look for those clues and hopefully get dragged in and connect to everybody’s reads.

But yeah, there are some that you just go, “Nah, they didn’t get it. They didn’t understand that, that thing that I’m looking for.”

I read that you were trained as an actor.

John Papsidera: Yes. I have a BFA in acting, and then I went to study at Circle in the Square in New York for graduate studies.

Did you do any shows or any film work in New York?

John Papsidera: I did a bunch of day player stuff in New York and under-fives on Guiding Light and shows like that. And then I went out for a commercial audition… It was a takeoff of the original Top Gun, so that tells you how long ago that was, Lance. I was sitting in a cockpit of a mocked-up fighter jet, and they had like five or six cameras all around you. And I remember walking out of that audition and going, “Man, I can’t do this.” Theater was never a problem for me, the performance aspect, that was never an issue. Having a camera gaze upon me and having the confidence to hold that, was not something I possessed.

And then I was also just honest like, “Well, who am I gonna play?” You know what I mean? “I am not gonna be Tom Cruise, so if I am somebody’s friend, somebody is this.” And I just thought, “Yeah, I don’t know that I want to eat white rice for years to be able to pursue this.” At that time too the idea of repertory actors still did exist, you could make a career out of it. Now, I don’t know how people do it trying to be a rep actor.

And then I got offered a touring show of three Shakespeare plays in rep. And they were like, “So it will be $300 a week and we’ll travel around in a van, and you’ll share hotel rooms and this and that.” And I thought, “I can’t even pay my rent in my New York apartment at $300 a week.” And I just thought, “Yeah. I can’t… ” I wasn’t driven enough or dedicated enough, I guess, to really suffer for it, suffer for the art.

And luckily, years later, finding casting was really a godsend because it was a real mixture of getting to still work with actors, still look at a script and break it down and talk about characters and be involved in the artistry of it, but also the business side of it.

For self-tapes, what do you constantly see where you’re like, “No, I wish you guys would stop that.”

John Papsidera: I am not a big one for rules. This came up with somebody else, not too long ago, when we were talking about it. I love actors, I think it is a non-exact science, and the freedom with which actors do things is part of the creative process. So as long as it’s not absolutely against what I’m looking for in a character or behavior that’s out of the realm of being socially accepted, I’m interested in what people do. I’m interested in, will they change the camera angle? Do they know how close to be to the camera? How far away? Certainly, there are things where you can’t hear somebody, that’s not going to work.

But for the most part, I don’t have a lot of rules about that. Even in formal tapes, sometimes you go, “Oh my god, that person’s really got something. They have a spark, there’s something there.” So, it doesn’t really matter to me as much of the form as it is content.

When you request to see somebody’s demo reel or clips, what are you mainly looking for? Do you want to see the whole scene or just things to clip it down to feature them more?  

John Papsidera: I think to feature them. When it goes too long into a scene, you’re like, “Okay, I get it,” but it should be moments they’re having. I’m not going to get involved in the story of the scene.

Another thing I think people do at times is that they can have too much for their own good; too much of a intro, like of a montage of them, running or music. And when you’re showing that to a director, they’re like, “What am I looking at? Let’s go.” I think you start with getting right to it, show a scene that shows you doing something that you’re proud of or what you have and make it the best product to sell yourself, not music, not fancy editing.

It’s about, here’s this actor, do you find them intriguing? Are you drawn in by who they are? Do you think they’re right for this character? That’s what you want to get out of it. And I think actors can get misled by people making it more of a production in and of itself, and directors just don’t stay with it that long, they really don’t.

That’s good to know.

John Papsidera: You want to go in, start, grab them by the throat and leave. That’s the point of it. Because they don’t have time and they won’t sit through an entire tape anyway, 90% of the time.

You’ve probably seen it all in casting rooms and auditions. What is the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you in an audition room?

John Papsidera: There are plenty of those. Either actors grabbing my crotch or spitting in my face or kissing me or whatever. But that’s not what stays with me, what stays with me really is when I feel like I’m in the presence of an artist. And those are the moments where, if I even think about them, I still get chills, that you just realize, “Oh, this person’s really special. There’s something really that I can’t touch, I can’t talk about it, I can’t equate, but I feel it.”

And those are the things that when I sit in rooms, when somebody does something unexpected, says a line differently than how 80 other people that read that line read it, thinks about a moment in a different way. Those are the things that you sit there and go, “Holy sh*t, that’s amazing.” And those are the kind of moments that I love and keep me coming back for more.

The rest of it is funny in hindsight but really those things, again, they’re just actors trying to be real in the moment. And so, I give them that grace, or I at least try and give them that grace.

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