Interview: Casting Director Leah Daniels-Butler on Finding the Cast of ‘Manhunt’ and Auditioning for Historical Dramas

"Research as much as you can, prior to auditioning. Especially in this age of self-taping... it's really important to try to get that across on your self-tape." - Casting Director Leah Daniels-Butler on Auditioning for Historical Dramas.

Watch Casting Director Leah Daniels-Butler Talk How She Cast the AppleTV+ Series, ‘Manhunt’

With her award-winning work on The Butler and The United States vs. Billie Holiday, which were both directed by her brother Lee Daniels, casting director Leah Daniels-Butler can assemble a top-notch cast like no one else. AppleTV+’s Manhunt, about the hunt for John Wilkes Booth in the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, only solidifies that theory.

Daniels-Butler took some time out of her schedule to talk about how she cast the show, including finding actor Hamish Linklater to play Lincoln. She also gave her thoughts on what actors should do when auditioning for historical dramas and her advice on what makes a good self-tape. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve cast a ton of fantastic stuff, but casting a historical drama, that’s got to take a lot of work.

Leah Daniels-Butler: It definitely is challenging, casting these types of shows. The other historical drama that I cast was obviously The Butler, my brother’s movie, which was also a historical drama and also very challenging. I think when you come across these sorts of projects, you have a lot of research that you have to do, but good research. I’m not a history buff, so it actually helps me with learning a lot of things that I didn’t know about how this country was founded.

Because you’re casting real people, are you looking for pictures if they are available, books or documents to read descriptions of certain characters?

Leah Daniels-Butler: Well, there’s a lot of source material especially with characters like Lincoln and Booth and these players that were a part of the conspiracy that led to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. There’s also so much source material that the producers and the director of the show provide you with.

But when I’m actually casting, I still want to do my own research just so I can have some idea of who these characters are and what the essence of these characters are, because ultimately, you’re not going to find a lookalike. We want someone that actually bears some resemblance, but for the most part really just identifies who this character was and captures the essence of who this character was.

How do you cast Lincoln? In my head, I have Daniel Day-Lewis floating around when I think of him.

Leah Daniels-Butler: It’s funny that you say that because it was very hard to cast that because no one wanted to go behind Daniel Day-Lewis because he did such a phenomenal job portraying that character. And he’s so embedded in everybody’s head, people just know who he is. So, for that role, it was difficult trying to find someone that matched all the elements that we were looking for. Obviously Lincoln was a very tall man. He was like 6’2 or 6’3.

And back then I feel like that made him a giant.

Leah Daniels-Butler: Right. Obviously Hamish is not that tall but we were able to pull it off just with the supporting people around him. I don’t think we played too much on the height of it all. We came up with lists and ideas. I worked very closely with the studio with, their casting department and with our producers and identifying someone that we knew ultimately would really resonate with that role and would do it justice.

What process of hiring him? Did he have to audition?

Leah Daniels-Butler: No. Meetings and creative conversations between the studio and the producers and the talent. They just had to get on a creative playing field, how they both saw the character and what he could do differently.

What I do appreciate about this story is that this is less about Lincoln. It’s more about the conspiracy and the manhunt of what really happened. It’s Stanton and John Wilkes Booth and their relationship, if you will, and how that just rolled out and finding out all the people that were involved in the conspiracy and their backstories and what they did and how they played a part in it.

I want to ask you about Anthony Boyle. I mean, he was great. I also had like this, preconceived vision of Booth but here he plays him like an actual person, not like this looming menacing figure twisting his mustache.

Leah Daniels-Butler: Brilliant. Brilliant… That was a role he did have to audition for and he auditioned several times and actually met with the producers several times. He actually auditioned for a couple of roles, if I’m not mistaken, it wasn’t just for Booth but during the process of auditioning, you just knew that this was the role that he was meant to play.

But obviously people have reservations when you’re playing historical figures, especially talent that really respects the craft and respects what they have to do. They know that it’s going to get a lot of attention, they have questions, and they want to make sure that this is the right fit. They’re going to be with these people for a very long period of time, we shot this for a long period of time, so you just want to make sure everything is right.

What was the hardest role to cast?

Leah Daniels-Butler: Probably Booth. They were all very challenging though I’m not going to lie. When we were auditioning people, they went through a period where we were changing ages, and then we didn’t want to change the age too much so that it wasn’t true to the actual age of the characters that were the real people. So, there were some things that we had to take liberty on when it came time to actually casting the roles.

There were actors who read for several different parts, but we had to kind of move the pieces around like a puzzle because it was like, “Okay, they fit in this world, but where do they go?”

Same with Edward Stanton. We aged him up and down quite a bit before we identified him as sort of being in that same age range as Booth. Lewis Powell, who Spencer Treat Clark did an amazing job with who was the one who actually started off the massacre, if you will. So I think with that it was just trying to find out who was going to be the right fit for what role, if that makes sense.

Casting Director Leah Daniels-Butler’s Advice on Auditioning for Historical Dramas

What would you tell actors who are auditioning for these types of period roles?

Leah Daniels-Butler: Do research. [laughter] Really do the research. Research as much as you can, prior to auditioning, and especially in this age of self-taping that we’re in, it’s really important to try to get that across on your self-tape.

You have some actors who just instinctively know because they have been professionally trained… so they understand things, and those actors generally come fully prepared. But then when you have someone who may have this great energy and a great look and raw talent, but something’s not quite there, just make sure you do your research. If you know that you don’t have the training that some of these other actors may have, then I would say just do as much research as you can, coach with someone if you can afford that, request auditions with the casting director so we can kind of give you those nuances that we’ll be looking for when it comes time to actually show your self-tape.

Casting Director Leah Daniels-Butler on Self Tapes

When you watch self-tapes, what do not want to see?

Leah Daniels-Butler: Self-taping is hard, so I don’t want to criticize anybody’s self-tape because I know what some of the struggles are with actors who are at home self-taping.

The only thing that I would say really just focus on is making sure your lighting and your sound is good, that’s all we really want. We want to see you, we want to be able to hear you and not have too much of a distraction in the background. If you can go up against a blank wall, then great. If you can’t… I don’t want to see a dirty kitchen in the background, [laughter] I don’t want to see a dirty bedroom, you know what I mean? I want to focus on you.

Certain things I think that are common sense is really what I would tell someone that’s working on  a self-tape.

I once did a self-tape and I packed up everything and I was about to send it and I saw my cat’s tail just behind me walking in the background.

Leah Daniels-Butler: That’s actually funny. Some things add character to it, I’m not going to lie.  But again, I don’t want to have the actor stress things, when really it should just be about performance and lighting and sound when you’re self-taping.

If you see something on a self-tape that you can work with, do you go back and give them or their reps notes?

Leah Daniels-Butler: Yeah, if I can and I have time, then I will try to get them on a Zoom so I can give them the notes and tape it myself through Zoom. But if we don’t have that luxury, then I’ll give them specific notes. “Hey, this is where you may want to, think about this,” or “this is where you may want to change your cadence” or, “I hear your accent slipping in and out,” things like that.

If I’m sending these off as pre-reads, I’m going to tell the producer or the director, “Hey, this is just their interpretation. If there’s something that you like about this character, this person, and they didn’t hit every nail on the head, we can always bring them back in for callback session.”

Do you like that you can watch self-tapes? It takes a lot of time off your hands, I would think.

Leah Daniels-Butler: Well, it definitely does. I’m still doing a sort of a hybrid, but I’ve always done the hybrid. It wasn’t even before the rule came down with SAG where they said, “Hey, if an actor requests a Zoom or an in-person audition, you have to try to accommodate if you have space.” And I’m fine with that because you’d be surprised as much as they fought for it, how many people don’t take advantage of it.

If I get a request for an audition, it’s not very many people that are requesting the in-person auditions, because again, like everything else, people have come accustomed to doing this on their own time and getting these tapes to us. I think the only advantage for the actor and the self-tape space is that they get to have a little more time to submit it to us.

It’s crazy because before we started self-taping and everything was in person, we were holding our in-person auditions and self-tapes. So, I was doing that anyway. But it does allow for me to see and meet more people.

I prefer the hybrid. If I’m going to have a Zoom session, have a Zoom session, or watch self-tape because I’m meeting more people, I’m hiring actors that I wouldn’t normally have the chance to. When you’re under the gun, you don’t necessarily go to the smaller agencies when you are trying to cast something quickly, you have to go through those agents that are going to deliver the talent that needs to be in front of that camera within sometimes 24 hours. So, it opened up for a lot of new talent for me.

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