Nurse Mildred Ratched from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is one of the most-recognized and iconic movie villains of all time. But prior to Net ix’s “Ratched,” the audience only knew her during one distinct slice of her life. When Sarah Paulson set out to shape who the woman was before she worked at a psychiatric facility in Oregon, she had the freedom to play with “some similarities and some things you recognize, but they’re not fully developed; they haven’t settled into her being [and] they have not come to define her,” as she previously told Variety.
Paulson took on the origin story of this well-known figure as she’s “still in the middle of experiencing” those things that will come to define her behavior in “Cuckoo’s Nest” for the new streaming ensemble drama series. It may be daunting for an actor or a casting director to bring to life for a modern audience such a well-known character — or even a specific version of a real-life person. But it is the type of creative challenge that countless television shows, such as “Ratched,” HBO’s “Perry Mason,” Showtime’s “The Good Lord Bird” and FX on Hulu’s “Mrs. America,” and films including “One Night in Miami” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” have recently embraced.
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“To play a specific person, it’s not going to be something you nd in their body of work, really, because you certainly don’t want an impersonation,” says Carmen Cuba, “Mrs. America” casting director. “It’s a fine line, trying to make somebody who exists ,who’s already larger-than-life, your own and not seeming like a caricature.”
That nine-part limited series centered on the movements for and against ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and 1980s, with political figures including Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba) and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) rotating through the story to each have spotlight moments.
Ultimately, Cuba had to build the ensemble around Blanchett, who came aboard first and was also attached as an executive producer. This is a similar casting strategy to Kim Coleman’s for Showtime’s seven-part adaptation of James McBride’s 2013 novel “The Good Lord Bird,” which Ethan Hawke executive produced and starred in as abolitionist John Brown.
Such figures appear, in varying degrees of detail, in textbooks across the country, and for the women of “Mrs. America,” in countless pieces of media from events and newspaper photos to interviews posted to YouTube. Early discussions for “Mrs. America” did include physical attributes actors needed to embody the real-life people they were portraying, but more important than their body type, Cuba says, was their energy.
“Each part was its own in-depth exploration into how we thought about them and what we were trying to accomplish with the audience and the tone,” she says. “There are ages that don’t reflect the actual ages of the characters at that time. We wanted it to feel like the truth, but it didn’t have to be the truth; we didn’t box ourselves in.”
For “The Good Lord Bird,” there was even more room to play because the people being portrayed lived at a time of rudimentary archival images and the story was based on McBride’s fictional account of Brown’s actions. For this, Coleman says it was important to put together an ensemble of actors with vary- ing levels of experience across the media of film, TV and theater. Putting such veterans as Daveed Diggs and Orlando Jones opposite Hawke was as important as finding fresher faces including Joshua Caleb Johnson.
Most important, Coleman says, “we needed actors with the skill level to play both the drama and the comedy” for the project that had such a unique tone. Coleman has cast actors as Frederick Douglass before (2019’s “Harriet”), but that role in “The Good Lord Bird” required someone who “could play that subtle humor.” Enter Diggs.
“It could be a look across the room or a stare and you’re not laughing hysterically but it’s there, it lightens up the mood,” she says.
Additionally, chemistry with Hawke, who was at the center of the story, was essential, and for that he was “collaborative” and “very, very hands-on” in meeting with the other potential actors, Coleman says.
Chemistry is always vital and yet often unpredictable, and when casting a lm versus a series, that chemistry has less time to grow. In recent films, directors and casting directors have worked to build literal families — including the Korean- American immigrants in “Minari” or the father-daughter dynamic in “The Father” — to figurative families of the bandmates of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” or the titular roamers of “Nomadland.”
Francine Maisler previously cast figures in films such as “First Man” and “Vice”; for Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” she had to round out an ensemble that included Sacha Baron Cohen and Eddie Redmayne as activists Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden, respectively.
“The process always starts by discuss- ing each character with the director. In this case, Aaron specifically told me to focus on the essence of the characters and not worry so much about their appearance,” says Maisler. “In the end we are always looking for the best actors, and we were lucky enough with ‘Chicago 7’ that the best actors also resembled the real people.”
In Regina King’s feature directorial debut “One Night in Miami,” most of the action takes place in a hotel room with four characters — and that quartet happen to be legends Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown. But casting director Kimberly Hardin says she wasn’t intimidated.
“I was through the moon to help tell this iconic story,” she says.
First, Hardin says she wasn’t looking for anyone to imitate the greats. “I look for talent to bring their interpretation to roles,” she notes. However, the actors do need to look somewhat like the people they portray. “That is our part of our job — to find people who can ‘favor’ the real person.”
The ensemble of the Amazon Studios release ended up being a mix of fresh and more familiar faces. Leslie Odom Jr., who portrays singer Cooke, is known to audiences for his Tony-winning role in “Hamilton” while Aldis Hodge, Brown in the movie, is recognizable from several significant roles. But relatively unknown actors Kingsley Ben-Adir and Eli Goree were cast to play Malcolm X and Ali, respectively.
Hardin says ultimately she was looking for actors to capture the spirit of the people they were playing. “Each guy had to tap into that in developing their own interpretation,” she notes. “They use the real person as their inspiration.
But actors will always have their own style. Then with dialect, hair and/or makeup and wardrobe, the character comes alive.
Like Hardin, casting director Alexa Fogel sought actors to portray real-life figures in Warner Bros.’ “Judas and the Black Messiah.” While many of the characters aren’t familiar to the public, she did cast known faces including Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover and Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.
“I was not looking for people to imitate in any way,” Fogel notes. “We paid attention to age and were inspired by looks, but not a prisoner to that. The idea is always to tell the most truthful version of what is written and cast actors who can honestly portray these real people while serving the overall story.”
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