Zendaya’s ‘Euphoria’ Role Almost Went to a First-Time Actor, and More Secrets From Emmy-Nominated Casting Directors

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The acting awards tend to be among the most anticipated recognitions doled out at the Emmys every year, while several below-the-line awards are announced off-the-air. It makes sense, given that the lead, supporting and guest actor categories are where all the A-list names are housed, but it’s one of the quieter races that provides the TV Academy with talent to root for in the first place: the Emmy awards for casting.

Among the 20 nominations earned by “The White Lotus” are noms for stars Connie Britton, Jennifer Coolidge, Alexandra Daddario, Natasha Rothwell, Sydney Sweeney, Murray Bartlett, Jake Lacy and Steve Zahn. Casting director Meredith Tucker describes the process to cobble together those actors as “fast and furious.”

“We didn’t start casting until after Labor Day, and they wanted everyone in Hawaii by Oct. 15,” she says. “But we were one of the few new shows that was actively casting. Most of the other stuff that was shooting had been delayed from the spring right with the [pandemic] shutdown, so it really was sort of an embarrassment of riches in terms of actors who wanted to be on the show.”

Bartlett, who played tortured resort manager Armond, has been a standout of the season, but had yet to be seen as a leading man before “The White Lotus.” Tucker had admired his performance as Oliver Spencer in a single episode of “Sex and the City” for years, but “didn’t have that much opportunity to bring him in, because for a lot of the stuff I worked on, he was just too pretty,” she laughs. But here, she realized Bartlett could be the perfect fit.

“He did this thing when Shane [Lacy] first complains about the room and says, ‘Should I call my mother?’ Murray tilted his head in this way, in that one moment, you could tell that his Armond recognized that this guy was gonna be a nightmare. It so encapsulated what we needed. He sold me.”

For “Abbott Elementary,” casting director Wendy O’Brien, CSA, was surprisingly in-sync with creator and star Quinta Brunson from the get-go. “I came in with a list of names I had thought of as prototypes, and we matched on a few of them,” she says of their early meetings. Coincidentally, they were both eyeing Sheryl Lee Ralph and Tyler James Williams
for the key roles for which they are now nominated. But in the case of wacky school principal Ava Coleman, the also-nominated Janelle James was a newer actor who almost immediately staked her claim.

“There’s a general stage of casting where studios and networks want to explore what names of ‘high value’ they can add to the ensemble to bring in viewers, and we were certainly looking at people with much bigger resumes,” O’Brien says. “And then I got her self tape and it was just one of those moments, which there’s not tons of, where I thought, ‘if she doesn’t get this role, I don’t know what I’m doing as a casting director.’ It was so obvious.”

Sometimes, finding the right person for a role comes down to an actor’s mental preparation, not just the strength of the performance. “Euphoria” casting director Jennifer Venditti says the role of Rue, which in 2020 made Zendaya the youngest person to win the lead drama actress Emmy, almost went to someone else.

“There was a young woman who had been street scouted by my team who was a magical person and had a similar trajectory as Rue and had come around to the other side,” Venditti says, referencing Rue’s struggles with drug addiction. “But with a TV show, it can be many years [of work]. We all loved her, but when we went through the rigor of the process, we didn’t know if she could handle what it would take in terms of stamina.”

Venditti connected the young actor with a coach in hopes of acclimating her to the emotional weight of the project, but ultimately, she and Levinson didn’t feel confident that she was ready: “It’s so interesting. A polar opposite. Because here’s Zendaya, who has none of the life experiences of Rue, who was able to dig into her toolbox and access it in such a beautiful way.”

But for the role of Jules, played by Hunter Schafer, a series of conversations about the project was enough to set her up to succeed despite the fact that her previous work experience was in modeling, not acting.

“I reached out to her agent and they originally passed. [The actor] had to be open to any kind of sexual situations. So imagine that you were not really thinking of acting, and someone brings an opportunity with possible nudity,” Venditti says. “I was like, ‘Can we just meet?’ Obviously, I’d respect her decision if that was something that, ultimately, she wasn’t comfortable with. But I didn’t feel comfortable just not having a discussion about it to see what her thoughts were and to explain what it was.”

Schafer was also set up with an acting coach and ultimately decided to pursue the part. The rest happened easily: “She did her auditions with [the first-time actor who was being considered for Rue]. And she also did something that I think is so beautiful: when it was time for the other young woman to do a scene that was hers, she showed up for her. She was so present and so natural with these other scenes that weren’t hers. You find that with good actors, that’s what they do for each other.”

Venditti emphasizes that along with adjudicating the successful ensembles that make it to the screen, it’s important to understand how much of the process happens in obscurity.

“There are many people that are never seen. Stories where we’re going to strip clubs or festivals or amusement parks, or just walking the streets of different cities, and coming into contact with people who are so open,” she says. “It’s a vulnerable act to stand in front of a camera and share yourself, and attempt to become someone else in front of people. I feel honored that people engage with us in that way.”

Zendaya’s ‘Euphoria’ Role Almost Went to a First-Time Actor, and More Secrets From Emmy-Nominated Casting Directors

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