Good Omens: how did so many incredible actors end up in the same cast?
Neil Gaiman’s TV adaptation of the beloved fantasy novel is blessed with a wonderful line-up. RadioTimes.com speaks to the casting director who helped assembled them…
Michael Sheen and David Tennant. Jon Hamm and Frances McDormand. Benedict Cumberbatch and Anna Maxwell Martin.
From the moment the cast was revealed, the omens were good for Good Omens, Neil Gaiman’s TV adaptation of his and Terry Pratchett’s beloved fantasy novel.
Leading US stars appear alongside British acting greats, from Nick Offerman to Derek Jacobi, Michael McKean to Miranda Richardson.
How did so many headline names end up in the same show?
Some, like Sheen, were instantly drawn to working with Gaiman, having been fans of his work for years.
Others, like Cumberbatch and Brian Cox, were glorious late arrivals, coming in to voice roles long after filming had finished.
But it took one person to bring them all together. To negotiate with agents, check availabilities, work with Gaiman and director Douglas Mackinnon, and turn character descriptions on the page into living, breathing realisations.
That person is Suzanne Smith.
Smith is the casting director for Good Omens. She, along with her small team of three based in north London, manages every stage of the casting process, from auditioning unknown child actors to signing the biggest names in Hollywood.
“I’m involved in so many different stages,” she tells RadioTimes.com. “It’s consultations between the director, the producer and the studio. I negotiated the deals with the help of BBC Business Affairs.”
“It’s about looking at all of the roles: making sure that you have actors for each role, making sure the director and producer are happy,” she continues. “I was on it for over a year.”
It’s easy to overlook the role of a casting director. Viewers see the actor on screen once the show goes out, are either hooked by their performance or switch off. But that is just the final piece of a long, logistical nightmare of a process.
Some are trying to shine a long-overdue light on their role. A petition for casting directors’ work to be recognised by Bafta has been launched by Broadchurch actor Shaun Dooley, for example.
“We are a head of department, but the only head of department that is not recognised by a Bafta award. For whatever reason they don’t think that our contribution is enough to garner an award, which I think is incorrect,” Smith says.
“If you think about your favourite shows, those actors aren’t necessarily picked by the producer or director. Who’s responsible for that chemistry? It’s the casting director. We champion actors. Think about Line of Duty: that wonderful cast didn’t just appear by magic. And that is part of the role of the casting director. I think it’s important for us to be recognised.”
Perhaps there is no better person to lift the lid on what exactly a casting director does than Smith herself…
The cast of Good Omens is incredible. Does that mean this was the easiest job in the world – or the hardest?
The process of casting this was quite hard, simply because of the number of characters. I started with a long list of all the characters and all the scripts.
It’s not often that you have all the scripts when you’re casting a project, but we had all six because we knew they would not be filmed in order. Some were filmed here in the UK, some were filmed in South Africa, so it was location driven. You’ll see when you watch it: there are so many different locations, so many different time periods.
Where do you start with a project like this?
You go through all the scripts and build a cast list, laying out exactly what scene each character is in and how big their role is. Do they have two lines, or are they in it for three episodes?
As I say, you don’t always get all the scripts together. Sometimes you’re working one episode at a time – and sometimes scripts can be very late. I have casting friends who received a script two days before filming started: they were doing deals with people right at the last moment.
Every job is different, but you’re always talking to the creators, in this case showrunner Neil Gaiman and director Douglas McKinnon. Neil loves actors, so does Douglas. They go to the theatre a lot, so they know quite a lot of our actors as well. Between all of us we’re building lists, checking availabilities: lots of late-night phone calls.
When you say ‘lists’, is that essentially a wish list of actors who you’d like to see in the role?
Yes. You talk about what they would like to see in the role: age, feeling, gender etc. For Good Omens, we changed quite a lot of characters from the book that could have been male into female, for example.
A lot of Good Omens is about double acts – and none more so than Crowley and Aziraphale. How did you get David Tennant and Michael Sheen on board?
We got them to read the scripts basically. Douglas knew David because he’d worked on Doctor Who, and Neil knew them because he knows everybody!
I do know that Douglas and Neil wanted those actors, but you still have to do lists for all the characters, because the money isn’t coming from Neil and Douglas: it’s coming from Amazon and the BBC. We were very lucky. They loved the scripts, they loved the concept, they knew the project – and they were available.
That’s the most important thing. Sometimes I think people think, “Oh yes I could cast”. But that doesn’t mean to say that the one actor that you think is right for your role is available.
As well as the individual actors, are you also trying to work out whether there will be a good dynamic between them?
It’s a bit like matchmaking, isn’t it? Will the chemistry be right? And often in casting – not in this case but in other shows I’ve worked on – we have done what are called ‘chemistry reads’. I was the casting director for Outlander, and we did a chemistry read for our two leading actors on that, Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe.
What about other roles, like Newt and Anathema for example? Did you hold auditions?
We did a list for both characters. I worked with the person we eventually cast as Anathema before – Adria Arjona – on Emerald City. Jack Whitehall was top on the list for Newt, but again we were lucky that they were both available; it doesn’t always work that way. When we first asked Miranda Richardson to be Madame Trace y she wasn’t available, but then our filming dates shifted and it just worked out that she could do it.
It sounds like a logistical nightmare…
It is. Remember we also had filming in South Africa, so we knew that certain characters would have to travel as well. The kids were all filmed in one place, so that was easier. Jon Hamm and his fellow angels were all filmed here in the UK, but the demons were filmed in various places. So yes, it’s quite difficult to work out and it’s a huge thing to negotiate.
Did you get actors who said yes straight away, just because they were fans of Neil Gaiman’s work?
We did. It happened twice: once an agent said, “There’s an actor that really loves Good Omens. If there’s a role for him, no matter how small, let us know.” And there was a role for him in the end. They said it’s their favourite book, and you would never have expected it.
Is casting harder when you’re working on an adaptation of a book?
I suppose that when you read something, you do have a picture in your mind about the story and the hero. However, in adaptations things change, because you can’t always put everything onto the screen.
I remember when Sam Heughan was first announced for Outlander, the author Diana Gabaldon announced him to the fans, which I think is a great way of doing it. Likewise Neil announced the actors for Good Omens. I also remember that when Sam was first announced, some Outlander fans replied back, “He’s too short”, or “His hair is not red enough”. And Sam is six foot three! Everybody has their own imagination.
How much of a sway do you have in the final decision? How far can you push your preferred actor?
I have my ‘three’ rule, which is you can push an actor three times. Any more than three, you know you’re not going to get it.
I’m not talking about Douglas and Neil in Good Omens here, I’m talking in general. Sometimes on shows, you have to persuade producers or showrunners. They might not be from the UK; they might not know where the actor has come from; they won’t have seen them at Bristol or RADA or LAMDA or wherever. You, by contrast, have followed their career: you’ve brought them in several times for auditions, and you can see them grow into the role. Often we put actors who have just come out of drama school on tape, and they don’t necessarily have enough time in front of the camera, so you’ve got to help them.
We’re always the friend of the actor because we want them to do their best. For example, I’ve just cast something called Warrior Nun for Netflix. The lead girl – Portuguese actress Alba Baptista – I saw in a film festival in Kilkenny. As soon as I saw her I knew she was the lead, so I got her to tape there and then at the festival. Now she’s the star.
So your job is both to negotiate with big stars and audition up-and-coming actors?
I spend most of my days putting actors on tape without a director or a producer. That happened on Good Omens because it wasn’t possible for Douglas always to be here. For example, when we were looking for the children in the series, we went out and we brought a lot of kids in. We went to drama schools, presented lots of auditions to Neil and Douglas until we found our people.
What are you looking for when someone comes in to record an audition?
If you are auditioning somebody, you can tell so much from how they’ve prepared. Are they late? Are they on time? Do they know their lines?
It’s OK, everybody gets nervous. Even I ‘audition’ for jobs, so I know that feeling of wondering how I will come across. I try to put actors at ease, because I’ve been in that situation.
But equally, not everybody can connect with a project. You might be going through a bad day. You might have broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend or be somewhere else emotionally or intellectually.
Sometimes you don’t get the job that you want even though you’ve done a fantastic audition. It can be so totally out of your control: somebody might have changed the age or the ethnicity of the role. They may go younger or older, they may have cast a sister and need somebody to go with them. There are so many things at play.
How did you become a casting director?
I studied drama to teach, but never taught (but it comes in useful when I cast children). I went to Australia, ended up managing a post-production film house – don’t ask me why! It just happened. I came back here, and a friend of mine who had been casting with the Royal Shakespeare Company asked me to come and help her.
Then she loaned me to an American casting director called Rose Tobias Shaw. I ended up being her assistant for five years. She was great: brought up in the Bronx, had been there on the set of The Misfits, knew Arthur Miller… She had such wonderful stories, and she was the one who taught me casting.
There has been lots of discussion about increasing diversity on television. Is that a consideration when you’re working?
I always remember I was responsible for casting Carousel at the National Theatre, and I cast a black Mr Snow. That caused quite a furore.
There are so many stories out there that need to be told, and I think that there is more opportunity now, which is great. There are a lot of shows I’ve been working on where we’ve cast worldwide, where we’ve cast Europeans, and not just everybody with a RP accent. That is the world now: you walk around in London and everybody is speaking different languages, which is great. That reflects on the world, that we have a diverse membership of this earth.
Could Brexit be a problem for you when casting in the future?
We have yet to see, but I wouldn’t have thought it would be. The only thing is probably withholding tax would be more, but I’m like you: I don’t know. My industry is such that it brings so much money into a country that they’re going to stop British actors from working.
They want that production: you’ve got restaurants, hotels, you’ve got ancillaries, laundry… All sorts of different businesses are tied into ours, plus you’re teaching people new skills, whether it’s costuming, location, cameras etc. There are so many people that work on a production, and it’s beneficial to an economy. In Scotland where Outlander is filmed we’ve built a studio that has several sound stages there and really the number of people that have been taught new jobs, new skills in the community. I think everyone is wondering, if there is Brexit, what’s going to happen?
Good Omens will be available to watch on Amazon Prime Video from Friday 31st May
This article was first published in the Radio Times, click here to view it