Screen Speck sat down with casting directors Brett Benner and Debby Romano, longtime collaborators with producer Bill Lawrence and the casting directors for beloved shows like Scrubs; Psych; One Tree Hill; and Cougar Town.
Their latest venture is Shrinking, Apple TV+’s newest show, co-created by Ted Lasso’s Lawrence and Brett Goldstein along with actor Jason Segel. Shrinking revolves around therapist Jimmy (Segel) trying to find a way back to his life and raise his daughter as a single parent following the sudden passing of his wife. The double meaning of the title comes from Jimmy’s reduced stature as well as the intertwining of Jimmy’s personal life and his professional, though increasingly personal relationships with his clinic’s two colleagues, Gaby (Jessica Williams) and Paul (Harrison Ford).
Benner and Romano spoke to me about the casting process for Shrinking, the gentle art of pairing actors for chemistry, and actors who might make an interesting addition to the series.
Screen Speck: I can’t imagine Harrison Ford’s character could’ve been described as anything other than a Harrison Ford-type in the specs. How did that casting process go?
Brett Benner: When we started, the role that was written was a kind of a curmudgeonly guy. So, we had put together a rather large list of people for them initially, which they narrowed down to about six or seven names. Then we began to talk about the names of who to potentially make an offer to. Then, one day Bill [Lawrence] said “Look, I want to try to do this. I want to see if Harrison Ford” – who’s his neighbor – “would engage. I want to take a script to him and see if he’ll read it.” So we were like, “Yeah, sure.”
So he did. And, at the time, he didn’t see Harrison right away, because Harrison was in London. So they set up a meeting with Harrison and Brett Goldstein, who sat down together and that kind of got the ball rolling in a positive direction. Harrison really had responded to the script. Meanwhile, the whole time, Bill had said to us that this could take a while, this is not going to be a fast thing. So, I think we all sat back, but as we started to get closer, people started to get a little nervous. Would this really happen? Then all the signs started deploying to “Oh, my God, this really could happen. Like, we could end up with Harrison Ford.” And sure enough, we did.
Screen Speck: Were the characters fully realized on the page at that point?
Debby Romano: Yes. There was a full script. Sometimes we had to pull sides from the second episode with Michael Urie [Brian, Jimmy’s friend] and Lukita Maxwell [Alice, Jimmy’s teenage daughter]’s characters because they were meatier. We needed that to know what they were capable of, but they were fully realized on the page and, it was just up to us to solve the problem.
Benner: Sometimes, there are nuances with certain characters that always become the discussion when we start to watch the auditions. It’s like, “This person has a little more this”; “This person has a little more that and we want them to be more like this.” That’s just part of the process, but the basis of everyone was already there.
Screen Speck: When it came to this cast, did you only consider their auditions? Or did you also look at past roles?
Romano: Every time we sent someone to producers if they auditioned – which not all of them did – we sent their auditions, reels, and any sort of information their agents or managers would provide us with, just to give context. Because it’s so hard doing this virtually versus being in a room. When you’re in a room, there’s something a little more relaxed about it. If you start to chat, and you really hit it off, then it takes longer, but, with Zoom, you’re on a schedule and sometimes things are rushed. So that just seemed to help focus and allow people to ask the right questions from our team. So that was helpful, to educate people.
Screen Speck: Which role took the longest time to cast and which role took the shortest?
Benner: [The longest role] was either Sean (Luke Tennie) or Alice. We saw a lot of girls for Alice. Also, one of the roles that took up a lot of time, which you would not believe, was Summer (Rachel Stubington), Alice’s friend. We saw so many girls for that role. Then, of the people who read for the show that weren’t straight offers, Michael Urie’s role went pretty quickly. I mean, we sent them some self-tapes and some auditions, but that came together pretty fast.
Romano: This is how fast that came together – I’ll give you the inside track. Brett [Benner] very nicely asked his agent if he would lay it down and read it; we didn’t know if he would say yes, but he did. I think he loved the material enough. Then, one night [when] I happened to be on the computer and going through all of the auditions that were uploaded, I immediately texted Brett, “Michael Urie is there. It’s amazing.” So he watched and then we sent it directly to Bill Lawrence, who then sent it to the rest of the team. By the next morning, everyone had signed up – and you have to realize, we had people in LA, we had people in Florida, and London. So we were dealing with a time difference. By the next morning, we were told [to] please call Warner Brothers and get this rolling. It was done, and it was so great.
Screen Speck: It’s one thing to cast a talented group of people, but it must be hard to make sure that they have chemistry. Shrinking has some of the funniest duos I’ve seen. Were there a lot of chemistry reads? How did you ensure that that happened?
Benner: I think sometimes it’s a stab in the dark. I mean, taking Lukita, for example – she’s so fantastic and nuanced and leveled. We brought a very small group of actors back to read with Jason [Segel] and there were a lot of discussions. I don’t believe Harrison was set yet. I mean, that was still in process. So, it was never a question of putting them together with anybody else. A little bit of it is just hoping that it all works out.
When you’re making an offer to an actor, you don’t really know…like Debbie was saying earlier, it does make us nervous when you’re making a direct offer to someone without ever seeing them read the part. You don’t know if it’s all going to work out, so, in the case of someone like Jessica, it feels like we’ve won; it’s a bounty with Jessica. It’s a little bit of a crapshoot, but in this case, it all paid off with everybody.
Screen Speck: If we get a second season of Shrinking, which new character or actor would you like to cast? [Editor’s note: Since this interview, Apple TV+ has officially greenlit Shrinking Season 2.]
Romano: In a way, I would love to see someone from our past – maybe someone we have cast before and hopefully we can find a way to bring them into this family. It would be nice if we cast them in a little role [before] and now they’re ready for a bigger role. I just always like to follow through and just go “We believe in you. Let’s see if this will work.” I can’t give you a specific name though.
Benner: I don’t know specifically who I’d say, like, “Oh my god, we have to have this person on Shrinking.” You know, you’d always be like, “Oh, God, wouldn’t be fun to have like, Meryl Streep?” Or you know what I mean, whatever. But really, who would have thought we’d have Harrison Ford?
Screen Speck: I would personally love to see Brett Goldstein in the show.
Romano: Yes! He should play a character that’s the antithesis of Roy Kent.
Benner: Oh, that would be great. That’s a great idea. It would be funny if he played an introverted shy guy or a real nice people-pleaser.
New episodes of Shrinking drop on Apple TV+ every Friday at 12:00 AM EST.