Created by Lee Sung Jin, Beef stars Ali Wong and Steven Yeun as the characters of Danny Cho and Amy Lau whose lives get entangled in one another after a road rage. From there, all hell breaks loose, which impacts the lives of those around them. The show, which includes a supporting cast of Joseph Lee, Young Mazino, Patti Yasutake, and Maria Bello, is nominated for 13 Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series.
Behind that ensemble cast are its casting directors Charlene Lee and Claire Koonce, who worked closely with the showrunner, director, and rest of the crew to put the cast together. While Lee and Koonce work together under their banner of CLCK casting, which was founded in 2019, they worked separately on a number of projects prior to joining forces.
Lee has worked as the casting associate for series like Upload, Escape at Dannemora, Fargo, and more, while Koonce has worked on the casting team for movies like Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and more.
In a recent conversation via Zoom, Lee and Koonce spoke about the experience of working on this series together, what they looked for in the casting process for this show, what it was like casting during the pandemic and more.
Below the Line: How long have the two of you worked together?
Charlene Lee: Oh my goodness. At this point, how many years has it been?
Claire Koonce: I think it has to be officially four and a half years.
Lee: We were friends before we started working together, but we basically joined forces on a previous job. I had done a pilot that came back pretty abruptly and the series needed to be cast in five weeks and there were about a hundred roles. At the time, I was on a couple other projects, so I reached out to Claire and she very graciously jumped on board with me.
After we went through that casting process, we kind of realized we could take on a lot together. We wound up partnering up and it’s been really wonderful. It’s just so nice to be able to have another person to bounce ideas off of. Sometimes in casting, with so much of it, you’re kind of like, ‘Wait, is this a good idea?’ So, it’s been a fun journey working with Claire on this one.
BTL: How did you both get involved with Beef?
Lee: It was one of those things where the show was announced, and we were super intrigued by the elements of A24 and Netflix, Steven and Ali’s involvement, and obviously, Sung Jin Lee, our showrunner, who also goes by Sonny. There were just so many interesting elements of the show, so we reached out to work on it.
Koonce: Let me give my partner some credit here. She says “we,” but she was the one that reached out. I’m not good at cold emailing and that’s such a skill set of Char’s, and she was like, “We should just go for it!” and she reached out. I’m very grateful that she did.
Lee: I would say what is really interesting about casting that I think a lot of people don’t realize is we are also freelance, and we do have to interview to get our own jobs, which I will say is, in some ways, similar to a lot of other below-the-line jobs and also similar to what actors go through. They’re in the same boat as us. Fortunately, during our first meeting, we sat down, and read the pilot. There were so many things that you could just see, within reading the pilot, you could get a sense of where the story could potentially go, so we were intrigued and fortunate to join.
BTL: It goes without saying that the show has an amazing ensemble with Ali and Steven, who are incredible together. But even the rest of the supporting cast, you have Ashley Park, Joseph Lee, and Maria Bello, etc. What was the casting process like, and how did you work with the showrunner and director to make sure you were finding the right actors to portray what they were looking for?
Koonce: I feel like a lot of these characters on the page—Joseph Lee, for example—his character of George, I think on the page could seem really one dimensional, but when when you read the scripts and whenever you talk with Sonny, you realize how complex and nuanced all these characters were and how no one’s truly good, and no one’s really bad.
We were working really closely with our team. The goal for each of these roles in every single part of our supporting cast was to find actors that could really find all of the nuance and complexity to the world that Sonny was creating. We’re so proud of all of these actors, especially our nominated actors. We’re thrilled for them, because they did a really good job. But also, we were just really excited to have them come on board, because we know them to be actors capable of this kind of richness and it was really exciting to have them be showcased with a project like this and with writing like Sonny’s.
Lee: To add to that, the great thing about our team was, everyone was extremely collaborative and open to finding the right person for each role. Oftentimes the casting, there’s a lot of fixation of needing to get a specific name. But very much in this process, the focus was always finding the right person.
BTL: There’s such a great mix of actors there. You know Ali and Steven who are a little more established and have been in more projects and then you have kind more of the emerging actors, like Young who plays Paul, in his first major kind of acting role. Can you talk a little bit about the dynamic of casting and having a combination of actors who are all at different stages in their career?
Koonce: Just to piggyback on what Char was saying, it was really important in our collaboration, that we found the right person. I think a lot of people assume that whenever we were looking to cast Paul, that we were only looking for new faces, but truthfully, we had a beautiful pool of talent to pick from and it was really about finding people who had the right chemistry with Danny and that chemistry with Amy. We knew that both of those chemistries were going to be essential to that character and finding someone who could not only nail the chemistry with Steven and Ali, but also find someone who made Paul his own and really brought him to life in an exciting way. Young really came forward and did exactly that, so we were thrilled that we were able to have him join the cast, even though yes, it is a newer role for him.
Lee: Very fortunately, we were able to do callbacks in person, even though it was during COVID. We had a lot of precautions that we had to take. At one point, we were doing sessions in a parking lot, which I hadn’t experienced. But I think really seeing that chemistry in person, once we got down to the wire, was instrumental to allowing us to find the right actors. With Young, I think in the beginning, when we started, we just had the pilot script, and we didn’t know specifically the arc of his character and what would transpire with Amy, but doing those callback scenes made it very clear to us that he was the right person for the role.
BTL: Speaking of the pandemic, can you talk a little more about the challenges about what it was like casting during COVID?
Lee: I think as much as possible, chemistry is obviously easiest to gauge in person. But we got pretty good at figuring things out on Zoom as best we could. it’s such a credit to the actors to tap to pivot.
Koonce: Acting on Zoom is different from acting in process. As best as we can, Charlene and I always try to set actors up for success. We fixed it up as best as possible, like, what it would be like for the actors to be in the room, because you’re casting more than what’s in this little box. There’s a lot more to acting than what ends up on screen, so we find it really important to get to know the person, in addition to the actor.
During the pandemic, it was difficult. But it did open up a lot of opportunities for actors, especially developing actors who maybe didn’t have the opportunity to take off work in order to come in for an in-person audition, or maybe can’t afford to live in Los Angeles, those sorts of things. It kind of democratizes the process whenever you start from a virtual space, but it was definitely a challenge, trying to get everything that we needed, in order to make sure that we were confidently making the right decisions.
BTL: I was thinking about what Claire said earlier about how with all the characters, like George, he might seem one dimensional on the page, but once you see the portrayal on screen, it’s much more nuanced. When you were casting these actors, were there specific characteristics you were carefully looking for?
Lee: Very much our focus is always to find what’s real and believable to us. Because the characters are so complicated, we were looking for different layers. Not any one is all bad or all good. Something that’s interesting that several people have said to me is how much they relate to both Ali’s character of Amy and Steven’s character of Danny, and that not one person is all good or all bad. I think that’s across the board for all the cast. In our search for each and every role, we were looking at if something was authentic to us, and just seeing different complexities and layers for each character. So much of that is the richness of the writing, and obviously, what the performers brought to each role.
Koonce: The word “authentic” is thrown around in casting a lot, because it really is important to cast authentically. But I do feel that word has become a bit of a buzzword and people have stopped remembering to cast authentically. It doesn’t just mean the checkboxes of a person, but rather, it means casting an authentic person who understands the complexity of the human experience and can put that out there. So, authenticity is something that’s incredibly important to Charlene and I, on a checkbox level as well, like, you know, the surface aspects of a character, but finding someone who is authentically the character and can authentically share this voice in this world.
BTL: I wanted to talk a little more about Maria Bello, who portrayed Jordan with such fire. What did you see in Maria for Jordan?
Koonce: The casting for Jordan was long because there’s a lot of really, really fantastic actresses that could fit the bill and this sketch of who Jordan is, but when we sat down with Sonny and worked with our team and talked about all the different colors that Jordan needed to have, she’s a very surprisingly specific character. When we landed on Maria, we knew that she was going to not only nail every single one of those colors, but also bring something of her own to it and make it her own in a way that was really special.
Having Maria on board was truly a gift. I mean, yes, she’s a fantastic actress. I think a lot of people are familiar with her, but it’s kind of a privilege that I don’t know that people are familiar with her in this exact way. It was exciting to find someone not only that nailed all of the colors that we needed for Jordan, but also brought what Maria brought to it.
BTL: The last question I had for you all is, do you have a favorite from the show that you loved? Or, since you did all the casting for the show, was there a favorite character dynamic that is your favorite?
Koonce: I’m trying to think of what mine might be. Charlene, do you know?
Lee: It’s interesting, because you always kind of go back to the audition scenes. With Young’s character, the scene in Vegas with Amy, where you kind of see more of his vulnerability, and they’re having an honest conversation. I think that’s when you kind of see Paul put his guard down, instead of him just being like Danny’s petulant brother who is this gamer and make all these assumptions about him, but you his hopes and dreams and aspirations in this moment as well as hers, and the vulnerability and honesty that they share in that moment with each other. I think, as much as highlighting Young and Paul’s character, I think it also highlights Ali/Amy as well. I think that stands out. Claire, did you have one?
Koonce: It’s funny, I was gonna say the same thing, but then I was thinking about it and I know this is cheesy, and I probably should tell you a scene that has a lot of the cast… But the last shot of the show whenever Amy crawls into bed with Danny — and Ali and Steven — their characters just truly see each other. It’s the culmination of the show, and Sonny did a brilliant job directing that episode and that final note. I can’t choose a favorite scene, so the idea that the final scene wraps everything up is probably my favorite. I don’t even think they say anything. She just crawled into bed with him. I think that’s probably my favorite.
Lee: I guess in terms of an episode that I think Claire and I are really proud of is episode 8. There are a lot of flashbacks to the parents at a younger age, and Amy and Danny’s characters at a younger age. That was a particularly challenging episode to cast, making sure that we got all the rules right. That particular episode delves into their backstories, and you kind of get a sense of why they are the way they are. But truly, there’s just so, so many. There’s so many scenes, but the Vegas one is the scene that immediately sticks out to me.
All episodes of BEEF are available to stream on Netflix.