Netflix’s limited series Inventing Anna tells the sensational true story of Anna Delvey, a woman who managed to convince a number of the most powerful people in New York City that she was a German heiress. To create a compelling dramatization, Casting Director Allison Estrin had to find exactly the right talent to match the vision of Creator Shonda Rhimes.
It’s hard to imagine Inventing Anna — which earned three Emmy nominations, including one for Estrin and her casting team — without star Julia Garner in the title role. The Ozark actress, who was nominated for both of her Netflix shows this year, delivers an entirely different yet equally captivating turn as Delvey, whose background and true intentions are just as mysterious as her accent.
Below the Line had the chance to speak with Estrin, who recalled following the strange case as it unfolded and how she assembled various groups of actors to populate Anna’s different worlds before reflecting on the rewards of casting small ensembles in indie films.
Below the Line: Congratulations on your first Emmy nomination. That must be so exciting.
Allison Estrin: Thank you. It is really exciting.
BTL: I read that you were following this trial when it was happening, is that right?
Estrin: Yes, I first read the New York magazine article like everyone else, and became pretty obsessed with it. At every lunch break, I would read out little bits to the rest of my office, just all the little crazy stuff that was happening or the stuff that she was wearing, I was still talking about it because it just kept on popping up. I looked at the Instagram feed. I was actually completely fascinated by it. I’ve lived in New York for 18 years now, and I’ve seen that whole world — the finance world, the fashion world, and the art world. Seeing someone fully take all those people that way was fascinating to me.
BTL: Did you have an idea that Anna’s story would make a good movie or TV show at some point?
Estrin: I feel like, whenever I read stuff, I’m always casting it in my head. I’m always thinking and hoping that maybe, one day, it would be. But it also was just so outlandish, and I just didn’t know where it was going to go at that particular time. Is this girl for real? What does she believe to be true? And I was just so fascinated by her as a character that I actually didn’t really completely know yet. And then, when Linda Lowy called me and Henry Russell Bergstein, who I cast with, she said she had been working on this show with Shonda for a little bit, and it was going to be filming in New York. But she didn’t tell me exactly what it was; she just said it was a new Shonda Rhimes show, which I was already going to say “yes” to. Then I opened up my computer and saw what it was and literally started screaming to everyone; I was so excited.
BTL: Do you remember if you actually did cast people in these roles in your head way back then?
Estrin: I definitely had some thoughts, but I think, normally the way that I do cast in my head, in all honesty, is I see a lot of faces, but I’m not someone who usually puts celebrities into roles. I have such a love for character actors and amazing faces. That’s why I love casting in New York. So, it’s more just thinking about the whole picture [rather] than, ‘which famous actor is this going to be?’ I didn’t have that exact pinpoint just yet.
BTL: Do you think that your perception changed between reading the article and looking at Anna’s Instagram, which brought this story to life in a different way because now you’re trying to recreate something?
Estrin: A little bit. It was more just seeing the actual clothes that she was wearing, and also just seeing, oh, okay, she really was just a normal-looking girl at a certain point. This could have fooled anyone. The way that it all looked very legit, and that, I think, was the most fascinating thing to me about it, truly how legit she made it all look.
BTL: Is it safe to assume, based on that answer, that it’s more important to you to capture the spirit of an individual rather than a close physical resemblance?
Estrin: Yes, for sure. When it came to the actual casting, the show was kind of a combination of the real people that we had already seen, and then also some people that we didn’t know who they were, like Chase, the boyfriend. So it was putting together in our hands what that man could possibly look like with all of the information that we were given, and then we put a wonderful Shonda Rhimes spin on it.
BTL: At what point was Julia Garner a part of this project, and once Shonda had her in mind, was there ever a chance it would happen without her?
Estrin: Linda Lowy was really instrumental in casting Julia. She really had her eye on wanting Julia for this role, definitely by the time I came on. There were some questions because of the Ozark schedule whether that was going to be able to happen, so we did end up doing auditions and seeing a lot of different women read the role, which was extremely fascinating and always interesting to see the different takes on it. But they were able to work it out with Julia, and when that happened in LA, Linda called us ecstatic. Julia had gone in and met with Shonda, and she just called us and said, ‘wait until you hear the accent. You’re going to die.’ At the first table read, the first moment that she opened her mouth, everyone was just silent. ‘Oh, this is going to work. Okay, this is very exciting.’
BTL: Had you seen Julia in anything besides Ozark? I always think about her in Grandma and One Percent More Humid, these smaller films that I’m not sure people have seen.
Estrin: Julia was an actress I’ve known since she was 15 or 16 years old, [back] when she first started, because she started here in New York. She’s been someone that I’ve been auditioning for years, and she’s always just the most interesting. She comes in, and the camera has always been absolutely obsessed with her. She’s so incredibly intelligent and thoughtful, and, from such a young age, has known exactly the way that she wanted to have a career. That’s something that’s really admirable for someone so young. She was always someone I remembered and thought of for different things over the years.
BTL: You mentioned the accent. Were any of the other accents that people did quite as memorable, or were they all indiscernible since the most important thing is that you can’t tell where Anna is from?
Estrin: Yeah, because we ended up seeing some women who actually were German, some who were Russian, some who were just American, putting on a weird amalgam of that and seeing what happened. Some were kind of close, but it definitely was something that had to be worked on for a long time with a voice coach as well. It was so specific because it’s not actually a real accent. She created it and cultivated it over so many years. Certain words didn’t match up with things, and that was how certain people clocked her and were like, ‘wait, that isn’t real. Where are you from? What’s that you’re saying?’
BTL: So who was next and most crucial to the casting process?
Estrin: Well, Linda had really set a wonderful template because she had already cast Laverne Cox and Alexis Floyd. When it came to us in New York, we were so excited because my favorite part of the script to read was the Scriberia group. Jeff Perry, who is a Shondaland favorite, obviously, from Scandal, also happens to be one of my favorite actors of all time. I’m a big theater nerd — being in New York, you kind of have to be. He’s also one of the founders of Steppenwolf, so once he was put into place, it felt like it would be really fun to have another Steppenwolf player with him. I cast the show Billions on Showtime, and Terry Kinney is on that show, and we were filming at the same time. I saw him at an event and talked to him about it. I knew I was the one who was going to have to know the schedules, and I thought it could work. We presented that to Shonda, who obviously loved the idea. She is also a huge theater fan and was really excited.
Adding Anna Deavere Smith into that, who is a goddess walking among us in the theater community and in the film and TV community, the three of them, once that solidified, was so incredibly exciting, honestly. We had so many different puzzle pieces to put together because there were so many different worlds to be created. There was the 12 George world, and then there was everything with the courtroom, and Arian Moayed was an actor we’ve always loved. Rebecca Henderson, who played ADA McCaw, is also an actress I’ve cast multiple times. The two of them just had wonderfully strong chemistry. Creating these different things, and then the finance world, and Anthony Edwards being available and saying ‘yes, he’d want to come and play,’ he doesn’t do that all the time. Sending him the script and him saying, ‘yeah, this seems fun to me,’ was just a great honor. It all started to flow once we got those main things put together.
BTL: It’s funny, because Anthony Edwards had a similar role in WeCrashed, and I was thinking, ‘oh, Kelly Aucoin was on that too,’ but no, that was Super Pumped, which you also cast. It’s confusing in this season of limited series about deceptive rich people…
Estrin: Yes, because I have cast both Anthony Edwards and Kelly Aucoin in Billions as well.
BTL: From all the names you’ve mentioned, the one that really stands out to me who doesn’t have the same kind of resume is Alexis Floyd. She’s a newcomer – can you talk about finding her?
Estrin: She was cast by Linda, but they did a really big search, actually, for that role, and saw quite a few actresses. When Henry Russell Bergstein and I met with Shonda for the first time, the actress that she talked to us about was Alexis because they had just found her. She was just incredibly excited about her. I thought she was brilliant, and I just saw that she’s going to be on Grey’s Anatomy. She’s really wonderful. That was what was really important about her casting. She feels very different from everyone else. She was really an outsider in that world, and that’s why she’s someone who stood by Anna. She’s an incredible actress who was a joy to see on screen.
BTL: I know you have a lot of experience with many seasons of Billions. Is it different casting a long-running series, or at least a continuous one, compared to a limited series?
Estrin: I would say that the biggest difference is that, with this especially, we knew how it was going to end. I have the full picture; I know when we introduce a character at one point what their entire arc is going to be, and if they’re incredibly important.
Sometimes on Billions, there will be actors that we cast in one episode in Season 1, and it turns out in Season 3 that they’re the main protagonist. It’s happened! That can end up being the trickier part of the long-running series. Both are incredibly fulfilling, just different. To me, that means that, no matter what, you always have to cast the best possible actors for every single role, because they can always come back in any possible way.
I do find the limited series, because I come from the film world originally, to be very exciting, since it’s similar to that, just in a longer form with a lot more characters and a lot more roles. That feels much more similar to a film, whereas there’s nothing else quite like a long-running TV show.
BTL: On the note of your film work, I was looking back and saw a few cool projects. Mass was really terrific, with a small but very poignant ensemble. There were a few others that I was particularly excited to see, such as Black Bear, Villains, and Z for Zachariah.
Estrin: Oh, thank you. Z for Zachariah is also a very small cast, that and Mass. Black Bear too, actually.
BTL: Well, in Black Bear, at least there are people in the background. In Z for Zachariah, there are only a few people left alive.
Estrin: Just the three of them. Craig Zobel is a longtime collaborator, so I think that and Mass were just so exciting, because if you don’t get it right between just a few people, that’s the whole movie. I really love getting to do that sort of thing. It feels very different from the broad Inventing Anna and Billions. I also cast The Other Two on HBO Max. They’re such huge casts, which is wonderful and I love [that], but there is also something really exciting about getting to do that tiny ensemble. Four people in a room the entire time, just getting to see those actors at the top of their game play off each other.
BTL: What’s next for you?
Estrin: I’m about to start on the third season of The Other Two, and we’re getting ready for Season 7 of Billions, which is going to be a good one. And then I have a few other films in the works, so we’ll see what happens.
Inventing Anna is now streaming on Netflix.