Therapy is no laughing matter, but the Apple TV+ streaming series Shrinking manages to inject humor into the serious practice of baring your soul to a total stranger.
Created by Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) along with Ted Lasso alums Bill Lawrence and Brett Goldstein, the comedy finds Segal playing a grieving therapist named Jimmy who, stuck in a rut, begins ignoring protocol with his own patients. Jimmy could probably use a few therapy sessions himself to deal with the loss of his wife, and sometimes he turns to other shrinks in his practice, played by Harrison Ford and Jessica Williams (Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore), both of whom are reluctant to give him advice.
Rounding out the ensemble cast are Lukita Maxwell (Speechless) as Jimmy’s teenage daughter, Alice, who develops a crush on Sean (Luke Tennie, CSI: Vegas), who also happens to be one of Jimmy’s patients; the quirky married couple next door played by Christa Miller (Cougar Town, Scrubs) and Ted McGinley (Married… With Children, Happy Days); and Brian, Jimmy’s best friend, played with verve by Michael Urie (Ugly Betty, Younger). They all could use a healthy dose of therapy to deal with their own dysfunctional issues. And then there are Jimmy’s weekly patients, including comedian Matt Knudsen (The Kominsky Method) as a momma’s boy named Steven, and Heidi Gardner (Saturday Night Live) as a woman named Grace who’s there for relationship support, as she questions whether she has found Mr. Right.
Casting this eclectic group of actors fell to the team of Brett Benner, CSA, and Debby Romano, CSA, who collectively have over 20 years of experience that has earned them multiple Emmy nominations and an Artios Award for casting Scrubs. They joined forces under the banner of Romano/Benner Casting, where they’ve racked up such notable credits as Cougar Town, Last Man Standing, Committed, One Tree Hill, What I Like About You, The Kids Are Alright, and Undateable.
Below the Line spoke to Brett Benner and Debby Romano via Zoom video from their respective homes in Los Angeles, which have become their virtual offices to watch audition videos and pow-wow over the best actor for each role. Having described their relationship as similar to that of siblings, they discussed how their partnership began and why it still works two decades later. They also recall their history of almost casting Ted McGinley in several other projects, and how their relationship with Co-Creator Bill Lawrence has led to several of their best gets, including landing the elusive Harrison Ford, who proved to be the perfect choice to play a curmudgeonly therapist in Shrinking, which was renewed for Season 2 earlier on Thursday.
Below the Line: How would you describe your partnership in casting this series?
Debby Romano: I mean, we have been lucky to be in a partnership for over 20 years. We are kind of like brother and sister, and it’s really easy. We both have our strong points and our weak points, which I think the other person makes up for. So it’s been a wonderful partnership. It’s not like there aren’t times [when] we disagree, but that’s the great part of it. For example, if, you know, Brett sees something in someone that I don’t and he wants to put it forward to the producers, that’s always fine. And we see what happens. A lot of times, both of us were right to push someone forward. Then the other person learns, “Oh, okay, I should watch that again.” We’re very collaborative.
BTL: How did you find each other so to speak?
Romano: Our relationship started when we worked for a big casting firm, Lieberman-Hirschfeld, and we both worked under Marc Hirschfeld, who was amazing because he was kind of like the papa bird who let you fly on your own until you needed something, and [then] he would come in and help you. But there were a lot of times we didn’t want to ask for help. So Brett and I learned to rely on each other.
We were working in separate offices, and we would call each other and go over names because, back then, it was the late ’90s, and we didn’t have breakdown services as far as an electronic way to go in and pick people. We had to have actual pictures, resumes, and lists, and that’s what we all worked off of. That was a great warmup to our partnership, and that’s, I think, how we knew that it would work — or hoped it would.
BTL: Talk about forming Romano/Benner Casting.
Romano: When we became a company, at first it was my company, and I was not married at the time. It was Debby Gross Casting, and Brett was my associate because he had some traumatic casting experiences, which are understandable. They happen, and he wasn’t sure that he wanted to continue to do this. Then, about six months after we started working together, he was ready to make it a partnership.
BTL: Brett, give me an example of where you made a strong suggestion to Debby while casting Shrinking.
Brett Benner: I think it was more that we had particular people [in mind], like, for example, Michael Urie. That was a role that, when we read that part, we had him on a list, but we were trying to narrow it down for producers so it wasn’t a huge, massive kind of thing for them to wade through, just because of time. But I think we felt so strongly about it and talked about it [like], “Oh my god, this is the guy.” We didn’t know if he would read. You never know with certain actors who have been around for a bit what they’re willing to do and what their reps are willing to let them do [to get the role].
But Michael, thank god, was totally game; [he] went on tape, and it was so undeniable the second we saw him. The audition from the show is the scene when he storms into Jimmy’s practice yelling at him, saying, “You’re a terrible friend,” and interrupting the session. It was so amazing. It was just one of those things that just had to be. I think we both get that way in terms of certain things we get passionate about with actors — who we’ll push and push and really get behind. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and sometimes producers won’t see what you see or we see, but many times they do, and that’s great.
BTL: I imagine Harrison Ford didn’t have to audition to play the role of the therapist, Paul.
Benner: No, he read! [jokingly laughs]
Romano: The story of Harrison… so, Brett and I made a list, and it was the first conference call we had with producers. It was a long list, and it was a really fun list to make because I was able to put Harrison Ford on it. Even though at the time, we were like, “Haha, Harrison Ford, he’s going on the list.” We went for that pie in the sky. You could put them down because it was for Apple. We went over a lot of people, and we had, like, five or six names that we had checked off.
Then Bill Lawrence said to us, ‘Okay, you guys are going to think I’m crazy. But there’s a name on this list that I think should take precedence, and it’s going to take some time, so you’re going to have to trust me. But he’s my neighbor, and I want to go after him and [give] him the script and see if he’ll read it.’ And that person [was] Harrison Ford. And we were like, ‘Okay!’
Harrison was in London, as was Brett Goldstein, another show creator. So before Bill could actually get to him, I think Brett had dinner with him, and that really, I think, started to seal the deal, and then it just kind of went down the line. When he got home, Bill met with him and Jason [Segel], and then he was fully on board.
Benner: Meanwhile, we were all saying the whole time, ‘Oh my God, this really could happen. Like, we could have Han Solo. This really could happen!’ This was weeks and weeks, and I think everyone was getting a little nervous because we were getting closer, and are you going to lose somebody else who potentially could be [great] in the role because everything else is casting? But it kept getting worse, and I just remember all of us being like, ‘This is really going to happen. This is crazy.’
BTL: After casting Harrison, was he like the sun and the other actors were the planets orbiting around him?
Romano: Sean (Tennie) was the first character that we started to read. We went through loads and loads and loads of readings, which is what the job is. This is all a weird process if you’re not in the room with anyone, which is especially strange for us. You’re used to that [physical] energy, so it’s all a little bit different, especially when you’re doing producer sessions and people can start to flag out. So you never have large sessions like you could do them live because everyone just gets burned out on Zoom. Luke and Jason, together, were so good, and [Luke] had this wonderful vulnerability to him as well as this inherent strength. He was just this big teddy bear, and it was really undeniable watching him. I mean, Jason flipped over him.
Benner: In casting Lukita [Maxwell], we were going to get a daughter first and then cast Jason’s wife off of whoever was the daughter, so they would look alike. We were looking at all races. We knew we wanted a mixed-race family. So we jumped in full force to get going. Harrison was just, like, the big bonus.
BTL: Let’s talk about casting the rest of this wonderful ensemble. How did you come to cast Jessica Williams, who plays one of the therapists in Jimmy’s practice?
Romano: Jessica Williams was one of three actresses [who] met with producers. We had a big list going, but we narrowed it down, and they had their top choices. The meetings were set up. I think Jessica was the last of the three to actually meet. She just blew them away [with] everything that she said, from her life experience to the work that she had done in the past, [so] there was a meeting of the minds, and it was [just] a matter of working out some dates and some publicity with Fantastic Beasts. Once that was done, she was our girl, and my god is she amazing in this role — not one false move, just so relatable and real.
BTL: How would you describe the audition process that you prefer?
Romano: You know it’s always scary to make an offer to someone. I think you hope for the best, but you don’t always know compared to someone who reads. The two big characters that we read were Sean and Alice. It’s nice to go through a process with an actor and see how they deal with the audition. We get a self-tape, and then maybe we’ll do a work session with them before we bring them to [the] producers. Then they were in the room with producers, and Jason read with all the actors, which was fantastic. Then it goes down the line and we narrow it down, and they keep coming back, and you just see if they can replicate it or at least keep that base and add something a little more interesting each time.
BTL: What about casting Christa Miller, the kooky next-door neighbor who was so great in Cougar Town? That character has to have great chemistry with both Jessica and Jason’s characters.
Benner: You know Christa is Bill’s wife, so we knew [she’d be involved] going in. It was like this role was written with her in mind. For a while, she was Christa Miller Lawrence, but I don’t know if she still goes by that or just Christa Miller. They’ve been married, I think, almost as long as Debby and I have been together, which is a long time — probably 30 years. We’ve worked with Christa a lot because we do a lot of Bill’s shows, so we did Cougar Town and Scrubs, which she recurred on as well. But personally, I think this is the best thing she’s ever done. What I love about this so much is that she really gets to show her vulnerability, which she hasn’t in her past roles; they’ve been kind of strident. So I love that she’s a mom. I love that she gets to show all these other facets of herself that no one’s ever gotten to see. I really think it’s the best thing she’s done.
BTL: What is it about Bill Lawrence that makes him someone you want to cast for?
Benner: Someone like Bill Lawrence [is] so prolific in terms of always creating something, [and] he’s [the kind of guy] who is always going to remember somebody. Once you get into his world, like many of these large writers and producers, they use [the same] people again and again. So that’s always exciting to me as a launch point for a lot of these people to get into his world.
BTL: What about casting her husband in the series, who’s played by sitcom veteran Ted McGinley? He has some of the show’s funniest scenes.
Romano: It was so exciting. Truth be told, Bill, Brett, and I have tortured Ted for years. He was almost Dr. Cox in Scrubs — this close. And then it was John McGinley, so a different McGinley. Then we did another show that ended up being called Surviving Jack. He came in and read, and he was amazing, but the network wanted a huge name, and we ended up with Chris Meloni, so we didn’t go with Ted.
And then, when this role came, we just said to Bill, ‘I think it’s time to stop torturing Ted McGinley. He is 100 percent perfect for this. He can come in and slay those lines, like a few lines [each] episode. He would be thrilled to be there, and he would be great with Christa.’ That was really fun and rewarding, and it just felt like the full circle of our partnership and our career. To be able to follow that actor — and we’ve always been fans; he’s always great — and finally there was a reward for him! I hope this show does great things for him.
BTL: Working on this series gives new meaning to the “casting couch” when it came to finding actors to play Jimmy’s patients. Tell me about casting Heidi Gardner from Saturday Night Live.
Benner: We’d gone through a group of actresses. We got very close to hiring another actress, and then Bill said, ‘Before we pull this trigger, I want to check on Heidi Gardner.’ Of course, in our minds, we panicked because we were like, ‘But she’s on Saturday Night Live. She’s in New York, and we’re in L.A.,’ and all those things, of course, came into play, and we were very limited by how much we could have her.
We were lucky enough that Lorne Michaels and Saturday Night Live signed off on her because this is not an NBC project. We could only have her one day a week, on Mondays. We’d have to fly her in on Sunday, shoot her, and get her back out for Saturday Night Live. I’m sure it drove our line producers insane scheduling the whole process, but she’s fantastic and so funny.
BTL: What are you most proud of in terms of the “gets” that you landed for this series?
Romano: In many ways, the people we go through the casting process with are the triumphs for me, and Lukita was someone I had seen on the HBO show Generation. She stood out to me, and as I was going through the submissions on Breakdown, when her picture came up, I was like, ‘Oh my god, Lukita Maxwell, that’s amazing.’ She happens to be represented by a friend of mine who is her manager. So when we got her tape, it was just everything we needed it to be, mostly because there was no teenage angst involved. Everything was played so real and so beautifully, and it was tough stuff from the second episode and her scene with Harrison on the park bench.
Benner: Also, at the end of the day, watching things come together, I loved the collection of patients that we ended up with. We had no idea, and it was much more nebulous initially, with writers trying to figure out how often they were going to use people. Were they going to be through the whole series? Were they going to come in and out? We were also trying to get great people, but you have this whole thing in our business with the people being co-stars versus guest stars. Some people won’t come in unless it’s a guest star.
Also, there’s such great satisfaction beyond what we do to [just] say, “these people are great” when you’re watching their tapes, and then when you hear things from producers [who] say, “We love these actors,” that’s kind of the greatest affirmation — to know that they’re happy, because you want your producers to ultimately be happy.
BTL: What strengths have you discovered in your partnership over the years?
Romano: Brett went to Carnegie Mellon. He was an actor, and he has an amazing ability to speak to the actors and not only speak their language, but to pull out of them their essence and the best that they could give, and I just love watching him do that. Part of what is hard now is that we do this virtually and don’t get to sit on a couch right next to each other. But we’re doing the best we can virtually.
Benner: I work with literally the most organized, detail-oriented person in the world, which is an incredible asset because I am not that person. She has a memory like a steel trap, and she watches everything. I also just feel like we balance each other so well. You have your freak-out moments, whether it’s not being able to find someone to cast. You know, there are so many facets to it. But I feel like we’ve been really lucky to be able to balance each other out when one person’s up and the other’s down, and vice versa. We both said repeatedly the last few years that, you know, as we slowly start to age, I can’t imagine doing this alone. It’s a partnership, you know? She’s my work wife, and I’m her work husband, and we rely on each other so much, even for little things, and I value that tenfold.
The Season 1 finale of Shrinking will be available to stream on Apple TV+ on Friday, March 10. The series has already been renewed for Season 2.