Succession Casting Director Avy Kaufman on Trusting Her Gut and the Downside of Zoom Auditions

Avy Kaufman
Avy Kaufman image via HBO
Succession
Succession image via HBO

“I’m not gonna tell you the long story about how I became a casting director,” Avy Kaufman says during a Zoom call with Below the Line. pegged to her latest Emmy nomination for Season 3 of Succession.

“It’s kind of silly and interesting at the same time. I wanted to be a ballerina. That’s why I came to New York. I love to dance. I was going to say, a ‘famous ballerina.’ [laughs] I went to Joffrey and I thought, ‘Oh, God. That will never happen.’ Anyway, that’s how I came to New York. One day, by a fireplace or a barbecue pit, I’ll tell you the whole story. It’s a silly, long story.”

And since there’s no rush on this quiet afternoon, Kaufman — whose credits date back to Miss Firecracker in 1989 and have since included The Basketball Diaries, The Ice Storm, The Sixth Sense, Dogville, National Treasure, Brokeback Mountain, Damages, Prometheus, Billions, Sorry for Your Loss, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Mare of Easttown, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Under the Banner of Heaven, and Succession, which she joined in Season 2 — enthusiastically shares the silly, long story.

“It has to do with people [who] I met along the way,” she says. “Someone introduced me and they went, ‘Oh, what would you do in this situation?’ I told him and he went, ‘Oh, my God, you should do this.’ I got a job immediately at a worldwide advertising agency, Cone & Belding, as a casting director. I was there for six years before I quit and climbed the ladder in the film business. I did location casting for John Sayles for a couple of years. Looking back, I’m glad I did all of that because I know more about the film business and how it works, but I never worked for anybody.”

“That’s sort of true,” Kaufman says, course correcting. “I worked for a beautiful casting director who’s no longer with us named Mary Calhoun. She was British and lived in New York. I did one job with her, but God… that was right when computers came out. So, it wasn’t like a conference call. Our world has changed so much. Zoom is like going to a spaceship. If we told somebody 20 years ago about Zoom, they would think we’re crazy. Anyway, I’m getting off track! So that’s how it started, pretty much.”

And here’s the rest of our conversation:

Avy Kaufman
Avy Kaufman image via HBO

Below the Line: How would you describe the relationship between a casting director and the director of a movie or TV show?

Avy Kaufman: It’s always interesting when I meet the directors. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some spectacular talent, and I have a different relationship with every single one of them. I try to get into their heads and know what they’re thinking before they tell me. The first time I met Ang Lee was after Sense and Sensibility. My respect for him was so enormous, and I was so nervous. Now, I hit around with him. It was like, ‘How in the world?’ I doubt I said a word. I might’ve just gone, ‘Uh huh.’ But I try to get into the heads of the directors so we gel and we see the same vision. It’s my job to make sure [their] vision comes to life, [but] it’s different with everyone.

BTL: What makes someone right for a role, and what makes someone wrong?

Kaufman: What makes someone right is, I believe every word they’re saying. And what makes someone wrong? I don’t believe a word they’re saying.

BTL: How long did it take you to figure that out?

Kaufman: It’s kind of, “How long until I trusted my gut?” When you asked me that very first question, the producer that I met who offered me the job in advertising said that I nailed what he wanted to hear, and that’s why he offered me the job. He set up a situation for me to fill in the blank. When I filled in the blank, it was what he wanted to hear. It was years of going, ‘Well, that’s my gut… but do I trust my gut?’ Trusting your gut takes a lot of confidence and responsibility.

There have been people that I’ve worked for earlier in my career; I had to hold myself back from being obnoxious because I would get so excited about somebody in a part, and if the director didn’t see it, then I found myself pushing them. I went, ‘Slow down.’ A lot of people I work with now know that if I say something, I really believe it, because when you believe what you’re saying, that’s a whole different scenario than just saying something.

Succession
Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin, and Alexander Skarsgard in Succession/Graeme Hunter/HBO

BTL: When you step into a job where the lead or leads are attached, and they may even be among the producers, how much do you cast to complement that person(s) versus just finding the right actor for the role? Is there an extra layer you have to consider on those projects?

Kaufman: I think it’s the right person for the role, I really do. Even if I am told, ‘We need a name for this role,’ I’m still looking for the right person. I can’t do it otherwise, and I wouldn’t know how to believe something I don’t believe.

BTL: Let’s talk about Succession, which has now become such a sensation…

Kaufman: Well, what’s so interesting is [that] it didn’t show that it was a sensation until the second season. The first season, I don’t think there were [many] nominations. All the nominations came in the second season, reflecting on the previous one. To be honest, it was a grand compliment to join [the series]. I didn’t want to because I’ve never worked on anything that I hadn’t put together. That’s a story [on its own] about who contacted me and spoke to me, etc.

That’s been the biggest puzzle, how to shine everybody that’s already established, but make it even more creative. How do you make something great, stay great, or become [even] greater? That’s been hard. That’s the biggest puzzle I’ve ever done with my team. I’ve had two different teams on it with me, because one person went back to college, but that’s what it is. You have a family (on Succession), but how do you find people to marry, be related to, and be associated with that family? If you had a dinner party, and somebody tells you to invite 20 more people, how would you do that? How would they get along with the 10 people that are already there? It’s been a hard lesson.

BTL: Let’s talk about some of the people you invited to “dinner” last season. Adrien Brody as Aaronson, Alexander Skarsgard as Lukas, Sanaa Lathan as Lisa Arthur, Hope Davis as Sandi, and the great Linda Emond as Michelle-Anne Vanderhoven. Take us through how they fit their respective roles…

Kaufman: I’ll talk about Adrien and Alexander first, but you read the dialogue. It wasn’t like you were told to go and find fancy people. When I read the dialogue, I thought, ‘Who can throw this away and give it as much effort with the people that are already there?’ Adrien had this scene with Brian Cox. Adrien kept making me smile, and I just loved it, but everybody responded to that idea. It’s the same thing with Alexander. I felt like a lot of people don’t know Alexander’s real range. He’s actually really funny and silly, not mean and obnoxious in ways that you’ve seen him. He’s just got this super range. Sanaa was extraordinary. They all were… and there are people [who] aren’t famous [who] we’ve added to the cast [and] make it shine.

Succession
Brian Cox and Zoe Winters in Succession/Macall B. Polay/HBO

BTL: Please give us an example…

Kaufman: Zoe Winters. She’s the one with the bangs and the long hair that was working with Brian Cox. They have an affair. People that I know kept going, ‘She’s gonna kill it!’ I thought, ‘I’ve got to bring her in.’ You get all excited about all that. I get silly and emotional. Stephen Root! I just couldn’t wait to fill this in with a lot of the actors who I knew would take it a different step. I totally believed Hope Davis [was] a part of that family.

BTL: We know that Season 4 is top-secret, but what excites you about how it’s taking shape?

Kaufman: I loved reading and casting it. I get inside these stories, and I can’t stop. I keep looking for people. What is that thing? I used to give it to my kids. It’s something you play with, using your hands. You can pull and stretch it in every direction.

BTL: Silly Putty?

Kaufman: Silly Putty, yeah. That’s how I see the casting of Succession and that’s all I can say about Season 4.

BTL: You’ve got several upcoming projects, including Interview with the Vampire and Nyad, among others. How many projects can you humanly handle at once?

Kaufman: I don’t take on numerous projects at the same time. If they overlap, I understand where they’re overlapping. I may be finishing one, and I know where we’re headed, [so] then I can start another. The balancing act during COVID was interesting because we were still working remotely. We cast all of Dopesick [during] the first year of the pandemic, which was such a trip of an experience. We did not see one actor in person. All we did was call each other on Zoom and have wonderful actors put themselves on tape.

Succession
Adrien Brody in Succession/Macall B. Polay/HBO

BTL: That was actually my next question… Self-tapes had been used for years, but COVID made them a go-to tool along with Zoom. They let you see how a person comes across on camera, but there’s no way to gauge chemistry. What are the pros and cons of casting via self-tape and Zoom?

Kaufman: A couple of years ago, we were working on Mare of Easttown. I knew what the director [Craig Zobel] and the creative team were looking for in certain characters. I don’t like directing actors in the room because I feel like the director should see what they’ve got, but if I knew that the director needed a certain feel, I would tweak something. Then, somebody could get a part. When they’re self-taping, I’m not around to tweak, so I find myself explaining, ‘Well, this actor didn’t read the script,’ because we don’t often get the scripts.

I find myself explaining, ‘The actor can do that, and this is why you didn’t see it.’ That’s the self-tape example. It’s been so many years now that I wonder how it is for actors. I’ve spoken to a couple of them, but I guess we’re all used to waking up and doing whatever we do in the morning, then wearing whatever we do and just working all day. We’re not feeling people. We’re not feeling the actors. So, that’s the negative part. I don’t know what the positive one is, except people can work in their pajamas if they want to. But is that a positive? I don’t know.

BTL: What do you enjoy more, finding a rising young talent like Anne Henriette Pittman for Nyad or working with a beloved veteran actor, like, say, Julian Glover, and securing a good role for them?

Kaufman: Oh gosh. I don’t know. Am I allowed to say both? I’m not going to say that we give people jobs, but it feels so good when you believe in somebody, whether they’re famous or not, and they get the job.

BTL: I’m sure there are people you appreciate as actors who probably aren’t at the level they deserve or don’t work as often as they should, who you regularly try to support…

Kaufman: Always. There are so many actors. Back in the day, I used to tell young actors to come and be a reader in my office, or anyone’s office. I said, ‘You can know why people don’t get a job.’ The actors don’t know. Sometimes when an actor would come in and be a reader in my office, they’d see who ultimately got the job, but they would see along the way how many great people there were that could have gotten the job, but didn’t for various reasons. There are various reasons, and as I said before, I can be obnoxious and fight for somebody, but the minute someone says, ‘This is the decision I’m going to make and this is the reason,’ you get it.

All three seasons of Succession are now available on HBO and HBO Max.