When casting director Josh Einsohn, CSA, got the gig for This Is Us, the multiple Emmy-winning drama on NBC, which has been running for five seasons, he knew it would be a special assignment. Einsohn joined the team after the pilot; the principal cast of the Pearson family featuring Mandy Moore [Rebecca Pearson], Milo Ventimiglia [Jack Pearson], Sterling K. Brown [Randall Pearson], Chrissy Metz [Kate Pearson], and Justin Hartley [Kevin Pearson] was already in place but there was a very specific mantra he was designated to maintain.
Following the lives of the three Pearson siblings and their significant others moving back and forth in time, Einsohn was tasked to find the best possible actor for each role, matching the older cast with their younger selves from adolescence through their college years. His directive was to keep it real from creator Dan Fogelman who shrouded the show and its many characters in secrecy.
Einsohn, who cut his teeth as a casting assistant on The Polar Express brought that knowledge to the small screen, casting three seasons of The West Wing with Casting Director Laura Schiff, as well as Black Monday, and Love, Victor to name a few. But it was This Is Us where he fine-tuned his radar for “real people,” casting a wide net out into a sea of accomplished and talented actors to best fill the world by embodying their characters in the present and the past. Not to mention the unseen pressure by the show’s dedicated fan base who demand authenticity.
Einsohn spoke with Below The Line about making those poignant and nuanced casting decisions throughout the show’s six-year run, with the series wrapping with season six in 2022.
Below The Line: How did you make the transition from wanting to direct to casting?
Josh Einsohn: I had started really as a theater director in college and thought that would be my path. I happened to land in film and television and working in production was amazing, because I got to see what all the departments did. I worked as a PA on Contact with Victoria Burrows and Scot Boland, and it looked like so much fun. They were still getting to work with actors which was always the most exciting thing about directing for me. And you really got to shape things in an obvious kind of way, so I was watching as they cast that movie. I remember when they got to cast a young upstart named Matthew McConaughey. A couple of years later, I realized production was not really my skill set. They happened to need help with casting, so I started with them. Laura Schiff really helped me shape my tastes and how I found my tastes. The wealth of knowledge I got from all the casting directors I worked with was amazing.
BTL: What would you consider your signature feel for casting?
Einsohn: I have a love of the weirdos and I love a real face and a real grounded performance in drama or comedy. I’m best at the oddballs and filling in the world with people that feel real. What I love about casting episodic shows is you continue to fill the world and the audience develops a feel for the world and continue to have that world feel real so nobody sticks out as not feeling real for the show. I love doing that. It’s weird because when I cast Love, Victor and had their headshots on the wall I referred to them as “a whole lot of cheekbones going on!” But at the core, they are a bunch of oddballs. My thing is to find people that are appealing that you want to watch but that feel real. Of course, you’re putting together TV stars but Justin [Hartley] playing Kevin as a TV star still feels like a real human being because of what he brings to the character. It’s so important that everybody has those deep third dimensions that they can tap into. I need actors who are 100% engaged in their characters.
BTL: What makes this casting assignment for This Is Us unique for you?
Einsohn: I came in after the pilot episode which was initially cast by Bernie Telsey and Tiffany Little. It’s one of those shows that just attracts talent. So sort of discovering a lot of the younger versions of our cast and the older versions of our cast has been a real joy especially seeing the audience’s reaction. Finding the perfect actress [as the younger version] was a lot of fun to get to do.
Some of the roles on the show we can’t release on the breakdown because the show is such a secret. Some we know what it is and we just throw the net wide and see what comes back. When it comes to the lookalikes that’s just very much Ryan Tymensky who’s been an Associate [Casting Director] on the show and has an amazing eye for that so he’s the first filter to help with the matching and then it comes to auditioning people to see who has not just the same look but the same energy and the same sort of vocal style so it feels like when you cut from one to the other you really are seeing an older and younger version of somebody. For some of these roles, I’ve had to call the agents and say, “Where can I make an offer? I can’t tell you what it is. Trust me, they’re gonna be really happy if they accept it.” If they’re interested I can put them on the phone with Dan Fogelman but I don’t tell them what the role is! It’s a very strange way to go about business.
BTL: How would you describe the challenge of this casting directive of younger counterparts?
Einsohn: I was most nervous casting teen Beth, trying to find somebody who looked like Susan [Kelechi Watson] and had her poise, her toughness, yet warmth. We saw some fantastic actors but none of them felt like Susan to me. Then Rachel Hilson walked through the door. It’s just so important that every role especially the younger versions feels so much like they belong. It’s a pressure that I thrive under because the audience is so dedicated. The pressure to get it right is immense. I want to do right by the audience and the other actors. We want them to be happy with who’s playing [the young version of them] as well, so there’s a lot riding on getting it right.
BTL: What were your own personal favorite castings for the show?
Einsohn: I mean I got to cast Phylicia Rashad [as Beth Pearson’s mom] and Griffin Dunne [as older Nicky]. I mean “kid Josh” lost his mind to get to go down to the set and meet them playing it cool like I was a grown-up casting director which was not easy! There are so many. Michael Angarano [young Nicky], I’m a fan of and have worked with before who is just fantastic. Getting to cast Jennifer Morrison [Cassidy Sharp] in the kind of role where nobody gets to see her. I knew that she was gonna pop in that role. It was so much darker and grittier than she usually gets to play, and she was just fantastic in it.
BTL: What has been your favorite audition?
Einsohn: I have to say Jennifer Morrison. I don’t know why I knew she was going to be great for that role but she came in and dug in. We did the scenes where she wasn’t actually wearing her military garb but she was fully in the character. I was reading with her and I’m not an actor, but having to stay enough in character so she could continue to do what she needed to do, and seeing this thing that I knew was in there but nobody had ever seen before was just incredible.
BTL: Were you involved in casting the guest star cameos like Sylvester Stallone and Ron Howard?
Einsohn: Milo has a connection with Stallone [from working with him on Creed 2], so he really made that happen. I think Ron and Brian Grazer was a fan of the show and wanted to come and play so it had gotten to a point where the show had taken a life of its own at that point. Ron wanted to do it so much that we shot one of Ron’s scenes in England where he was shooting something else and had to make it look like Los Angeles. It’s so important to be true to the world and pull any person watching out of the show that we have turned down some famous fans of the show.
BTL: Did you know going in that there would be a finite amount of seasons?
Einsohn: I had been hearing rumors for quite a long time, but I didn’t have confirmation until we were into it for a little bit. We’re starting to get some heads up for what is coming up and who’s coming back [for the last season]. On this show, they only tell you what you need to know! Like I didn’t know what happened to Jack, but there were people around me who did. I found out in Episode 1, Season 2, when everyone else saw the house on fire. They always tell people they can leave the room [during table reads], and then suddenly I was watching with everybody else like, “What?!”
BTL: How are you feeling about the series finale?
Einsohn: I kept hoping that the show was gonna keep going, but I also love that Dan had a vision for this the whole time, and he was actually allowed to stick to it. I like not knowing. I really want to write Dan and ask him to withhold six pages of the final script for me unless there’s casting in it. Or just tell me who I need to cast; otherwise I want to go for the ride a little bit with everybody else. I’m a fan of the show in addition to an employee. It’s a great show. This show is the gift that keeps on giving for casting. I’m going to be very sad when that ends.
All photos courtesy NBC.