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The Industry
Dexter and Emma in Netflix's 'One Day' staring intimately at each other

Image credit: Ludovic Robert/Netflix / Still From One Day

Casting director Rachel Sheridan on her experience casting Netflix’s ‘One Day’, memorable cast moments, and what draws her to a project.

Rachel Sheridan CDG is an award-winning casting director, responsible for casting some of the biggest shows around, including Channel 4’s Big Boys and the BAFTA and BAFTA CYMRU award-winning series In My Skin. Most recently, she has worked on Netflix’s upcoming series One Day, based on the bestselling novel of the same name.

We had the chance to talk to Rachel about how she became a casting director, her journey casting Spotlight members Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall as ‘Emma’ and ‘Dexter’, and her best advice for performers looking to be cast. Here’s what she shared:

Hi Rachel! How did you first get started in casting?

I’ve been doing it for quite a long time now! I went to drama school after university, which is true of lots of other people in casting. I was giving it my best shot post-drama school, but it was proving to be a bit of a slog. I was living in London and couldn’t afford to go to see any theatre, so I started reviewing theatre shows for WhatsOnStage and The British Theatre Guide. This was way before the blogs and before anyone had that online presence that now exists for reviewing theatre. I didn’t get paid for it, but I always got two free tickets, so I got to go along and take a friend.

I was doing it about three times a week and people said that I seemed to talk more passionately about other performers than I did as a performer myself. I started to think maybe I wanted to be a theatre critic, but then I spoke to Michael Billington [who] said to me, “There’s only a finite amount of critic jobs in the big papers, and we’re all going to do it till we die, so you might be waiting a while!” I so appreciated him taking the time to talk to me and offering me invaluable advice on my writing. It was so kind of him.

So, I realised that might not work for me. I’d always had this crazy memory for remembering actors’ names and faces, so I started to wonder if that would be a useful skill to combine with my passion for the industry. I just naively thought it would be a quick route in and I’d be an assistant for a year and then become a casting director. It turns out it’s actually just as hard as being a performer!

Back then, casting directors weren’t working on loads of shows as there were only 5 channels and the odd Sky show, so there just weren’t as many opportunities. It took me ages to get an internship. I wrote hundreds of letters and finally got an internship with Pippa Ailion. I was so happy when she kept me on and I worked with her for about two years on and off, between other jobs. Then, an opportunity came up in Rachel Freck’s office and I worked with her for about eight years before going out on my own. The perseverance really does pay off – it’s so rare to walk directly into your dream job!

As a casting director, you must be constantly on the lookout for performers to have on your radar. How can performers stand out to you?

I don’t think performers ever need to worry about standing out. Just go into the audition and do your best work. If you’ve been sent the script, read it and be as prepared as possible. I’m very sympathetic; I know that actors have lots going on, and I try to give plenty of time. It’s not always possible for them to be completely off-book and I’ve never worried about that. I’d rather you spend the time thinking about the character and understanding the role rather than just learning the lines.

My advice is to leave knowing that you’ve done your best. If you’ve come into the room, know you’re logged in the casting director’s mind.

Also keep your Spotlight profile up-to-date, especially if you have clips to add. If you don’t have enough material for a showreel, but you have one or two clips, that’s great. If you know you’ve got some great accent work but haven’t done any professional work using it, pop a voice clip up of you doing that accent. I look to those often when we’re searching for performers. Ideally we should always be seeing the most up-to-date version of you.

How did you become involved in the casting for One Day?

So Drama Republic, who produced One Day, contacted my agent to see if I’d have a meeting, but all shows are different. Sometimes, I’ll get offered the job, and sometimes I’ll have to pitch for a show – which I did with One Day. I’ve never wanted a job more in my life!

It’s one of my favourite books, but I’d never seen the film as I’d read the book so close to when the film arrived. I always prefer to watch something once it’s settled in my memory, otherwise you draw too many comparisons.

I went into this job pitching for the opportunity and I can honestly say, in that moment, I knew what it felt like to be an actor. I didn’t get a quick ‘yes’ and I knew other casting directors were meeting the team, so I think it was about seven weeks after I’d pitched that I got the yes.

I was even more delighted when I found out that Molly Manners was heading up the direction of block one, as she’d directed the second series of In My Skin, and then Nicole Taylor (Three Girls) was on board as the screenwriter. Her scripts are so beautiful, and it just made me want that job even more, knowing I’d get to work with this collaborative, passionate team. 

They were such a dream – David Nicholls (the author) was very involved and had so many great ideas, but was incredibly respectful of the casting process. Nicole Taylor’s scripts were just a joy from start to finish. Her dialogue is so effortless for actors that you could see each actor relish working on the material. The execs, Roanna Benn and Jude Liknaitzky, are the most supportive and passionate execs, and Nige Watson is the most patient producer. It was so great that this job I wanted so much turned out to be such a fulfilling experience.

Could you tell us about the casting process?

We started casting in February 2022 and worked on the four blocks until December 2022. The first block was the most labour-intensive, as we cast all the leads and, of course, ‘Emma’ and ‘Dexter’. We cast every role via Spotlight so we had a brilliant pool of performers to work from.

For Emma and Dexter, we knew we wanted to see everybody, and there was no pressure to cast a name with profile. We just wanted to find the best Emma and Dexter. These characters are so beloved and go on such a journey over their 20 years that we needed to find actors the audience would love as much as they love the characters in the book.

The only real consideration from the book – that there’s no getting away from – is that Dexter is consistently described as very handsome. It’s a period piece set in the 90s, so we needed to think about the ‘lad’ culture of the time. Back then, certain behaviour was tolerated, so we needed to be true to that era, but also ensure it was a character that we’d root for as a romantic lead next to this wonderful, wonderful character of Emma. So he can’t just be a handsome idiot. We needed to find an actor who was vulnerable and flawed too, so that the audience could forgive that bad behaviour.

With Emma, it was about finding someone who felt authentic. Lots of women identify with the role of Emma – she’s brilliant but flawed, defensive, quick to judge, funny and fierce. 

We auditioned through tapes initially. It was so important to see as many people as possible. We originally considered about 400 performers for Emma and Dexter. We presented the top picks (about 100) to our director, Molly Manners, and producer, Nige Watson. We then debated endlessly before selecting about 40 actors to recall in person. 

The most interesting part of the process is that, originally, Ambika Mod wanted nothing to do with it! She’s spoken about this publicly, so we can definitely talk about it. We approached her, and she passed repeatedly and I kept calling her agent, who kept calling her. I’d almost given up, but something made me reach out one more time as we were getting close to the chemistry recalls, and then the next day Ambika’s agent said she’d woken up in the night thinking, ‘What have I done?’ and taped the next day.

One Day is actually one of her favourite books, and her love of Emma made her think that she couldn’t possibly be Emma. She couldn’t have been more wrong!

Rachel Sheridan receiving a CDG award / Image credit: Scarlet Page

What process did you go through to find leads that had the right chemistry?

When we were down to about five ‘Emma’s and ‘Dexter’s we started chemistry reads. All the actors in the mix were excellent, so it was just about finding the right pairing, digging into the characters’ journey, and peeling back the layers. 

Poor Leo had to fly back and forth from Sicily quite a few times where he was filming The White Lotus. Of course, we knew he would be in this highly popular show, but many actors in the frame had great CVs. It was never about that for us. The key was finding our Dexter regardless of the previous work and we really put him through his paces. 

I got such a kick watching him grow and gain confidence, and in the final casting, whilst we were doing scenes from towards the end of the series, he was so raw and vulnerable that we had to stop as I burst into tears. That’s never happened to me before, but I looked to my right and Molly Manners was crying too. Leo didn’t break character but reached out and grabbed my shoe from where he was to check I was okay. It was such a specific moment, and I just knew he was the one.

When Ambika and Leo read together, their chemistry was so great. They complement each other beautifully. 

Were there any other memorable moments during the casting process?

There were loads of brilliant memorable moments. The great thing about casting a story that takes place over 20 years is there are new characters to cast every episode.

The character of ‘Tilly’, played by Amber Grappy, was really fun. Netflix said they needed someone who felt iconic for this role, and that’s exactly what Amber brings. She’s pure sunshine, really cool and has a really dirty laugh. Amber’s audition was brilliant, and we’d actually seen her for Emma early on, but she had to drop out due to scheduling on another job, so it was great to be able to get her in for another role which was less of a heavy commitment. Casting is such a jigsaw puzzle, so it’s great when the pieces fall into place!

The character of ‘Ian, is played by Jonny Weldon, who we all love. We fell in love with him in lockdown with his comic videos he released, and before I’d seen anyone for the role, I thought of Jonny. He’s been working in the industry and grafting for so long that it’s been great to see him get this lead role. I’m excited to see where things go for him – he’s really funny but with so much warmth and heart.

One of the roles I’ll remember for a long time is the role of ‘Callum’, played by Brendan Quinn. Brendan emailed me with the subject ‘Irish Actor’. As you can imagine, we get quite a lot of emails from actors, and you can’t always reply, but this email just hit at the right time as we were seeing Irish actors. I didn’t know Callum, but the timing was great, so I said, “Do you know what? We are auditioning at the moment for a role you might be right for. Let’s get you to tape and a recall later,” and we cast him. The whole team loved him.

One of the maddest things to happen was when I needed to cast some identical twin brothers for Eleanor Tomlinson’s character. They’re described as being so beautiful they looked like they were made in a lab. It was so difficult to find these twins, and I had a brilliant stroke of luck when an agent from Curtis Brown saw a young actor doing a one-man show in Edinburgh who just happened to be a model and have a twin, and they both could act. It’s like Finlay and Angus Alderson fell from heaven for these roles.

I could talk about every character we cast on this show, honestly! I really hope that when anyone watches the show, they feel we’ve done justice to the book. We’ve poured so much love into creating this project, and I just hope it’s as special to watch as it was to cast.

You’ve worked on so many brilliant projects, like Big Boys and In My Skin. What draws you to a production?

I have to just be passionate about the material. I want to work on poignant and meaningful projects, regardless of the budget! I’m also careful not to overload myself with projects.

I seem to be drawn to comedies that make you cry (like Big Boys), but they have to be something that really feels clever and that I know I can really relate to. I’m excited for everyone to see The Completely Made Up Adventures of Dick Turpin (Apple TV+) next month. This is not a comedy that will make you cry, but it’s so brilliantly funny and we were lucky to attract some great comedic names to the project.

Finally, what advice do you have for performers right now?

Always read the instructions given. It seems simple, but it’s not always the case, and just be as prepared as possible. 

If you’re a comedic performer but don’t have any/many credits just yet, then film your own short pieces and put them online. Look at performers like Jonny Weldon, who has used a social platform to create brilliant content.

Do your research and email casting directors whose projects you would want to work on. You never know when it might lead to something, like Brendan Quinn!

I think workshops are a great way to keep your skills fresh, but please do your research. Don’t fall for money-making scams and always look for workshops that adhere to the CDG guidelines. It’s really important to be vigilant, but there are lots of genuine classes that will help you to get experience in the room. The industry can sometimes seem closed, but when these workshops are done properly, they can be really helpful.

Know that the casting director is on your side. We want you to get the job. Sometimes I rearrange my studio space before an audition so it doesn’t feel like a job interview to make actors feel less nervous. We want you to come in feeling comfortable and relaxed so that you can do your best – we really want to cast you!

Thank you Rachel for sharing your tips and experience with us! One Day is available to stream on Netflix now.

Take a look at our website for more interviews and advice from casting directors.

‘One Day’ was cast on Spotlight, with many in-person auditions taking place in our studios. Find out more about our membership options and start looking today!