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The Industry
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We talk to Casting Director Louise Kiely and Director Lenny Abrahamson about the phenomenon that is Normal People.

We hosted a webinar (with Spotlight’s Clare McGinley chairing) where we explored the process of casting from beginning to end and the relationship between the director and the casting director. So, who better to speak on the subject than Casting Director Louise Kiely and Director Lenny Abrahamson who recently worked together on the highly acclaimed TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People,

The book has a huge following and viewers feel that they already knew the characters intimately – what pressure comes when you’re casting an adaptation?

Louise Kiely: Obviously the book was there and the book is beloved. The characters are beloved also. People feel like they know Marianne and Connell because they’ve read them so, of course, there’s an expectation that you do justice to the book.

We worked hard enough that we found two humans who inhabit Marianne and Connell in the way that Daisy and Paul do. We spoke a lot about who Marianne and Connell are. We discussed how they feel, their intentions, their needs, their wants. It was a journey that then we started together.

Lenny Abrahamson: I always notice that when people read a novel, they definitely form pictures in their head. Some people have very specific pictures about what a character looks like but oddly enough, if something is well written and well cast, what happens later is that so many people say, “Oh! They’re exactly as I imagined them”, which cannot be true. It’s completely impossible that everybody has a similar picture and I think what they really mean is there’s some essential feeling about the character that’s preserved from the page to the screen.

While they’re described in the novel, Sally doesn’t go into an awful lot of detail about how they look, except for how other people see them, but there’s not a sort of romantic fiction kind of opening paragraph which gives you the full eye colour, hair colour thing. It’s sort of more subtle music around what each character is like.

You have to trust that if the drama is right, and the actors inhabit and understand the characters, they will feel right to an audience.

Louise Kiely: It’s a very instinctual thing. It’s a feeling when you read the book. It’s a feeling when you read the script. And equally, I find my way to a character via an instinct, a vibe, and a quality. And watching tape after tape of very, very talented humans, doing a beautiful job of a scene in various ways, coming out with their version and it’ll be really valid and searching for that essence which feels right.

Was there an emphasis to cast big names? Did you have that pressure, or was it just to find the right actors?

Lenny Abrahamson: One of the great things about this project was that we had very enlightened partners in BBC and Hulu. It would be silly, I think, to say, “Okay. The only way you’re going to get people to watch this show is to cast big names.”

First of all, the characters are young. There aren’t that many big names at that point in people’s career. You’re much more likely to find people who are starting out, or close to the beginning of their careers. And also, I don’t think that’s why people watch something. They don’t tune in because they recognise the name. There’s a whole load of reasons why somebody tunes in.

Like when I did Room, there was probably more pressure earlier on to think about casting the mum as somebody famous, because it was a movie, and that’s the common wisdom. But we all felt, “No. It’s just important to get the right person”. And we felt the same about Normal People. And nobody tried to suggest anything else.

Louise Kiely: My memory just includes starting with age, as in making sure that they were age-appropriate. They were obviously 18, because of the themes that do exist. So they have to be adults but they also have to be young enough looking.

My memory of it was they had to be 18, and they have to be able to span over four years. So you’re thinking about somebody who’s possibly 20, 21, who does have the maturity to be able to play that arc and do the training as Paul did, or experience, film and telly experience, as Daisy has.

So it was much more about real, practical stuff which would be good for the characters. And there was definitely no pressure to cast a star.

Knowing that the roles would require a lot of intimacy, how did the two of you approach that during the audition process?

Louise Kiely: We had to be 100% honest from the very outset. And the book exists, and the material in the book says what it says, and it is what it is, the story exists. And obviously I’ll defer to you Lenny on this, but my understanding is that in order to give credit to the material, this had to exist. And therefore, we were very open and honest from the very beginning.

There were people who decided that it wasn’t for them and that’s 100% fine. So as much as on set, the actors were treated respectfully and were looked after, in every respect, in the audition process. I believe we were honest and gentle enough with them about all that stuff as well. That it was their decision and we were careful about it, of course.

Lenny Abrahamson: I remember talking to the actors, the way you would have contacted agents and everything at the beginning. And then as we began to get more people that we were really considering, I would explicitly say, in the audition space, “Just so that you know, this is how I’m seeing it and that is something that’s going to be a part of the show”. As Louise said, it’s completely fine if that’s something you don’t feel comfortable with. But just so that they knew where we stood, and we knew where they stood. And I think that was all done very openly.

Louise Kiely: When I did get into the logistics with agents, describing, in your words Lenny, about looking at beautiful art and thinking about humans. We’re all humans, we’ve all been there. This is the world. This is our life. And I think that was a really lovely way of saying it.

Lenny Abrahamson: We talked about how, like if you’ve got a life drawing class, then the person whose body is there is part of the process, which is attempting to allow something beautiful and truthful to be made. And that the body and their bodies together was something that we wanted to celebrate, study, understand and make part of this account of a relationship.

I think I was trying to show people that nudity does not necessarily equate to … It can be exploitative but on the other hand, it can also be paintings in the National Gallery. And I was trying to say to people, “Look, from my point of view…” because the contract only goes so far. The contract is kind of a very cold description of what may or may not required. As a director, I think you have a duty to try to give an account of your vision so that they can participate in the creative process, and not feel somehow objectified by it.

How did you go about the chemistry reads between Daisy and Paul? What scenes did they tape initially? And did Daisy audition in an Irish accent at the beginning or her own accent?

Louise Kiely: She auditioned in her own accent, sitting on a couch actually. And I remember watching it and going, “Wow! This is good.” And yeah. In the first tape, it was probably like 95% there. So that’s a really amazing start. And then I remember talking to you [Lenny] on the phone and then going, “Now, I like these ones here.” And I mean, the feeling when everybody watched Daisy was really very, very positive.

And then, of course, we did have recalls and chemistry reads. And the scenes they did… there was definitely the one in the ghost house. And was it the only one?

Lenny Abrahamson: I think we might have done some scenes from episode 4 when they meet again in college, which is a really lovely, long scene. And it is interesting, that whole thing of the chemistry, the way people talk about chemistry, and it’s a good word in the sense that it does capture this idea that something comes alive when two people are playing together. I think you have to be careful because the media are always sort of dying to say, “Oh! There’s an actual attraction between these two people, therefore that’s what the chemistry is”. But you can film two people who are deeply attracted to each other and have no chemistry on screen. Similarly, if you see a sequence where people argue viciously with each other, the idea then would have to be somehow that they must hate each other off-screen. And nobody believes that.

I think what chemistry is is a kind of creative synchronicity between two actors. So you can have chemistry in a buddy movie. It’s a deep creative, playful connection. And that’s what I think we all felt when we finally got Daisy and Paul in the room. There was just this kind of incredible aliveness to it.

And it was really moving. And I remember Catherine Magee and Emma Norton, two producers shedding a tear in one of the scenes and I don’t think even the guys were completely off-book at that point. It was so good and so alive.

Louise Kiely: Yeah. It was really exciting. When Daisy and Paul obviously stepped out of the room, we just all sort of looked at each other and went, “Oh my God! This is so exciting.” And so yeah, it was really cool.

It’s interesting that one of the scenes that you were doing earlier on was when they met a while later in college in Trinity, because at that point, they’ve sort of reversed a little in roles, haven’t they?

Lenny Abrahamson: It was important to try them across different parts of the story for that very reason because there’s such a shift. I mean, over the course of 12 episodes, there’s such a big movement for the characters.

Louise, you know this about how we’ve tended to work together, I get a lot of insight into the script during casting. I find every audition is useful for me, even if somebody may not be right for the role. I find that choices are usually something that makes me think in a more kind of three dimensional way about that scene and about the characters in general, and about the overall flow of the story. So quite frequently, it’s not just auditioning, but it’s testing out the project. And there’s nothing like working with actors to interrogate something that’s written down.

Louise Kiely: And from my side actually, usually in a film, you have a full script and at that point, they would’ve read it, or read a version or draft of it. Whereas in television, sometimes you don’t have the whole script. Certainly, at recall stage, it would be unlikely that you have all episodes. But having the book for the two actors coming in is a massive advantage, especially a book that’s so beautifully written. So that would’ve been a real advantage for the actors actually.

Lenny, I remember at the Dalkey Book Festival in 2018 you were on a book to film panel, speaking about Normal People. Initially, did you think this will work as a film or a series?

Lenny Abrahamson: I think both myself and Ed [Guiney], and everybody in Element [Pictures] who was closely involved in the whole thing all felt pretty much immediately that it was television rather than film because it’s episodic and it takes place over four years. To really feel those shifts and that length of time, it would’ve been quite hard in a feature. I think you would’ve had to sort of squeeze the story in a certain way and also force it into a maybe more dramatic shape than it naturally occupies. With that novel, I think television allowed for a deeper study of the novel than a film would.

Was there any doubt or controversy in casting a non-Irish actress in the lead of Marianne?

Louise Kiely: Controversy? I don’t think so. Obviously, we saw a lot of Irish actors. And we saw a lot of English actors. We saw a lot of North American actors. And the decision-making process was absolutely a collaborative business so it was a lot of talk around wonderful actors from various places. At the end of the day, we found Marianne in England, with a Northern Irish mom and a Scottish dad. And that’s just the way it was. And for me, there’s been no controversy at all. I just think she’s great.

Lenny Abrahamson: I was thinking about that recently. I was thinking look at America and the vast numbers of actors who are American, and yet how many times do you see in American films and American TV shows somebody British or Australian may be cast, not because they’re super famous? It’s just because they happen to be right.

I was thinking about Dominic West. He was cast in The Wire as a Baltimore cop, even though he’s a posh British man. And that wasn’t because they just fancied giving him a break, It was because they felt he was the right person. So you’re always just going to cast the person who feels closest to the role, and wherever they come from, once they can do it.

Louise Kiely: The casting in The Wire was unbelievable.

Lenny Abrahamson: Look at Idris Elba.

Louise Kiely: My goodness, yeah. And also, I will say we did see tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of people. And I suppose you look at them as humans. So it was a level playing ground.

People are so shocked when they discover Daisy is from the UK so that’s a very good testament to her accent – it really is spot on, isn’t it?

Lenny Abrahamson: A top-secret thing is that Sally Rooney herself was a reference. Daisy listened to podcasts and interviews with Sally because she’s from Castlebar. And yet she has this cultured accent. And also a particularly definite and clear way of speaking, which we felt was right for Marianne.

Desmond Eastwood is getting a lot of buzz. He was a great piece of casting – how did that come about?

Louise Kiely: We’ve known Desmond for years and he’s out of the Gaiety a few years and he’s Northern Irish. He was one of the ones that we talked about early on that we were like, “Actually, this could fit really well.” And then of course when he came in, it just did. And I have to say, I think he’s wonderful in it, right? He’s just terrific.

Lenny Abrahamson: Agree completely. If Connell is all about a certain kind of anxiety, then Niall is about a certain ease. Des just absolutely captures that kind of floaty, slightly just come out of a music festival feeling. And actually, he’s beautiful as well. He has a beautiful face to film.

Connell is very unique character for a leading man. How has the typical leading man changed in recent years, and why?

Lenny Abrahamson: The typical leading man before wouldn’t have shown, I think, as much vulnerability or failure, in a way, because Connell does fail. He fails at several points in the relationship, very deeply. And I think it’s only as we go on we understand where that’s coming from a deep kind of anxiety in himself.

I think it’s always with really good work, certainly films and less so television, that are off the beat in track, or that are not as mainstream, are as broad as the stuff that you normally see. Complexity in character has always been the thing that marks those deeper pieces out.

But I think what’s really exciting is that there’s room now, given the current landscape, particularly in television, to bring that level of complexity in and have a mainstream audience really respond to it. That for me is the most exciting thing really about Normal People. It’s sort of advertised in its DNA, and how it’s made, and everything. Even I would’ve thought that it would have a more limit audience. And it didn’t. And that is really wonderful.

So then when you see a character like Connell embraced by the audience, they’re embracing him in all his complexity and failures as well as successes, and uncertainties and anxieties. And that’s a really positive and great thing to see.

What are the biggest challenges that you face as a casting director? And how do you go about looking for new talent?

Louise Kiely: Each project comes with a different set of challenges, doesn’t it? And I wouldn’t say challenges in a negative way. I’d say challenges in a sort of exciting new adventure way. So for example, when we did Red Rock, there was demand for a very large cast. And of course, we think about actors who you’d know from television. There maybe aren’t that many so what we had to do was throw the doors wide open and find new faces for all different small roles along the way. And that was really fun.

And equally, in something like Sing Street, there was a requirement for really accomplished young musicians. So again, we had big open castings, people with their guitars on their back, and they queued for hours.

And now, we have this really useful social media, Facebook and Instagram and all that stuff so the requirement for big long queues isn’t there but the same sort of kind of principles apply. You can read the post, apply, send your little video in, and you’ll get your tape, and you’ll do it. And we’ll still see tonnes and tonnes of people.

A lot of people feel it’s very important to professional training and an agent to be seen by a director or a casting director – is that the case for you?

Louise Kiely: My answer to that is no, absolutely not. I mean, if you have trained, that’s your journey and if you’ve decided to do that then good for you and I’m quite sure it’s been a rewarding experience. And equally, you might never train, and you might do your first ad as the milky bar kid when you’re four, and then never do it again. Everybody has a different experience. And at the end of the day, it’s my job to find you. So you don’t have to have a degree to come and meet me.

Lenny Abrahamson: I’d agree with that and I would say it’s an even split of people I’ve cast in roles over the years, between those who have and haven’t trained. So for example, Paul trained in the Lir, but Daisy didn’t train. Jack Reynor didn’t train before What Richard Did. And then other people have. It just depends.

And agent-wise, certainly early on in your career, you don’t expect somebody to have necessarily landed an agent. And probably as they get more experience and if they’ve been in the industry for a while, most people who end up working regularly will probably have an agent. But again, those things don’t matter. What matters is just whether they’re the person or not.

What was it like working with Hulu? Did you feel you were able to hang on to the Irish-ness, or did you have to dilute it a bit more to consider the American viewers?

Lenny Abrahamson: We had these conversations where we thought sooner or later, we’re going to get the note “could people turn down the accent a bit”. Right into post-production when we were sending them cuts, and thinking, when are we going to have that call where they say, “Look, we’re having a bit of trouble understanding Des Eastwood’s Northern accent, or a couple of the kids who hang around with Connell and Marianne in school”. But it never came.

Louise Kiely: I suppose the question at certain points was clarity. We just let the actors play truthfully. We never kind of went, “Okay. Slow down, or round your vowels”.

Lenny Abrahamson: I think there’s one thing I would say just to actors generally about clarity. There’s a difference between clarity and accent. With the key cast, we got into the habit of talking about clarity of delivery. And I do think that’s something that’s probably worth thinking about as developing the ability to really keep an accent truthful, but just not mash the words. So any of the ADR that we have to do, or any of the tricky bits was always not so much about the accent, but just about a certain kind of swallowing of speech or something.

Louise Kiely: And actually, we’ve had something recently on another project, the accents are quite strong. Of course, you want to do the accent. But it just has to be clear. When one knows what they are saying, when one has a very clear intention, and one learns a line, and the line exists from start to finish, and you know what you want to say, then people understand it, don’t they? Well, maybe not 100%. But there is that as well.

There are scenes that are pure behaviour and little dialogue, how did that look on the page? And how did you go about finding those moments?

Lenny Abrahamson: Sometimes on the page, it just says they walk through a town, or it says they’re drinking with their friends, or whatever. And then it’s up to you, as a director, to find what is the version of what’s richest at that point in the story, and what is that doing. So I always think very carefully about those scenes. Sometimes on the page, writers will put them in, because it’ll just feel like punctuation. But you have to know that you need it on screen otherwise, it won’t stay. They’re the bits that I like most, those bits where it’s about behaviour, and there’s a kind of observational truthfulness to it.

And I think it’s an instinctual thing. And what I try and do in production is make sure, around specific scenes like that, which might just be an eighth of a page in the script, I will always tell production on the first day, whether that’s really an eighth of a page, or it’s an eighth of a page that I want to expand into a scene which has depth, meaning and complexity to it, so that you just don’t see, well, you’ve got 45 minutes to do that, when in fact what’s in your head is quite complicated.

But yes. It’s just an instinctual thing as you feel your way through the script and as you prepare to try to find those moments. And add them, whether or not they’re specified in the script at all. And you get better at that, I think, as you go along, because you recognise where you will need space for the ideas of the previous scenes to sort of echo, and for people to sit with that for a while before they move to the next thing.

Did you have long rehearsal periods with Daisy and Paul and the principle cast?

Lenny Abrahamson: So not a huge amount for rehearsal. Probably, over about eight days towards the end of pre-production, not the very end. I think things go so crazy at the very end of pre-production. We try to end those rehearsals about a week before we shoot. And over those eight days, you have Daisy and Paul in and out, because they have to get in costume fittings and make-up tests and camera testing.

I would do a few hours with them each day. And towards the end of that week, say in a seven day period, for about two days, I’ll bring in Sarah Greene, Aislín McGuckin, Connell’s friends, Marianne’s friends, for a couple of hours. But the bulk of it is with Daisy and Paul.

it’s a combination of all these things. It’s a really good script. It’s great casting. And it’s when you find those actors that are right, it’s like just listening to them and watching them, and helping them find all of the nuance you can. So it’s not endless rehearsal. I think if you end with the rehearsal and try to manufacture those things, they become a bit mannered. And actually, things can go a bit dead if they’re over-rehearsed.

But then on set, the way I work is that I almost always change things slightly on the day, because it’s sort of an instinct to make things come alive again. And then it’s about observing the actors and really trying to watch them with the camera, so that you’re not failing them on the shoot because I sometimes think that what happens is directors will come in with a very definite idea of the scene. They’ll play that out, almost as if it’s puppetry. In their head, the person comes in down stage, and comes in and sits. And then the other person comes over. And these are the beats. But then you’re not really observing. You’re sort of manufacturing with a hammer and a chisel. And I prefer to block loosely, to watch, to re-block based on what we’ve seen to find those moments, and then to use the camera as a tool of observation once you set what the scene is really like, rather than just recording what you’ve already prepared if that makes sense.

 What was your favourite thing about casting this production?

Louise Kiely: Oh my goodness! There are so many things that are my favourite things about casting this production. I suppose starting at the beginning, getting to cast this production was one of my favourite things because of course, this is a gift. To get to work on this here with Lenny and Ed and Catherine and Emma, my goodness! I was very excited.

And then there’s the day when everybody starts school, and you can sit around at the big table and they’re all there. And they’ve all found their ways in different sort of short ways and long ways, and circuitous ways an I just love it. I’d look around the table and we’re all just kind of coming in. And then you listen to them. And their sort of feeling of nerves, and the sort of feeling of anxiety or attention, or excitement in the room, and knowing that they’re going to go and do it. Those are always my favourite days, even if the read to is kind of quiet, I still love it.

Lenny Abrahamson: It’s really important. I think the key relationships in any production are with the producer as things ramp up. The writer and producer, depending on how you work with the writer. And the next person is the casting director because casting usually starts in advance of all the rest of the pre-production. Even before locations and things like that. It’s the next intimate relationship that you have. And if it’s not functional, if you don’t trust the casting director, if you think they’re missing people or they don’t understand the nature of the characters that they’re trying to cast, that would cause great anxiety. I like to be really involved in that. They are among the most important decisions that you’re going to make. You can’t make it work if you don’t cast the right people. And I mean, you can still mess it up after, even with the right people. But there’s no chance of getting it right if you don’t have the right people.

I’m very involved in the casting. If somebody feels at all right to me, I’ll usually start to sort of play with them. Would that be right, Louise?

Louise Kiely: Very much so. I mean, very involved, and very thoughtful about watching tapes, and very thoughtful about feedback, and very generous. And there was a lot to watch.

When we were doing What Richard Did, we went to how many schools? And the fact that you and Malcolm and Karen were there is somewhat unheard of. And we sat through a lot of young people. And equally in this process, although it was on tape, you watched a lot.

I was talking to somebody the other day about my experience in the audition room with you and Hettie as well. It’s really amazing for me to be able to part of that, and the actors actually. Even if you don’t get the part, the fact that you’ve had this time with the director, because what I find interesting about the way that Lenny works is that he asks questions which are distilled and appear to be simple. But what it does is it allows the actor to find the other way in. And then, of course, something comes out, and it’s wonderful.

Lenny Abrahamson: I definitely feel that talking too much is probably the biggest mistake that directors make because it can just confuse an actor. If you’re throwing loads of, “I’d like it this way, but not too much this way. A little bit more like that”. If you’re going to say something, it’s better not to say something unless you can say something kind of simple that helps to unlock or suggest something. And that’s not always possible. It doesn’t always come. But when it does, it’s great, because you’ll find with somebody who comes in quite nervous, and has a go at the role and sort of with that sort of energy that nervous can give. And all they need then is just a small thing to …

Louise Kiely: And if that small thing doesn’t happen, then you readjust and you kind of go, “Okay. Yeah. And then this.” And then you’ll direct them, of course. Usually, you’ll find a way. And you’re absolutely right because I find that directors work in all different ways but what’s the common denominator in an audition process? It’s nerves. And the nerves exist whether you are 18, or whether you are 85.

Each actor is different. And you can’t make a generalisation. But my experience is that if it were me as an actor back in the day, and I go into a room feeling quite anxious and nervous and really wanting this job. I’m not able to just sort of give it a go, get it out of me, which is actually what you need to do. You need to get it out of you. But instead, I have to listen to a lot of information, which is very useful along the way but at that moment in time, I need to get that energy out, and then I’ll be able to hear you. But before that, I can’t hear. Do you know what I mean?

And finally, why do you think the series has been so successful?

Louise Kiely: As a spectator, my mother loves it, my brother loves it, my new neighbours love it. And there’s something unbelievably universal about these two humans, this story. I feel like we all know Marianne, and we all know Connell, and we all had a first love. And also it’s absolutely beautifully made, and beautifully directed by Lenny and Hettie. I mean, it’s just beautiful. So I think that’s why they love it.

Lenny Abrahamson: I don’t know is the answer. I think it’s a book that people love, and that helped get people to watch it. I think Daisy and Paul are really spectacular. I mean, they’re just so brilliant. And I feel so lucky to have them, and for Louise to have found them.

It’s also a little bit different from what else is out there. A lot of the stuff that’s out there is very glassy, or very kind of sensationalized, especially about young people and sex. It’s a voyeur kind of approach, which is, “Oh my God! Look at the kind of nightmarish world that our kids are in”. And I think this just people kind of identify with it, because although it’s poetic in its own way, it does feel real. And maybe people are just ready for that realism, or that naturalism, I should say. And then a combination of that, and probably people feeling a bit emotionally vulnerable during the lockdown and all those things. It just seemed inspired.

Spotlight interviewer, Clare McGinley: I think as well, so much of Normal People, is about connection and intimacy. But there are so many wonderful scenes which are so normal and every day, which I think everyone can relate to, which is where they’re awkward, something has happened, there’s been a fight, there’s been a misunderstanding, and they make tea for each other. And that’s such a big custom in Ireland and the UK, and so many cultures where there’s so much unsaid. They’re struggling. They’re young adults. They can’t always get the words out. And we’re all there screaming at some of the misunderstandings. He wants live with her. She thinks there’s break up. And they’re having tea. Or there’s just so much that is unsaid, is just filled in with these silences in a kitchen. And I think you don’t really see those very normal customs on TV all the time.

Lenny Abrahamson: I think that’s a really good analysis of it.

Louise Kiely trained at The Gaiety School of Acting. She was an actor for a period before setting up Louise Kiely Casting in 2005. Based in Ireland, Louise Kiely Casting are Casting Directors for Film, Television and Commercials. Recent credits include ‘Normal People’, ‘Dating Amber’, ‘Dublin Murders’, ‘Blood’ and many more.

Lenny Abrahamson is the director of the highly acclaimed series ‘Normal People’, and ‘Room’, starring Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, which was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture. His other work includes the feature ‘The Little Stranger’, ‘Garage’, ‘Frank’ and much more. 

Image by Element Pictures / Enda Bowe