Forty-three UCLA staff members and alumni were involved in projects nominated for the 2016 Emmy awards in 16 different categories. Over the course of four weeks, the A&E staff will feature some of these UCLA-affiliated nominees and their projects.
Victoria Thomas knew she wouldn’t find her show’s leading man in Los Angeles.
Thomas didn’t want to cast Hollywood stars in a historical drama. The UCLA attendee served as casting director for the television miniseries “Roots,” which follows the lives of a Gambian slave brought to America and his descendants. “Roots,” a remake of a 1977 miniseries of the same name, was nominated for Outstanding Casting for a Limited Series, Movie or Special at the 2016 Emmy awards.
In casting a historical drama – especially one based on a preexisting series – Thomas said the biggest challenge involved piecing together an ensemble of characters who captured the essence of the original show and time period, but also brought in originality and modernity. Thomas said she cast the 2016 “Roots” with the intention of bringing in new actors to enact the historical drama, offering a 21st century take on the original series from four decades ago.
The casting for the 1977 “Roots” was based on a more conventional Hollywood approach, filling the screen with household names like Sandy Duncan and LeVar Burton to attract audiences, Thomas said.
“The original ‘Roots’ had to get viewers to watch it, and it’s depicting a painful part of our history,” Thomas said. “They tried to fill the cast with familiar television faces.”
Thomas’ casting, however, emphasized authenticity rather than celebrity. The “Roots” story, which depicts scenes of slavery, war and rape, would resonate more powerfully with audiences if they were seeing what looked like real people on screen rather than famous faces, she said.
“We wanted them to be close to the characters that they’re portraying,” Thomas said. “We didn’t want name actors who would be jarring to take you out of the experience of seeing ‘Roots.’”
Thomas has shown a knack for recognizing relatively unknown talent since well before “Roots,” said Glenn Williamson, co-area head of the program on producing at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. He first met Thomas when he was a production assistant for the film “Edward Scissorhands,” which she cast in 1990. As with her casting for “Roots,” Thomas selected then-little-known actors, among them Johnny Depp before he achieved A-list celebrity status for the title role, Williamson said. Thomas has always had good taste in making unconventional casting decisions, which is the mark of an effective casting director, he said.
“They could come up with an idea for an established actor that you hadn’t thought of, or they could come up with someone totally new,” Williamson said.
Thomas began casting “Roots” in 2015, and the first role she sought out was the show’s lead character Kunta Kinte, a man uprooted from Gambia and sold to a tobacco plantation in the Virginia Colony. Since the entire plot centers on Kunta Kinte and his descendants, Thomas said she felt pressured to cast her leading man perfectly.
“‘Roots’ is all about family, and a lot of time it has to do with casting a believable-looking and -feeling family that goes through generations,” Thomas said. “You want to create a dynamic between these people – the casting of one person affects the casting of another.”
Although Thomas’ casting agency is based in the heart of West Hollywood, she said she realized she was not going to find a believable cast for a show about slavery in Tinseltown. Her quest for the perfect cast became a worldwide search, and she enlisted the help of casting directors in New York, New Orleans and South Africa. She said she ultimately found her Kunta Kinte, the English actor Malachi Kirby, in London.
“There are people living in England whose parents are born in Africa and actors themselves who were born in Africa,” Thomas said. “I always though we would find (Kunta Kinte) there as opposed to here in the U.S., where the line of connection is further back.”
In order to coordinate casting globally, Thomas said she was on phone calls daily for months with her fellow casting directors to ensure her vision for the show would be fully realized. She sifted through hundreds of actors live and on video auditions from her casting directors around the world.
Thomas had the final say on every casting decision, but made sure every regional casting director felt like part of the team, said Meagan Lewis, a casting director with RPM Casting who helped locate “Roots” actors in Louisiana. She said the end result of Thomas’ leadership was a successful cast that felt cohesive.
“(Thomas) is very good at making sure all these faces and characters tell a fluid story,” Lewis said. “She’s never myopic about decisions, where it’s just about this role or this role – she sees the scope of the entire project.”
For “Roots,” Thomas is delighted with the jigsaw puzzle of actors she fit together to create the final project – a medley from around the world working together to embody the essence of the 1800s without coming across as imitators or look-alikes.
“We just want to be proud of the fact that the actors that we put up there all worked together,” Thomas said. “Hopefully you’ll even forget that they’re actors, and you’ll totally believe that they are these characters.”