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What Makes Theater Stars Pop on Drama

What Makes Theater Stars Pop on Drama

While hosting the 39th Artios Awards in March, comedian Alex Edelman cracked a fitting joke about casting directors Bernard Telsey and Adam Caldwell.

As Telsey recalls it, Edelman said, ” ‘You know how Bernie and Adam cast The Gilded Age, don’t you? They stand in front of Bar Centrale,’ which is a famous theater bar, ‘and as the actors are coming out after their matinee, they throw a hood over their head and kidnap them in a van and take them up to Troy, New York, or Long Island.’ ” Telsey adds: “Basically, that is how we do it. We just don’t do the kidnapping.”

Over two seasons, Julian Fellowes’ HBO period drama has earned a reputation for its stacked ensemble of Broadway talent playing New York high society characters and a “downstairs” collection of cooks and servants. These include Tony Award winners Christine Baranski, Cynthia Nixon, Kelli O’Hara, Nathan Lane, Audra McDonald, Donna Murphy, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Katie Finneran and Michael Cerveris, plus Tony nominees Carrie Coon, Denée Benton and Kristine Nielsen.

“It’s not a joke that there are so many [theater actors], because they have that training, and they’re doing so many of those traditional musicals that require the language,” explains Telsey. “They’re used to having to make quick, larger-than-life choices, which a lot of The Gilded Age is.”

The addition of Laura Benanti, Robert Sean Leonard and Amber Gray in season two fueled the running joke that a Tony nomination, at minimum, was a prerequisite for landing a role on the series. But Caldwell cautions that this is just fictitious lore.

“What became clear is that with a cast that’s so large and has so many characters, everyone needs to be able to define their character,” he says. “When you’re talking about people who are stars in their own right on the stage, who have won acclaim, who bring something that only they can bring, those are the people that also tended to pop within the huge ensemble that we were building and helped us really define what these roles could be. It can be hard to track who everyone is when you’re starting out watching, so the goal was to help the audience follow along because they’re able to recognize how each person is separate and special.”

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At the end of season one, Bernard and Telsey’s eye for talent paid off when 13 of the show’s recurring actors were promoted to series regulars. “To get that phone call that we’re going to make everyone a series regular was like, oh my God, a real paycheck for people who don’t normally get that,” says Telsey. “It was so thrilling to know that they were all going to make more money. And to now have another season of that is truly great.”

This story first appeared in a May standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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