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Peering into the Casting Cauldron of Australian Web Series

Rochelle Siemienowicz

How does the casting process work in an arena where new and emerging performers are the norm and budgets are lower? We look at Homecoming Queens, F*!#ing Adelaide, Wrong Kind of Black and Sheilas to find some answers.
Peering into the Casting Cauldron of Australian Web Series

Image: A kind of family. The cast of F*!#ing Adelaide.

The casting process for any screen project is always a little mysterious and ideally a little magical; a cauldron of personal contacts, casting agent suggestions and (if you’re lucky) some big-name actors to launch the thing into public consciousness.

But how does the casting process work in the arena of short form television and Web Series, where new and emerging writers and performers are the norm and budgets are generally lower?  

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We talked to some of the people involved in the casting of four newly launched web series: SBS On Demand’s Homecoming Queens, ABC iview’s F*!#ing Adelaide and Wrong Kind of Black, and the upcoming online feminist comedy history series, Sheilas. Their answers reveal how collaborative and organic the casting process can be, while also confirming our suspicion that having fun with friends and relatives remains a key consideration for many creatives.

If you’re a new writer and performer, then making your own web series is a way to generate your own projects, which is exactly what the creators of web series Sheilas (releasing 21 August) have done. Sisters Hannah May Reilly and Eliza Reilly made the ABC series Growing Up Disgracefully which aired earlier in 2018. Now they’re back with an independently distributed web series supported by Screen Australia’s Gender Matters initiative, about the ‘badass women of Australian history’. Subjects include Olympic swimmer Fanny Durack, WWII spy Nancy Wake and Indigenous bushranger Mary Ann Bugg, in a jokey but factual format reminiscent of Horrible Histories. The sisters appear on camera as narrators and presenters, but a stable of other actors play key characters and supporting roles.

According to producer Nikita Agzarian, the cast for Sheilas came from a variety of sources and assembling it was very much a team effort with the Reilly sisters and a high profile casting agent. Agzarian, who started her career interning on The Chaser’s War on Everything, and is founder of Sydney comedy venue Giant Dwarf, has experience working with many new and emerging comic talents. She said she was lucky enough to have the support of casting agent Lucky Price from McGregor’s Casting. ‘He really helped us with the mix of having both comedians and actors involved in the pilot and that informed the way we shaped the series.’ 

This mix of self-casting together with professional casting is also evident in SBS On Demand’s first commissioned series, the autobiographically inspired Homecoming Queens, which features one of the co-writers and creators, Michelle Law, in a lead role. According to Producer Katia Nizic, it was always the intention for Law to play her own character on the show. ‘The co-creator and writer, Chloë Reeson, had no desire to perform, and we knew we had a big task finding the right person to interpret Chloë. Liv Hewson was one of the last self-tests for Chloë and we were immediately interested in seeing them for a follow-up chemistry test with Michelle. Once we saw Liv, there was really never anyone else who could fit the bill.’

While Nizic says that she was involved in casting discussions right from the inception of the project, Homecoming Queens employed the services of casting agent Gemma Brown (also from McGregor’s). Brown had previously worked with the series director Corrie Chen on her short films, so there was an existing relationship. ‘Gemma is creatively involved in the process, reading the scripts and using her industry knowledge to bring together the best crop of young actors for us to audition and test,’ says Nizic. ‘She has an incredible amount of insight in the casting world and she has a great relationship with all the agents, which is crucial to getting a lower budget show over the line. And honestly, all credit to Chloë and Michelle for writing scripts that actors were really interested in, too.’

As for the challenges or problems in casting yourself in a lead role, Nizic says there are definitely issues to be confronted with autobiographical content. ‘We had quite a few moments in the writer's room where we had to stop and say, "Wait, are you talking about real Michelle or Michelle, the character?" says Nizik. ‘I know this became even more complicated once Michelle started rehearsing, but she was able to step back from writing duties at that time and focus on her character work with [director] Corrie Chen. The obvious advantage to casting yourself as a version of yourself is authenticity.’

Image: Michelle Law plays 'Michelle' in Homecoming Queens, alongside Liv Hewson. Source: SBS.

Whether it’s a web series or not, every project poses its own unique casting challenges. Producer Andrea Denholm of Princess Pictures says that the casting for ABC Indigenous web series Wrong Kind of Black (premiering on the ABC on Sunday 5 August) was very much a case of family, friends, contacts and professional casting. ‘Anousha Zarkesh was our casting agent,’ says Denholm, whose work in the industry has encompassed far more traditional format TV series like Seachange and Crashburn. ‘Some actors sent self tests. We used a lot of actuals including [creator-co-writer] Boori Monty Pryor’s family and friends. Boori’s sister Toni did an amazing job of casting extras for our Townsville shoot.’ The result was a mix of very experienced actors in the lead, as well as actors who had never before appeared in front of a camera.

In contrast to the other series profiled here, no casting agent was employed on the ABC iview web series F*!#ing Adelaide. Producer co-writer and director Sophie Hyde says the drama about a family in crisis was always written with certain actors in mind, including Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Beau Travis Williams, Kate Box and Audrey Mason-Hyde (who happens to be the daughter of Sophie Hyde and Bryan Mason, who also worked as DOP on the series). ‘We wanted to make something where we could work with these actors and so we essentially came up with the idea of the show to do that,’ says Hyde. ‘Even our supporting roles were often written for specific cast – Julian Crotti and Zoe Saltz. As for the extras on the show, Hyde was committed to finding some diversity in all the roles and employed her vast network of friends, supporters and collaborators to find people.  

Definitely the most high profile of the actors on F*!#ing Adelaide is Pamela Rabe, who plays the secretive matriarch trying to sell the family home out from underneath the unwilling adult children.  ‘The material went to her through her agent,’ remembers Hyde, ‘but we knew someone who was directing her on Wentworth at the time and had messaged him and he spoke to her about it too, so I think she watched [our previous film] 52 Tuesdays on his recommendation and fortunately she liked it enough to come on board.’ Hyde says that Rabe brought incredible presence and professionalism to the set, and that in one key scene with Kate Box (the one in the shed, if you’ve seen it), the very first take was so good she ‘wasn’t sure what to do with myself.’

An experimental and ambitious creator with a wealth of producing and directing experience behind her, Hyde says that in many ways working with new and emerging actors is her comfort zone. ‘There can be a cynicism with some [experienced] actors about rehearsing,’ she says, ‘but I really believe in and value rehearsal time - particularly for character and relationship building.  With new actors they are most often ready to dive into that and to hear and understand the story.’ Her advice for working with less experienced performers? ‘I think the atmosphere is vital, high expectations but not ridiculous pressure. Asking people to step up and showing them that you are as well.  Lots of rehearsal time and time to discuss the layers of the script, theme, characters and enough time for more takes.’

It’s interesting to note that the broadcasters commissioning the web series mentioned in this article had final say on casting (SBS with Homecoming Queens, and the ABC with F*!#ing Adelaide and Wrong Kind of Black). But the producers maintain they were given great leeway in their choices. As Hyde notes, ‘the ABC definitely had control contractually but they never stood in the way of what we were thinking.  They were very helpful at talking through some of our guest roles and had a good idea of how certain people might be viewed by their audience or how they might be to work with.’ Andrea Denholm agrees, saying that with Wrong Kind of Black, the ABC had final say but it was a very collaborative process.

All those we spoke to agreed that finance was tough and finding the right audiences remains a challenge. The web series format allows for casting adventurously, trying and developing new talent and new ideas. It's the not the holy grail but it beats waiting for the phone to ring. As Sheilas' producer Nikita Agzarian says, 'the most important advice I can give is surround yourself with an amazing team of people and people you enjoy working with. If you’re a young creative, the best thing thing to do is just start making stuff now. If something is a funny idea it will cut through regardless of how it looks or who is involved. Just put yourself out there, and get practice because you never know where that will lead.' 

About the author

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She is now the the co-host of Australia's longest running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates'. She has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. You can follow her musings on Australian film and television on Twitter @Milan2Pinsk.

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