Inside the Casting Process for FX’s Reservation Dogs

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June Thomas: This Ad Free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership.

Speaker 2: I’m always an advocate for the actor. I try to give them as much time as possible with the material. I mean, sometimes, and especially in television, it’s like you move so fast. It’s like, okay, we got to audition these roles and have those tapes by tomorrow, you know? And it’s it’s like that’s a lot for the actors.

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Isaac Butler: Welcome back to Working. I’m your host, Isaac Butler.

June Thomas: And I’m your other host, June Thomas.

Isaac Butler: June, who is that? We heard at the top of the show.

June Thomas: That was Angelique Midthunder. She is a casting director who works mostly in casting indigenous roles.

Isaac Butler: And what made you seek out Angelique for an interview?

June Thomas: Well, there has been what you might call a blossoming of shows that focus on American Indians. And that’s great. And in contrast to even a decade ago, those roles are now played by Indigenous actors and I’ve watched and enjoyed a lot of those shows and I wondered how that boom has affected the process of casting. And Angelique seemed like a really great person to talk about it with.

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Isaac Butler: Yeah, we’ve really gone from famine to feast when it comes to Native American representation and particularly television. And since it comes up quite a bit in this episode for our listeners who haven’t seen it, what is reservation dogs?

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June Thomas: Isaac Reservation Dogs is a show that you told me to watch when it first started airing, and I didn’t. And no, I’m so mad that I waited a year because it’s absolutely fantastic. It’s a comedy. A very funny, absurdist comedy is set on a reservation in Oklahoma. It features four teenagers from the rez, and they are doing what teenagers do and trying to figure out, you know, with where they live and the resources they have, what they should do with their lives. You know, and the big question for them, like for a lot of young people, is, should they stay where they were born or should they light out for the territory, as you might say?

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June Thomas: The showrunner is Sterlin Harjo, who’s an American Indian from Oklahoma. He’s from the Seminole Nation, and he co-created it with Taika Waititi, very famously half Maori, half Jewish, and all the characters and the actors who play them are native. The writers room is native, the directors are native, it’s a native show.

Isaac Butler: So Joon, the really important takeaway it sounds like here is that people should always take my cultural advice.

June Thomas: Yeah, basically, yes. That’s lesson number one.

Isaac Butler: So do we have a little bonus for our Slate Plus subscribers today?

June Thomas: We do. I asked Angelique a couple of things. I’ve always wondered about the casting process. First word casting fits and the timetable of the creation of a show, and also why casting directors always show up in the credits with the letters CSA after their names.

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Isaac Butler: Well, I look forward to learning what CSA means beyond the place where you go to pick up your vegetables and our slate plus listeners will get to hear that after the regular show.

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Isaac Butler: All right. Now let’s listen in on June’s conversation with casting director Angelique Midthunder.

June Thomas: Angelique Midthunder, thank you for joining us on working.

Speaker 2: Thank you for having me.

June Thomas: So you are a casting director with a specialization in Indigenous talent. I do want to talk about your work on the great FX series, Reservation Dogs. But before we get to that, I’d love to know more about how a casting director does her job. So first, how does the work begin? Is Midthunder casting contacted by a network or a production company when they have a new show and they’re looking for actors or what’s the process?

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Speaker 2: Yes, it can be any of those things. It can be. Oftentimes it’s producers or directors that I’ve worked with before, a studio network that I’ve worked with, or it’s just people who know of my work that reach out to me with their project. And we, you know, I have take a look at the material and, you know, see if it’s something that speaks to me and if it’s a project that I am enthusiastic to be a part of and support. And then we kind of go from there. In this case, on reservation dogs specifically, it was just you know, it was a cell phone call from Sterlin at 945 at night, like, hey, I got this show. It’s going to be a lot, you know, jump on that.

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June Thomas: Sterlin Harjo, the co-creator of Reservation Dogs.

Speaker 2: Yes.

June Thomas: And had you worked with him before?

Speaker 2: Yeah. So we had worked together before. And I knew him through the I would say, like the native filmmaker community as well, the film festival circuit and lots of mutual friends.

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June Thomas: Got it. So you get reached out to. And what happened? Do you get kind of a like a list? These are the parts we’re looking for. This is what the characters are like. And then do you have actors in mind? How does how what’s the next step?

Speaker 2: Yeah, I get a script and I break it down for the roles. I read a script with a pen and paper in hand. And, you know, as I’m going through, I kind of break down some unique characteristics that I see about each character. And it just starts coming to me like, you know, who would be good for this? And I just start making lists of names as I go. So yeah, it takes me a while that first time, but that’s when it really gels for me as well.

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June Thomas: So you kind of have a mental Rolodex, a, you know, you’re thinking of actors. Or are you also kind of putting out a call for actors as you kind of figure out what’s needed on a show?

Speaker 2: Yes. So both I you know, I kind of start with my mental Rolodex after I read the script the initial time. And then I also do the kind of conventional process of releasing a breakdown. Once I discuss with the with the creatives, the writers, directors, producers, whoever, you know, on a show like Reservation Dogs. Sterlin Harjo wrote it and is the showrunner and directed the first episode. So, you know, it was really he and I talking through like, what were the important characteristics to note about each role? But yeah, so I take that and then we do, I do a character breakdown and I release that to the agencies.

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June Thomas: I see. And then is there a kind of a will be having an in-person casting process or I guess that’s probably been even if that was the case before, have been much more difficult during the COVID era. What’s that next step?

Speaker 2: I mean, yeah, I feel like I hopefully will go back to normal someday. And not just this new normal nowadays we’re just receiving tapes, self tapes, and then it’s a process of maybe we’ll ask someone to retake the director will watch the tapes and give notes of like, I would have liked it if they would have felt, you know, a certain way at a certain moment in the scene and have them re tape with the director notes, whatever those notes may be, and or we’ll do zoom sessions with them where we record the Zoom sessions or they’ll just cast off tape. If they just watch tapes and they go, Oh, this is brilliant, we love this guy. And they’ll just pick.

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Speaker 2: In the olden days, even for reservation dogs, we started that show pre-pandemic. So for that show, I actually went out to Oklahoma and just went all over the state, went, visited the different reservations and did what we called back in the day, opened casting calls where we would just have we would invite anybody and everybody who felt like they fit to come and read. And then we would just go through everyone. And that was a really fun process for that show because we found a lot of, aside from the series regulars or lead roles that we were looking for at the time. Time we’ve used that casting call to flesh out the majority of the cast.

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Speaker 2: So, you know, we would just grab, you know, Sterling attended all of those sessions with me, which is unheard of. He was like, I’m going to go. I want it. What time are we starting? I was like, Oh, no, no, you don’t want to be. Because we were all over the state and we saw thousands of people and I was like, No, what we do is we kind of weed out the you know, we go through it first. He is like, No, I want to be I want to see everybody. And it was great because then he could find people that were interesting and go, not for this, but let’s keep them in mind. And we kind of kept a file of interesting people to revisit later. And so it was really grassroots casting at its finest and the pilot for reservation dogs. And it’s I haven’t been able to do anything like it since.

June Thomas: Well, one of the things that I’m very curious about specifically with reservation dogs is that the four leads are young people or, you know, we’re supposed to read them as between 16 and 18. I think obviously some of them are closer to that age range than others. Lane Factor, who plays cheese, I believe, was about 16 when he was cast. Some of the other actors are maybe closer to 30. What are the special challenges of casting young actors?

Speaker 2: Well, you know, with young actors, they haven’t been alive that long, so they don’t have as much experience to, you know, shape their characters. And a lot of times when you’re when you’re working with young people, you’re asking them to to portray situations, scenarios, emotions that they never have experienced before. So it’s really taking acting to another level, right? I mean, as an adult, if we had to portray grief, you know, we’ve probably all, you know, experienced that in one way or another and at different levels. But when you’re talking about a 15 year old, maybe they’ve only lost a goldfish and they don’t have the level that, you know, an older person has experienced in their lifetime.

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Speaker 2: So I find that there are especially with young people, there are just people who have a natural instinct where they’re almost, you know, empathetic, you know, where they can. Whereas, you know, just with anyone else and especially with young people, again, sometimes you’re just like, kids will say the darndest things and you’re like, How could you say that? Don’t you realize that would make me feel a certain way, you know? But, you know, there are certain kids that do realize how their words and their behaviors affect others or come off. And those are the ones who can really connect with the material, or there are kids who have life experience beyond their years. So there’s just a plethora of things that can create a talented young actor. And those are the kind of the things that, you know, I look for kind of that natural ability that surfaces.

June Thomas: Now, one of the things that I’m conscious of, especially when we’re talking about reservation dogs, we’re talking, which is a comedy and a very funny comedy. There is a very in season one, there’s a, you know, basically everything is shaped by a suicide. When you’re in the casting process, do you warn them that there are going to be storylines about really heavy stuff, almost just to kind of be sure you want to be kind of in this environment or working with this content.

Speaker 2: Oh, that’s very nice of you. We don’t do that. You know, a lot of times that content could be spoilers or, you know, things like that. So we don’t talk to them about that. Certainly in the pilot that was alluded to and as we narrowed down the process, certainly by the time we got into like callback situations or studio tests, the people that we had narrowed down the scope for definitely knew, you know, what they were talking about and where the storyline was going.

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Speaker 2: But in general, we don’t unless, you know, sometimes somebody will be a little more savvy than others and say, what is this about? You know? And of course, we were happy to inform them because it only enhances their performance to do so. But in general, too, I like to just let them extract from the script what they can as far as to put their own connotation. Into the dialogue and the intention of the character. And then we can kind of fine tune or steer them if they’re going off. But. But I like to let people go with their instincts.

June Thomas: Yeah. Reservation dogs. As we talked about, it’s about a very specific place, a reservation in Oklahoma. I don’t believe the show provides the tribal affiliation, but, you know, so there’s not a lot of detail, but it’s clear kind of what the setting is. Do the actors need to look like they would all have the same roots? Do they need to use this a similar accent? Like, to what extent are you kind of casting for those particular things?

Speaker 2: I think in a perfect world, yes, that would be the case. I mean, that was pretty much the intention when Sterlin and I set off on our journeys across Oklahoma to do these huge casting calls. I think like in his perfect world, we definitely would have cast everyone from Oklahoma. There are a lot of tribes in Oklahoma. Some are very related and some are very distinct from each other.

Speaker 2: Mm hmm. So in the end, it was a mix, especially for those series regular lead and the lead roles. It was a mix of locals and actors, professionals and grassroots casting. But I mean, I feel like in the end, and especially I mean, they took some time in the beginning to let you know so that everyone could get to know each other. And I felt like in the end, the end product you like, you believe that these kids grew up together, you believe that they grew up in that environment.

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Speaker 2: And a lot of like, you know, if you’ve seen the show reservation dogs, there’s like a good guy gang and a bad guy gang, right? All the bad guy gang, the neighborhood kids, some of the characters just pop in and out. Those were all Oklahoma locals. So, you know, I felt like there was so much of that that the actors that came in were able to kind of just soak up their environment.

June Thomas: Well, yes. So that brings us to, you know, another thing I’m curious about, having kind of been around TV for a while. Like, one of the things I remember being really surprised by was, for example, on the CW for, you know, let’s just say a lot of those kind of hot young kids shows. So many of the young people are actually Australian. For example, three of your leads. Three of the four, you know, main leads of the show are Canadian. Does that create extra challenges for you, just in the terms of like, they’re from another country and it’s just kind of harder to use an actor from another country or and please excuse my ignorance. Do those rules apply to First Nations? Canadians like how do you kind of negotiate that whole world of overseas actors?

Speaker 2: There are logistics about, you know, work visas traveling internationally. But also, it’s interestingly enough, a lot of there’s a thing called the J Treaty, which a lot of people don’t know about, whether it’s a treaty that was made long ago, I don’t know what year. But between the United States and the First Nations tribes where they are allowed to live and work in the United States with dual citizenship. Oh, so that’s why you’ll see a lot of Canadian first nations in working in American films. It’s not reciprocated. Americans cannot go and work in Canada in the same way. They have to go through the process with the work visa and everything else.

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June Thomas: Wow. That’s that’s amazing.

June Thomas: I’m really curious about one of the main leads. All four of whom are fantastic. But I believe that the role of Willy Jack, who’s played by Paulina Alexis, was originally conceptualized as a role for a male actor. The focus was going to be on a Laura and three guys, but Paulina was cast and she really is fantastic. But how did that come about? And is that kind of recontextualizing, unusual?

Speaker 2: I love that casting. Yes, it was a to the original script. The original concept was the Laura character. And she was like this kind of tough girl in this gang, you know, with three guys. And she was like kind of the tomboy, but smart leader of the gang. And that’s the role that Paulina read for initially. And I we just loved her from the first two.

Speaker 2: I was like, Sterlin, you got to see her tape. She’s great. I had seen her before, but just in smaller roles, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much she could bring to this larger role. And he had, you know, we had. Had her do a it was like, let’s give her another scene to do. Let’s rewrite the scene and kind of make it more her style. And Sterling was like, you know, she’s not it’s too I don’t you know, it’s not right. It’s just not the the fit that I want. And I was like, but she’s brilliant. I thought it was perfect, a perfect fit, but I didn’t see it the way he saw it. And then he comes back and he goes, but actually she’s Willy, Jack. And I was like, oh, yes, she’s well, Jack. So.

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Speaker 2: Yes. And then it just kind of reshaped the character of Lily Jack. You know, through the process, it was like so much of Paulina goes into that character, a lot of her little Willy Jack isms, if you will. Ancestors at times do some. Maybe we got.

June Thomas: To honored them.

Isaac Butler: Got a good point.

Speaker 2: Fucking score. And those are all coming from Paulina and kind of I have to imagine that she’s kind of putting her own spin on to what that character would be. And and Sterlin and Taika are both really great with just letting them be themselves and the characters get shaped by what those actors bring to the table.

Isaac Butler: We’ll be back with more of Jun’s conversation with Angelique Midthunder after this.

Isaac Butler: Hey, listeners, Isaac Butler here. We want to hear from you whether you want us to solve an art problem. Tell us a guest you’d like to hear from on the show. Share your own creative triumphs. Please drop us a line at working at Slate.com or give us a ring at 304933w0rk. We even created a whole extra show called Working Overtime that runs every other week because we love hearing from our listeners so much. So please drop us a line at working at Slate.com or give us a ring at 304933w0rk. And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts. Okay. Let’s get back to June’s conversation with Angelique Midthunder.

June Thomas: Reservation Dogs is an almost exclusively native show. Like there’s literally one or two non-Indigenous characters. They usually have names like White Steve or Meth Heads, and it’s just a ton of roles to cast. We’re also in a period where there’s this really welcome boom in shows centering Native people. And I’m wondering, has it gotten harder to cast for indigenous roles? Because, you know, there’s I’m just thinking, for example. Zahn Mcclarnon, who’s big on reservation dogs, he plays a cop, a very different cop, but he’s also played a cop. He’s Joliet Pawn on Dark Winds. He was a tribal cop in Longmore. Are you kind of getting more people saying, oh, you know, not so much about Zane specifically, but, you know, we can’t have this great actor play a cop because people will associate him with this cop on this other show.

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Speaker 2: That’s definitely a conversation that we had, you know, because I also worked on Longmire. So yeah, but these characters, even though, yes, they have the same occupation, they’re all very different characters, obviously. You know, if you’ve seen dark winds, very different from Zane’s character on reservation dogs and yes, these are conversations that we have because it is, you know, a fairly small talent pool.

Speaker 2: Look, it’s I think definitely less than 2% of the population, I think in general are Native American are tribally affiliated. So, you know, when you’re talking about one and a half percent of the population overall and then you’re talking about creating a show, you know, and that’s how you’re filling your cast.

Speaker 2: You know, you definitely want to be thoughtful about these things, but I think it’s great that the opportunities are there and that the actors and that the show creators are able to have some diversity in the roles that they are playing or the roles that they are writing, the characters that they are developing.

June Thomas: Yeah. And I’m also kind of a word too, that nowadays we’re casting indigenous actors in indigenous roles, which, you know, wasn’t always the case even, you know, a decade ago. But I’m sort of curious when you are wanting to cast native actors, like is there a threshold of like how native they have to be?

Speaker 2: Oh, that is a Pandora’s box of a question. Because, you know, one thing that I always say is that I’m not the native police, you know, and identity self identity is a journey. I am the first person to attest to that. I’m adopted. I was born in another country. I’m mixed race. There’s a lot going on for self identity these days. Yeah. And I’m the first person to jump into that pool, you know. But that said, yes, there is some grey area, but tribes are sovereign nations. They have enrollment, they have governments, they have you know, each tribe has its own language and enrollment, just like every nation.

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Speaker 2: Right. So like Japan is different from China is different from Korea. And if you’re a member of one of those countries, you speak that language. You you know, so I guess there is a grey area and the age of 23 and me. But as far as like, you know, being born into a culture and growing up in that culture and portraying it, there’s kind of less of a grey area there. So it’s it’s a journey.

June Thomas: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I hear you.

June Thomas: So you had some big guests in season one of reservation dogs. Wes Studi was there, Gary Farmer, people who were playing the big indigenous roles. When there were very few of them. So did the producers say something like, Give me an indigenous acting legend? Or Did you just kind of happen to know that Wes Studi was available, or was it always written for him? How does that kind of big star casting work?

Speaker 2: It was a combination of things. We did audition every single role and we would cast a wide net for every single role. And sometimes Sterlin would just say, Let’s just see what Wes Studi is doing for that list to see if he’s available. And you know, certainly we didn’t have to audition all of these actors. If Sterlin would say, look, you know, let’s let’s get Gary Farmer in there if he’s available, done deal. And he wanted you know, all of these guys wanted to do it, too. They all wanted to work on the show.

Speaker 2: So and it was a really fun kind of putting together this puzzle of.

Speaker 2: These established, well-known actors, along with tons and tons of unknowns, non-actors as well, not just from the community, but we I mean, I’ve spent way more time on Instagram in the past two years, and I would like to admit, well, just scrolling through, looking for artists, musicians, just anyone who is interesting and different that we can bring to the screen for this.

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June Thomas: You know, we’ve been talking about casting Indigenous actors or Indigenous people in indigenous roles, but there’s kind of a history of Indigenous actors from other countries almost being a kind of skeleton key for casting. Like one of my favorite actors is Cliff Curtis, who’s Amari from New Zealand, and he’s played just about every ethnicity except WASP. And I’m not sure that I see that with American Indian actors. But you’re the expert. Are you typically casting Native American actors in roles where it’s relevant or even necessary to the story that they’re Native American? Or are you getting a sort of a broader where it’s not necessarily specific to the role?

Speaker 2: That’s always been my goal and my mindset because I do work on films that are not native specific as well. And I always think outside the box. I mean, I want to say 15 years ago I started, you know, where I would get a script and something would be scripted for, I don’t know, a Caucasian male in his forties. Maybe it’s a police officer or a judge or, you know, whatever. And it’s just scripted the way it’s scripted. And then I will say, what about this black woman in her fifties for the judge? Or, you know, what about this Asian woman in her thirties for the police officer or indigenous or whatever it is? But I always kind of thought outside the box and I’m always looking for those opportunities when it’s not something that is specific to the narrative of the story, obviously.

Speaker 2: But yes, definitely. And so I’m always looking for those opportunities and especially, you know, these these native characters that we found so many gems, you know, that I’m always looking for like, Oh, this would be a cool role for Paulina Alexis. She would tell this, you know, even if it’s not scripted any certain way, it’s just because it’s funny or it’s whatever. I know that she would bring something to the table or Lane or any of those guys. I’m always kind of but I’m yes, I’m always I like to say that I’m always going to throw in a wild card. And I tell directors that when they hire me that like, look, you’re going to get so just throw those wild cards out if you like. Or it might be genius.

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June Thomas: Yeah, it might be genius. Yes. That could be your autobiography.

Speaker 2: Yeah.

June Thomas: I am curious how you developed this specialty, which I know is not your exclusive focus, but you know, you do have this specialty in indigenous casting. Where did that begin?

Speaker 2: I am more and more leaning towards it being my exclusive focus. I just love it so much and it’s just a specialty that not very many people have. So I feel like I can really contribute and it’s the most satisfying thing that I do. So the way I mean, I just kind of fell into it. I’ve been married for 25, 22 years. My husband is Native American, and so I have Native American children, lots of Native American relatives. We have the community that we, you know, family that we visit. We just got back from visiting his reservation where we visited all his family and went to a powwow and met with the tribal council. So it’s like, you know, I’ve just been in this community organically for more than half of my life. So that’s kind of how I got started in it.

Speaker 2: And my husband went to boarding school and he so he knew lots of native people from different tribes. And so he he’s very like he can speak Navajo and he knows yurts and you know, Crees and Chippewa and like he no, he’s just has these close connections with people in so many different tribes that this I’ve just kind of learned all of this information by osmosis and I go to powwows and then I meet people from different tribes and I’m like, Oh, you’re wearing these colors because it pertains to these meaningful things about your tribe.

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Speaker 2: And these are just all things that I’ve learned over the years. So I can almost identify in certain situations somebody by looking at them, I can guess this is clearly someone from a Northern Plains tribe, you know, or a southwestern tribe. I can recognize the languages, the regions, things like that.

June Thomas: I know that your husband and at least one daughter are actors. How? Has having actors in the family affected your work as a casting director?

Speaker 2: It sure makes me feel empathetic towards actors who I’ve met. They go through it so hard and you know, it’s a lot of work. I mean, pretty much for them. By the time they turn in their audition tape, the work is behind them. So I know that asking them even to audition is nothing to be taken lightly. And I don’t take it lightly. And and I always keep in mind their process.

Speaker 2: So I’m always an advocate for the actor. I try to give them as much time as possible with the material. I mean, sometimes, and especially in television, it’s like you move so fast. It’s like, okay, we got to audition these roles and have those tapes by tomorrow, you know? And it’s like, that’s a lot for the actors. They got to memorize it. They got to build a back story. They have to run through it enough times for the emotions to come to the you know, and to kind of figure out the emotional beats and where it’s funny. And they got to research the showrunners and the writers and they got to know the tone of the network, you know? Every audition is a lot. So I definitely like that’s all stuff that I don’t know that I would know that or even that that would cross my mind if I didn’t have actors in my family.

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Speaker 2: So I’m always compassionate towards the actors and and doing everything I can to give them the opportunity to put their best foot forward for every everything that we ask them to do. I don’t take any of it lightly because I know how much hard work goes into every audition tape, and sometimes they’re doing four or five tapes a week and everyone is so much work. That’s the full time job really is getting the job. I know once for the actors, I mean, from what I’ve seen, it’s like once they book the role, then they can just relax into that character. But until then, it’s like you have your head and all these different emotions that you’re Yeah, and you’ve got to do a good job for everyone. So yeah, I know it’s a lot. I am always I’m always thinking about them.

June Thomas: What a job. What a crazy, crazy profession to go into.

Speaker 2: And I don’t envy it.

June Thomas: No. Angelique Midthunder. Thank you so much for visiting with us today. On working. Thank you.

Speaker 2: Thank you. The pleasure is all mine.

Isaac Butler: June. I just loved this conversation, not only because Reservation Dogs was one of my favorite shows of last year. I have to say, though, I think it’s funny how excited Angelique was about the open calls they did for casting, because I don’t know if you’ve ever done an open casting call or sat in on an open casting call, but they are fucking hell.

June Thomas: It sounds like you know a thing or two about open casting calls. Do you have any stories to tell from your experience?

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Isaac Butler: I just want to paint a picture. You know, you’re sitting in a room, you’re behind a desk and. Actor after actor after actor all day is coming in. And they’re either doing it on a pre-arranged. If it’s for the stage, they might do an audition monologue or they’re reading the same piece of text and you’re just hearing it over and over and over again. Some of them are really great actors. Many of them are really bad actors. And you sort of, you know, you feel for them and it’s really hard because, you know, you sort of get this empathy overload. And so then it’s really hard by the end of the process to not then kind of want to reject them and be kind of cruel to them because you don’t want to feel for them so much over the time. I don’t know. It’s a it’s it’s really, really hard.

June Thomas: Yeah. I mean, I think everything about being an actor must be hard and yeah, open casting. So many dreams, so many ambitions, so many unrealistic hopes just waiting to be dashed. And I just think, you know, maybe I’m romanticizing, but I just think, you know, Native people in Oklahoma with an opportunity to, you know, act on a TV show, you know, especially in a place where there aren’t that many, I think not even just there these days. It’s just harder and harder to make a reasonable living by just working a regular job. And so, you know, any kind of Hail Mary career opportunity is a big draw. You know, I just think about, you know, those insane lines of hopefuls you see at the beginning, episodes of TV talent shows. Right. And, you know, there are lots of ways in which, you know, kind of getting rid of gatekeeping is democratising. It gives people opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have, but it can be a mess logistically.

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Isaac Butler: Right. And I think, you know, hard shows willingness to go to those open casting calls, because one of the reasons why you employ casting directors so that you don’t have to deal with that, it points to a bigger thing that’s, I think, a more abstract ball, you know, piece of creative advice, which is that if you’re doing something unconventional and if you’re particularly trying to change demographically how an industry works, you are going to have to do something unconventional or go that extra mile in order to be able to do it. You’re not going to be able to just do things the same old way and somehow get a different result just because you care a lot. You know what I mean? And I’m just wondering, have you ever had that experience in your career?

June Thomas: I would say that there were times when I of at least tried to say, are we just doing things a certain way? Because that’s just how it’s always been done. I think back to, you know, when I was an editor looking at pitches, I wasn’t interested in people’s resumes where they gone to school, who they’d written for before. I don’t really care about that. I mean, not that I’m just like, Oh, come on, everybody, just send me your pitches. Or actually, maybe, yeah, everybody send me your pitches. But I wasn’t just giving out assignments left, right and center, but I was looking at the pitch or the quality of the writing and the email that it came with.

June Thomas: Just to give one example, Evan Urquhart has written about how he basically first started writing for Slate after he sent me a pitch that was so aggro, I think I basically wrote back saying, Don’t think it’s typical to, you know, begin your relationship with an editor by insulting their section. But, you know, I also kind of admired the spirit, you know, like obviously he was opinionated. Obviously, you know, he could express strong opinions in a in a pretty compelling way. And so that actually was quite compelling to me. And we ended up working together on quite a few stories and he still writes for Slate, so in that limited way. But I wish I had a kind of bigger, broader example.

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Isaac Butler: Hmm. You know, I loved your conversation about Willie Jack, who I think is one of the great characters on television right now and one of the great performances as well. I love the story of re conceiving the character because the actor, you know, they had this conception of the show that was basically a boy’s club. That one character had kind of broken her way into was now leading. But then, you know, they found the right actor that was going to do something interesting. They rewrote it for her, and then they let her bring so much of herself to the role. The reason why that character feels so specific and vivid and alive is because an individual person is bringing her own idiosyncrasies to it. It’s a real testament to the power of writing to the actor instead of the idea you have in your head.

June Thomas: Yeah. No, totally. And, you know, sometimes. When you hear about a recasting or, you know, something that was in the original pitch that was then reoriented, you’re like, Huh? And in this case, it makes total sense. Like, I know just what it would have been like to have a friend like Willy, Jack, like when it would be firm, when you would rely on them, when they do know the crap out of you. You know, you can put yourself in, like being one of a small group with that friend, you know? It just makes perfect sense. And I don’t know what the show would have been like if Paulina Alexis hadn’t shown up and they’d reconceived it. Another sign that a role has really cemented itself in your brain as a real person is when you see the actor in their own personal clothes or doing an interview as themselves. And you’re like, Why she wear makeup? Why she wearing a skirt? You know, Willie jacket wouldn’t do that.

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Isaac Butler: Well, he just definitely not wear a skirt.

June Thomas: Yeah, she wouldn’t. But Paulina Alexis would. She’s Willie Jack. But that’s not all she is. And, like, I know I’m sounding like an absolute freak, even saying that, but what’s when you know a role or, you know, it’s really worked.

Isaac Butler: Yeah. And I actually think that’s a also a real testament to what happens when you work with previously unknown actors is that when you when you really get that right, they bring something totally unfamiliar because eventually an actor gets well enough known that their roles exist in relationship to what you think they’re going to do or can do or have done in the past or always do or or you know, whatever. You know, like when you see Brad Pitt in the part, you have lots of associations about Brad Pitt. But you know, when you really discover an interesting, idiosyncratic actor that no one has seen before, you get the opportunity to just let them play the part. And everyone has fresh eyes.

June Thomas: Yeah, totally. Totally.

Isaac Butler: You know, one thing you touched on in a couple different ways in that episode that you were trying to get at from a few angles, I think is how precise do we actually want to be as a culture in terms of casting? You know, and this is something, as a Jew I think about quite a bit because we’re still not sure whether Jews Jewish characters should only be played by Jews or not. Right now it’s like for the most part. Jews can be played by anybody. And then every now and then people get really annoyed by it. You know what I mean? But it’s like there’s these norms are always being renegotiated.

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Isaac Butler: So for example, but the version of this and reservation dogs is they couldn’t find a group of actors who are all from the same tribe or even all from Oklahoma, which is what they originally wanted. They didn’t even set their sights on same tribe originally. They just weren’t all from Oklahoma. And actually many of them are from Canada. Right. And so it’s not ideal, but the alternative is not to make the show or to make the show with actors who aren’t as good.

Isaac Butler: And similarly, although I think this is probably going to begin to change very quickly, at least on stage, you know, Chinese actors can play Japanese roles, Korean actors can play Chinese roles or whatever, or Ecuadorians can play Mexicans, you know, and even that’s preferable to someone doing it in Yellowface or Brownface or whatever. But it’s still not the ideal. It’s it’s a reminder that progress is messy, that these norms are always being renegotiated. And even when you try your hardest, I mean, you might just fall short because of how many people there are, how the real world works. And since you asked about it a few times in this week’s episode, I’m just curious to hear you share your thoughts about it.

June Thomas: I don’t really know quite what I want to be like the ideal outcome here, other than I just want there to be more jobs for native actors, for example. And the area where I’ve thought about this most is around the context of trans roles. You know, several years ago, when there started to be more movies and TV shows about trans characters, some of the central roles were played by cis actors. And, you know, I kind of understood where the producers were coming from at that stage. You know, you need a pretty big name or a familiar face or an actor with a track record to be at the center of a production. You know, they’re going to be the face of a show. You kind of want it to be a familiar face. And back then it was hard to identify trans actors who fit quite that profile. There are more now that’s, you know, they have to emerge by getting roles, by getting bigger roles.

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June Thomas: And in that particular case, I think it does matter in a kind of extra way, because not only do I want trans actors to get jobs, but also you don’t want viewers who don’t know any trans women to think of them as men in disguise, you know, to put it in a very coded way, because that’s not what trans women are, but that’s what cis male actors playing trans women are.

June Thomas: So like, that’s a particular place where it’s kind of exercise my, my thoughts a lot, I think with the, you know, on a more kind of banal level perhaps like I know that when I know what someone’s supposed to sound like, how they’re behave, you know, if a character’s supposed to be from Manchester and they sound like they’re from Brighton, like that shakes my faith in the show. And so I’m sure that on a more meaningful kind of identity level that people would have that same reaction. So I think probably it’s very important for people to be appropriately cast.

Isaac Butler: Yes, absolutely. And you know, it’s just interesting because I do feel like, well, first of all, stage norms are different from film and TV norms. And, you know, watching this renegotiation process, because I’m not casting anything right now, watching this renegotiation process happen from afar in our culture is just really fascinating to me. Yeah.

June Thomas: Absolutely.

Isaac Butler: Well, we hope you’ve enjoyed the show. If you have, remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and then you’ll never miss an episode. And just a quick reminder by joining Slate, plus, you’ll get ad free podcast extra segments on shows like Slow Burn and Big Move, Little Mood, and you’ll never have a paywall on the Slate site. To learn more, go to Slate.com, Slash Working Plus.

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June Thomas: Thank you to Angelique Midthunder for being our guests this week. And special thanks to the casting director of our hearts, producer Cameron Juice. We’ll be back next week for Karen Hahn’s conversation with Michelin starred chef Honey Kim. Until then, get back to work.

June Thomas: Hastily pushed members. Thank you so much for your support. Here’s a segment just for you. So I’m curious about how a casting director like obviously you are involved before the first season is filmed. Are you kind of constantly replenishing the cast, you know, between seasons? Are you looking for more people? How does that work?

Speaker 2: Yeah, just always, you know, going back to the old Instagram. Just always looking for interesting people to keep in mind. I never know, you know? And Sterlin will be really good about when they’re in the writers room. He’ll shoot me a text and be like, Hey, you know, we’re thinking this character is going to be like this. And then I’ll start thinking, you know, on those types of people. Keeping those in mind, I mean, obviously I work on other shows when I’m not working on that show between seasons, I’m doing other series or features or whatever. So I’m always keeping in mind like that guy is a quirky personality. Would be great on reservation dogs somewhere. Yeah.

Speaker 2: You know, so between the kind of these texts that I get that are like little Easter eggs, like, Oh, what’s to come, you know? But then that will kind of just put something, plant a seed in my head where I’m like, I got to look for this type of person or this type of personality always looking at, you know, like I said, outside of the the acting pool to musicians, comedians. Artists, designers, just everything. Everything.

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June Thomas: So tell me, do you have any big guests for season two? Are we going to see tend to code now?

Speaker 2: We have some very fun guests for season two and we’re always trying to like keep it quiet. And then it just goes the Instagram goes nuts, the socials and I hear and and also there are people who are there are fans who are very clever. They follow a lot of the native actors. And then they see that in native actors in Oklahoma, they’ll be like, Oh, are you going to be on reservation dogs, you know? So even if they, you know, it’s like, tell me you’re on reservation dogs without telling me you’re on reservation dogs. What are you doing in Tulsa?

June Thomas: Right, exactly. I mean, I get to okay.

Speaker 2: Well, I. I always keep the lid on it, but it always gets out there.

June Thomas: So I just. I just need to start following a whole bunch of native actors on, on Instagram and then I’ll know all the secrets.

Speaker 2: Just follow Sterlin. He’s the worst.

June Thomas: My last question for you. I notice that in movie or TV credits, casting directors have three letters after their name. So your Angelique Midthunder C. S a. What does that mean? And why does the affiliation make it into the credits?

Speaker 2: It is not a union. The Casting Society of America. It’s. It’s an association.

June Thomas: Uh huh.

Speaker 2: So it’s a collective of professionals that we work to support each other professionally. Creatively. I am on a diversity committee. We have done casting calls for the acting community, for people with disabilities, for people of all different, you know, races, genders, everything.

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Speaker 2: You know, we we as casting directors, I think it’s kind of like what we just talked about. We always try to keep our head in the actors space. So we’re always trying to create opportunity for underprivileged or people that may otherwise be overlooked or not given opportunity. That’s kind of what the casting society does. We also create opportunity for each other. You know, we work together to make sure that our shows are diversified or that we’re bringing everything to the table that we can creatively and professionally. So it’s the association of of Professional Casting Directors.

June Thomas: That’s it for this week. Thanks once again for your slate plus membership. We really appreciate it.

June Thomas: So.