Casting Director Kim Coleman on Casting ‘The Good Lord Bird’

Photo Credit: Ron Adar / Shutterstock.com

Kim Coleman cast “The Good Lord Bird,” a miniseries based on the 2013 pre-Civil War historical fiction novel centered on abolitionist leader John Brown. As a Casting Society Award-winning casting director, she came on board the project with producer and starring-actor Ethan Hawke attached. Based in Los Angeles, Coleman’s prolific casting work includes “American Crime,” “Lovecraft Country,” “Da 5 Bloods,” and “BlacKkKlansman.”

The casting challenge:

“The Good Lord Bird” presented its unique casting challenges. The seven-episode miniseries explored very heavy subject matter while also having distinct elements of humor weaved into the script. Coleman found that the job also required a lot of historical research. For example, which actors could look like they were living in the mid-19th century US frontier?

Coleman told Awards Daily, “Initially when I read [the script], I thought, ‘How are they going to pull this off?’ It was important to me to audition and cast actors with the skill level to play both drama and comedy for this project because it had such a unique tone to it. You could see the humor in these serious situations.” She continued, “We wanted to make sure we had actors who had that skill level, but we had to make sure that it was the right actor. We wanted actors who had great faces; we couldn’t have actors who looked like they were so contemporary. There’s hair and makeup, but to that point we wanted to feel like they had an authenticity, that they felt like they were part of that era. That was a very important part of who we cast in all the roles.”

Ethan Hawke’s “Boyhood” co-star Ellar Coltrane, as well as Ethan’s daughter, Maya Hawke, was cast “by design,” Coleman shared. She insists they were both perfectly suited for their roles. “It was essential that the actors be collaborative. By bringing in people [Ethan] had worked with before, he knew how they worked, and they knew how he worked. It was a more comfortable fit, and my job was to add on to that with the multiple other cast members who fit right into that groove.”

Spotlighting newcomer Joshua Caleb Johnson:

One role was particularly challenging to cast—the part of the young slave Henry “Onion” Shackleford. But Coleman spotted child actor Joshua Caleb Johnson early in the casting process. She explained: “Initially, we did a massive search, we saw so many great kids. But when Joshua walked into the room and I auditioned him, he had this sparkle in his eye. He’s a young actor, but he was willing to put in the time. He was smart, he had the humor, he had the knowledge, he wanted to learn more. He was one of the first kids that I auditioned, and there was just something very special about him. He was funny, and I think he had the qualities. I said to my team, ‘This kid is special. I think it’s worth him meeting with Ethan.”’”

Upon meeting Ethan, Johnson proved to be a terrific fit for the project. Coleman recalls, “We talked to him, he talked about the book, we talked to his parents, and he was just willing to put in the work, and he did a fantastic job. I wanted to make sure that this role of this kid, who is a boy dressed like a girl, that we did this the right way. At the end of the day, it worked on so many levels. He was always that young boy. I thought he did a really great job with his cartoonal. Ethan took him under his wing and really worked with him and he really listened. That’s one thing about a young actor, he really listened to Ethan, and Ethan was guiding him all the way.” Indeed, the two call each other lifelong friends now.

Coleman’s advice for actors:

Coleman finds great purpose in working closely with the actors and making them feel comfortable as she seeks to bring out the best of them. She also likes to keep bringing talent back to see how they are growing and to be on the lookout for any projects they’ll be suited for while continuously allowing them to forge new ground in their careers. So Coleman encourages talent to be ready for the day their opportunity comes. That means focusing on performing and training while auditing for productions, whether they’re big or small. She urges actors to come to TV and film auditions off-book, and strive to become so masterful in the craft that their talent cannot be denied.

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