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Charlene Lee and Claire Koonce want actors to succeed. At CLCK casting, which they founded in 2019 after working together on various projects, they share similar work ethics and values. “Charlene and I really focus on inclusivity, authenticity and kindness,” says Koonce. “We feel there’s a lot of talent in this town. And the way that every single person is treated throughout the casting process is important to us. We want to cast authentically and inclusively and do quality work, but kindly.”
That skillset came in handy when the pair were tasked with casting “Beef,” Netflix’s heralded limited series starring Ali Wong and Steven Yeun as Amy and Danny, strangers who continue to antagonize each other after a random road rage incident. The dark and funny show created by Lee Sung Jin is populated with characters who make some questionable choices. And while they don’t always come off as likable, they are always presented as human. Notes Koonce, “Even within that darkness, everyone deserves empathy and grace, that’s a universal story. But there’s also such specificity to this world and each one of these characters. It’s so fun to work on something so specific and yet so universal.”
While Wong and Yeun were already attached when the pair came on board, the duo set out to build the world around them which is populated with some familiar faces (Maria Bello shines as an affluent businesswoman) and some breakthrough newcomers (Young Manzino plays Danny’s brother Paul and Joseph Lee is Amy’s husband George) And the process clearly worked — “Beef” has received 13 Emmy Award nominations, including five for its aforementioned actors and a nomination for Lee and Koonce for casting.
What are some of your favorite casting moments — maybe times where you were particularly happy to see an actor book a role or someone you had supported or fought for got a part?
Lee: One huge casting challenge on “Beef” was in episode one — there are a lot of flashbacks. You see parents and the younger versions of the main characters. It was like putting together a puzzle in a way, but really satisfying.
Koonce: I don’t think there was anyone we really had to fight for, because it felt like the whole team was on the same page. But many times, it comes down to smaller roles and you’re like, “Okay, you might not know this actor very well, but we’ve known them for 10 years and trust us, it’s going to be fantastic.” That happens on a lot of projects. For example, Lee and I had auditioned Brie Larson for several things and then we were working on “Skull Island.” She had done “Room,” and we were excited about potentially capitalizing on having her as the lead.
At the same time, we also get really excited when there’s someone we haven’t seen before. Like Young Manzino; it was exciting to meet him during this process and then watching him go the distance and get the job.
Lee: Both Young and Joseph Lee were actors we found through extensive searches. And the George character was particularly hard to cast because I think that character is really tough — you have to understand why he and Ali’s character are fighting for their relationship. It’s easy for that character to be one-dimensional but he avoided that. And when Joe got the role, it was just so satisfying.
The relationships in the show are so essential. Were you able to do any kind of chemistry reads for casting? Or was it all over Zoom?
Lee: The majority of it was on Zoom, as it was during COVID. But we were fortunate to do some sessions in person. One of our first callback auditions was in a parking lot, actually. It was so hot and were using a tent. But it was important to try and do the chemistry reads in person when possible and make sure it was safe.
Obviously, casting changed dramatically during the pandemic and now much more is done virtually. Are there things you like about that system?
Koonce: I feel like there are unexpected pros and unexpected cons. One of the pros is that it truly democratizes the process; it opens up the pool of talent that we’re looking at worldwide. We can see actors who don’t just live in Los Angeles. But it also ends up putting more work on the actors who can get overloaded with tapes and don’t know how to prioritize. The biggest casualty of doing everything over self-tapes is that the relationship we have with an actor is paramount.
Lee: Something we’ve tried to do, even during the height of the pandemic, is if we see something in a read that needs to be adjusted, we go back and give notes. Or call people back and try to work with them and give them a chance. It’s something we’re still navigating. We try to give actors as much information as possible for a self-tape. If there’s a tone that’s tricky to navigate, if there’s any piece of information we think might help, if we can tell them who’s involved — all those things that can help inform how they approach a tape.
Koonce: The one thing I really want to stress is that it is incredibly important to us that the entire process be free. So get as good as lighting and sound as you can get for free. If props help you focus, great, but we don’t require them. Our focus is on the actor and what they’re doing in the scene, the choices they make and what they bring to the character.
Lee: Obviously we want to be able to hear and see you, but we don’t need it to be done at a fancy facility. The performance will shine through.
Koonce: There was a project I worked on as an associate and the guy who was cast as the lead was someone who, if you were to take a checklist of all the self-tape guidelines that people send out these days, he missed every single one of them. It was blurry, you could barely hear him, it was vertical … but he did a wonderful performance. At the end of the day, that’s what we care about.
You work with agencies and have other ways of finding talent. What are some of the other ways you’ve located actors?
Lee: When I was working on “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” I had to do a search for sherpas and Chilean trawlermen. I was basically going around New York, be it Himalayan restaurants or different markets and cafes, just figuring it out. It was a lot of talking to people and getting recommendations and a really fun process.
Koonce: I worked on Disney’s “Jungle Book,” and we were looking for our lead character. And at one point, I was walking around the Taste of India festival in Cerritos and handing out flyers to parents standing around.
Lee: On “Beef,” we have to give a shout out to CAPE, the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment. We worked a lot with them, and they helped us get the word out on a variety of roles. Outreach is really important beyond the traditional methods of breakdowns, agency submissions, things like that.
Koonce: And that means finding the communities and then just getting the word out there for people who don’t have necessarily access to the same information that people in our industry have.
You mentioned bringing kindness into the process. Why is it important to make the experience positive for everyone?
Lee: We have a lot of respect for actors and it’s tough to put yourself out there and audition. As much as possible, we try and create an environment where people can do their best work. At the end of the day, there’s multiple people who could get a specific role and there’s a variety of factors that go into one person getting it. And it’s challenging, and we understand that.
Koonce: At the end of the day, it is a business and it’s an industry. But we in casting get to hold this sacred little space where people have the courage to step in and share a piece of their soul. They’re standing on a stage completely exposed and letting us judge them. And we have to make that space for them. Starting with kindness truly leads to a better creative product, in our opinion. Treating people with respect, treating the craft with respect — without forgetting the pragmatic and logistical sides to it — makes for a better product and a nicer world.
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