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August 20, 2015

The Backstage Balance

When soundstage meets the legit stage, schedules can collide.

Libby Slate

Casting a top serialized drama is always a challenge, but that’s especially true at CBS’s The Good Wife, where 75 percent of the actors are theater-based.

So to fill recurring and guest roles, casting director Mark Saks — Emmy-nominated for five seasons of the show — must juggle the schedules of performers who also appear on the New York stage.

“We’re in year seven,” Saks says of the serialized drama. “We don’t repeat actors [in non-recurring roles], so as we deplete the pool, the pool shrinks. We turn to regional people, or people passing through from Los Angeles or London or who will come from L.A. to do the show.” He also regularly attends theater in New York and elsewhere to replenish the pool.

Oh, yes… in addition to The Good Wife, Saks casts two other CBS series, Elementary and Madam Secretary.

Stage performers are particularly adept at dialogue-heavy shows such as The Good Wife and Madam Secretary, Saks notes; series regulars on the latter include Tony Award winners Bebe Neuwirth and Patina Miller.

For The Good Wife, “we keep a large grid on the computer,” he relates. “On the top is the episode, and on the side are the actors’ and characters’ names. We’ll chart their conflicts.”

The grid goes to the producers and writers; Saks also speaks, of course, with creator–executive producers Robert and Michelle King.

“They might say, ‘We can write [so-and-so] out of this location.’ Sometimes the actor will say, ‘I can miss the Wednesday matinee, but not the evening show.’”

Throughout the season, Saks also works closely with executive producer Brooke Kennedy and producer Kristin Bernstein, and usually casts four episodes ahead.

One notable bit of synchronicity caused more headaches than usual during season six. Three actors with recurring roles — Nathan Lane, Stockard Channing and F. Murray Abraham — all wound up in the same Broadway show, It’s Only a Play.

“We needed all three of them,” Saks recalls. “But Nathan was not available, because his part was too large.”

Adding to the complications: “The Broadway clock is all over the place,” Saks says. “There are Friday matinees, some shows are on Monday [traditionally, a day off in the theater], some shows start at 7 p.m. rather than [the usual] 8 p.m.

"You have to release the actor two hours before curtain. The later in the week we film, the later in the day shooting starts, because of the turnaround time. So someone who would have been working Friday might not start till Monday.”

Still, Saks says, “I have such affection for this show. The writing is so spectacular — when I get that script and open it, I want to take that material, elevate it and make it shine.”

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