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July 17, 2019

Portland’s Got Talent

In pursuit of perfect parody, a “mad genius” casts Documentary Now!

Paula Hendrickson
  • In the episode “Original Cast Album: Co-Op,” Documentary Now! parodies the 1970 D.A. Pennebaker film about the recording of the cast album of Stephen Sondheim’s Company. John Mulaney (plaid pants), as the faux Sondheim, is joined by Taran Killam (front) and James Urbaniak.

    Rhys Thomas/IFC
  • Simon Max Hill

    Rhys Thomas/IFC

Every detail of IFC's Documentary Now! must be note-perfect to create illusion that the show — and the faux documentaries within it — are real. Casting makes or breaks it.

Rhys Thomas, who cocreated the show with Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Seth Meyers, says having Helen Mirren as the presenter grounds the fake series, which in turn makes the parodies more believable.

"Early on, when we came up with the idea of framing this as a PBS–style show, we needed a host. The phrase that kept coming up was, 'Someone like Helen Mirren.' Because we're such a small show, it never occurred to us to just reach out and see if Helen Mirren wanted to do it. Finally, we did," Thomas says. "I don't think we knew at the time how key that would be."

In the first two seasons, Hader and Armisen starred in most episodes, but Hader's responsibilities with his HBO series, Barry — and the fact that Documentary Now! was shooting in Oregon and Budapest — prevented him from appearing in season three. Rather than highlight Hader's absence, Armisen decided to limit his own screen time, too.

"I feel that was the smart choice," director Alex Buono says. "Now Bill's in zero episodes, Fred's in three, and we're casting entire episodes without either one of them."

That shift created challenges and opportunities for casting director Simon Max Hill. Fresh to Documentary Now! from Portlandia, he'd assumed he'd be casting unknowns or character actors, but he wound up with high-profile guest stars including Cate Blanchett, Michael Keaton and Owen Wilson.

Calling Documentary Now! a director-driven show, Hill says his role is to make recommendations and leave final casting decisions to Buono and Thomas.

Yet Buono says, "Simon's basically this mad genius who knows everybody and can tap into both traditional and untraditional sources of casting talent."

When casting the two-part season opener, "Batsh*t Valley," Hill did just that, recruiting local TV reporters and anchors to play reporters.

"I found a new respect for TV newspeople," he says. "There's a difference between somebody who's done news for 20 years and an actor who's listened to it but never performed it. It's unreal. They pause without really pausing — they give you the sense that they stopped talking, but without losing the momentum or flow."

Hill and casting assistant Megan Lask excelled at finding Portland performers who could hold their own with Broadway vets like Renée Elise Goldsberry, Richard Kind and Alex Brightman in "Original Cast Album: Co-Op."

"I imagine it would be a bit scary to suddenly be singing alongside somebody who won a Tony for Hamilton, but the talent Simon found in Portland was incredible," Buono says."We brought in six ensemble singers, and it was like having a real Broadway show."

Hill wishes people could view each episode with the source material it parodies. "I love comparing the original documentaries to the final product — and seeing actors I've worked with replicating, not imitating, characters that come off so close to the real people in the documentaries. It's kind of mind-blowing."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2019

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