Beef has been praised for its writing and lead performances, but every aspect of this black comedy series shines. It follows an ever-escalating road rage incident between Danny Cho (Steven Yeun) and Amy Lau (Ali Wong), with an excellent supporting cast that includes Young Mazino, Joseph Lee, David Choe, Patti Yasutake, and more. We got the chance to speak with Beef’s casting directors Charlene Lee and Claire Koonce about working in a pandemic, a shared commitment to being meticulous, and the unexpected field trips that come with the job of casting.
“The premise was so cryptic and interesting,” shares Lee, “It’s about a road rage, and then there’s so many other elements: Sonny’s (creator Lee Sung Jin) involvement, as well as Ali and Steven, in addition to it being A24 and Netflix. It was truly a convergence of so many incredible elements.”
Koonce expands on the collaborative nature of casting in general, and the questions they asked themselves for each role: “Each time you get close to picking someone on a project, you’re not just thinking about, do they fit into what we’ve already described for the role? But also, how can this person launch the role forward? How does it inspire a team to write to this character? What journey does it put this whole show on?”
For Beef in particular, parts of the casting process were conducted over virtual meetings rather than in-person due to COVID restrictions, which raised a new set of pros and cons for actors and directors alike.
“Now everything is self-tapes,” explains Koonce. “It democratizes the process for new actors and developing actors, people who can’t take off work to come in for an audition, people who don’t live in Los Angeles, that sort of thing, but the casualty is the relationship between us and actors…It’s really important that an actor not be penalized by us not knowing them previously. So if we aren’t familiar with someone, then we are going to bring them on Zoom, we try and talk to them, we try to approximate what it’s like to talk to them in-person as much as possible, so that we can get a truer sense of their potential.”
Lee adds, “We’re in the actor’s corner and we want to set them up for success in their auditions. As casting directors, we know it’s our responsibility to do that as much as possible.”
She continues on the subject of logistical problems created by the pandemic and how the team tackled them. “You’re constrained by time, and the pandemic was a huge thing. You would cast someone, and then suddenly they’re not available because they’re sick. But I think the easy part was that we all were working with a cast and crew that was so committed to the same thing.”
“To the same standard of excellence,” chimes in Koonce. “Everyone was committed to being really intentional, meticulous, about the casting…I think the hard part was finding someone to nail everything. There were characters that could have been villains. Like Naomi’s character, Ashley Park, or George’s character, Joseph Lee. And we needed to find people who weren’t just villains. They were earnestly doing their best in life so that you empathize with them and you understand that everyone has their own demons.”
Casting for specific pools of talent blends together unexpected skills like demography, logistics, and the willingness to hit the streets. Lee shares her experience on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty searching for sherpas: “I was looking for sherpas everywhere. And it was such a process. It was me going to restaurants, to market, going all over the place,” she laughs. “There was a specific height requirement for the role because there were some logistical things, so they were supposed to be 5’3” and under, and that’s about my height. So I was looking for sherpas around my height.”
For Beef, the search wasn’t quite as particular, but also employed a variety of outreach efforts to find the right talent.
“We use a lot of traditional methods like talking to agents and managers and putting up breakdowns and posts and those sorts of things,” explains Koonce. “But Charlene and I also employ a lot of outreach things, especially for this project. Open calls, going through organizations like CAPE, the Coalition for Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, reaching out to different organizations and seeing how we can get the word out.”
Lee adds “It’s really important to us to make sure that we turn over every stone and make sure we find the right person, not just for the leads, but also for the smaller roles. Each and every piece of the cast is so important.”
Beef is now streaming on Netflix.