One of the most compelling qualities about Abbott Elementary, Quinta Brunson’s hit comedy series that has won over the hearts of audiences, is the synergy of the cast that, together, forms an ensemble you could believe to be a true group of teachers who love what they do. Joined by casting director Wendy O’Brien, who was recently nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Casting for a Comedy Series, we discuss what she calls “lightning in a bottle,” for the way the cast of the series comes together so harmoniously.
In our conversation, O’Brien details the evolution of the casting process as the series has grown. She discusses the process for finding some of Season 2’s guest stars as well as the way the atmosphere of the set embraces the child performances to create a safe and authentic on-set experience for them as students.
Welcome to Awards Radar. I’m Danny Jarabek, and I’m here with Wendy O’Brien. I’m thrilled to be speaking with her as she is the recently Emmy-nominated casting director for the Abbott Elementary comedy series, specifically nominated for Outstanding Casting for a Comedy Series. Wendy, how are you today? Congratulations on this recognition. I’m very excited to be talking with you.
O’Brien: Oh, thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to talk to you too.
Absolutely. First of all, whenever I get the chance to speak with people involved in Abbott, I have to mention that I’m a Philly resident myself, so it’s a great honor to watch the show unfold. O’Brien: Oh, that’s awesome. Yeah, it’s always a blast. But obviously, a significant part of what makes this show special is the performances and the way you’ve managed to bring this ensemble together. Coming off an Emmy win for season one and now with a nomination for season two, what is it about the synergy in the casting process that has contributed to the show’s success across both seasons?
O’Brien: It’s the sum of all the parts coming together. There’s a magical connection between the cast members. They exhibit kindness and camaraderie on screen. It’s this lightning in a bottle that’s truly special and impactful—not just visually, but emotionally. We can feel their genuine care and camaraderie. It’s a unique dynamic.
The setting primarily revolves around an inner-city elementary school, which is quite distinctive. When you embarked on the initial casting for the series regulars, what were your considerations and criteria? Especially for the teachers who play a pivotal role, what qualities in terms of energy and personality were you looking for?
O’Brien: For the entire team, it was crucial to find actors who could blend humor with the tone, given that it’s a distinct form of comedy. The show’s style doesn’t allow for winks at the camera; it’s grounded humor. Also, the actors needed to have the skill set to work within the presence of the cameras. It was also essential that no character overshadowed the others or stood out too much. From Quinta[Brunson] to Sheryl [Lee Ralph], every member had a level of familiarity, but nobody was bigger than anyone else. No one grabbed the limelight—it was a true collective effort. So I think that was very important in not having anything that takes you out of the reality of a school.
It shows in the way that there’s just this inherent chemistry to all these performances that you have. Of course, Quinta is at the center of it, but there are so many other stars around her that feel like they live and breathe and embody these roles, and I feel like I could talk about every single one of them individually and specifically. But one that immediately from the pilot episode that felt like a perfect fit is Janelle James as Ava. What was finding her like and the audition process for that character?
O’Brien: Regarding Janelle, her audition was magical. As soon as I watched it, I knew she was the perfect fit. It was a 100% match, precisely how I had envisioned the role. She even exceeded my expectations. She was incredibly funny. It was like witnessing Steve Carell audition for the first time for The Office. That’s the level of impact she had. There was a moment when I thought, if others don’t see the same magic I do, then I might need to change my job. Her match for the role was crystal clear to me. Fortunately, everyone recognized that magic and her portrayal of Ava was outstanding. It was as if the role was tailor-made for her.
Is it common for you to immediately identify that perfect fit during auditions, or does it often involve more complex decisions, especially when comparing multiple strong contenders?
O’Brien: It isn’t common at all. Usually, I’m confident about an actor’s fit based on their previous work or other aspects they bring to the role. The process is highly collaborative. But in Janelle’s case, this kind of instant connection is rare, it simply snapped into place. Her tone, delivery, comedic timing, and laughter, everything about her was spot-on. I can’t picture anyone else in that role.
Throughout your casting process for the show’s multiple seasons, that strong ensemble quality has remained consistent. Each character contributes without overshadowing others. What’s your approach to achieving this chemistry? Do you do chemistry reads to see how actors work together?
O’Brien: Sometimes that is how it works. We do a lot of chemistry reads traditionally. However, due to COVID, live auditions became challenging. In this case, it’s been more of a leap of faith. For instance, Quinta interacts with various talents and builds a rapport, especially now. It seems that almost everyone she collaborates with understands the tone. They’re aware they’re contributing to the story, not hogging the spotlight. Actors who appreciate the show’s tone tend to gravitate toward it and that camaraderie stems from both the fans and the actors.
You mentioned guest stars, and season two introduced notable guest appearances like Leslie Odom Jr. How do you approach casting smaller roles that need to blend seamlessly within the larger ensemble?
O’Brien: Yeah, Draemond was an interesting role because one of the important ingredients for him was that he wasn’t too funny, he wasn’t too comedic. They wanted him to feel a little more serious and grounded. He was their antagonist, for sure. So, we had read a lot of really great actors, but Leslie was a fan of the show as well, and we had checked his availability and his team was super supportive, but we had a lot of availability issues. He was doing press; he was working on another project. We weren’t sure until the very, very end whether or not we could have things work out to have him. So, we were always looking at other people and reading other people. We needed an actor who could be available for two episodes which added a little bit more challenge when it came to someone on Leslie’s schedule.
Another aspect you mentioned was working with child actors. How does your approach differ when casting young talents, particularly considering the challenges posed by the pandemic?
O’Brien: Typically, we get a sense of the kids’ enthusiasm and their parents’ support in live auditions. Unfortunately, COVID disrupted this process. Thus, we had to rely on audition tapes as an accurate representation of their abilities. We nurture the kids’ performances. They’re embraced and treated like true students, allowing them to immerse themselves in the roles. I think they start believing they are real students, they’re doing homework assignments, and I think that they’re treated as such an important part of the team on set, which is special and wonderful. I think they get these performances out of these kids who forget they’re even acting. So, I think so much of that heavy lifting is the actual on-set process as well.
It’s heartening to hear that these young actors are nurtured in such a supportive environment. Lastly, I’d like to touch on William Stanford Davis, who started with a smaller role and has grown in significance. Could you elaborate on his journey and impact on the show?
O’Brien: William has been a journeyman actor. His graciousness and talent made him a strong contender when casting his role. He works very hard, he’s always lovely. So when we were casting that role, he, of course, was on the hit list of who to bring in. He initially played a smaller part but received the opportunity to expand due to his ability and presence. Witnessing his role grow and his assimilation into the ensemble has been truly wonderful. His evolution on the show has been a personal joy to see.
Thank you so much for sharing your insights, Wendy. It’s been a pleasure to delve into the casting process of this exceptional show and understand how the intricate pieces come together to create the captivating atmosphere we see on screen. Congratulations on the well-deserved recognition.
O’Brien: Thank you, Danny. I appreciate it. Congratulations to you as well. Have a wonderful day.