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"Beyond the Standard Fare"
John Papsidera

Carnivàle's Casting director JOHN PAPSIDERA talks about getting inventive, pursuing movie stars and chasing people down on boardwalks.

Ben was tough to cast, because we wanted somebody that obviously is a hero, but appears to be an anti-hero. And had a certain amount of boy in him, yet enough strength to actually carry a series. Those are a lot of different requirements--it's not like casting a kid in Freaks and Geeks.

HBO: What was your initial reaction when you were approached about Carnivale?.

JOHN PAPSIDERA: It was a mixture of fear and excitement. Because on pure logistical level, I felt like it was a huge challenge.

My casting associate (Wendy O'Brien) and I had done work looking into the freak world on past projects, so we kind of had made some exploratory ventures into those worlds, but this was something very different.

Plus, doing it in a period piece was really interesting. Because it's such a challenge to keep the period quality consistent as well as delving into the world of the carnival.

HBO: What, what was your previous foray into the freak world?

JOHN PAPSIDERA: One was on Bubble Boy, a movie that we did for Disney that had circus show freaks in it. So, we had done some exploration into that, and actually hired people like Lester Green, a sideshow performer who's known as Beetlejuice, and the guy who has the largest foot in the world.

HBO: And is the casting approach different on Carnivale?

JOHN PAPSIDERA: I think our approach was different in the sense that nobody wanted to use makeup to create illusions. Part of the realness of Carnivale really depended on the realness of the people that were the sideshow people. Of course, it's very difficult to find conjoined twins, especially that can act and are healthy enough to be able to perform. So that was one concession that we knew we were probably gonna to have to concede to.

But beyond that they wanted the people to be as real as possible.

HBO: How do you go about finding people that, that make sense in those roles?

JOHN PAPSIDERA: You try to be inventive. I found one person working in a restaurant. You venture onto the Internet, make calls to circus people. And then, sometimes, you just have to chase down people on the boardwalk.

HBO: The "conjoined" twins on Carnivale were actually in the circus, weren't they?

JOHN PAPSIDERA: Yeah, Cirque du Soleil. They performed in O in Vegas for years, but they started in Cirque du Soleil in Canada. They did an aerial act on a rope called circus people call "silks." And they did kind of a mirror act as twin sisters.

HBO: Was there a part on the show that you thought was the toughest from the beginning

JOHN PAPSIDERA: I think finding Brother Justin, and the process of everybody kind of coming around that. It's a tough role.

And I think we got really lucky with convincing Nick to throw his hat in the ring and take on a series. I mean, I've known Nick for years, and he passes on a lot. So, to convince him that this is something unique and that he should open himself up to the world of doing a series, I felt like it was a big coup.

HBO: Do you think that a series on HBO--with the shorter seasons and a certain creative reputation-- is an easier sell to actors?

JOHN PAPSIDERA: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there's no question about it. A regular television show doesn't present the opportunities for actors to continue in a film career; it just doesn't. I mean, you get to do one movie a year, if you're lucky. And the timing's got to be perfect.

HBO: Could you give a bit of an overview of the of the process that you go through, from getting the script to casting the right person?

JOHN PAPSIDERA: Well, we read the script; we talk about what kind of characters came up in the new episode, and then my casting associate (Wendy O'Brien) and I talk about ideas, talk about people that we think are right. We try to remember people that we had seen for other episodes that we loved, but that weren't necessarily right for the others. We had a lot of conversations about reminding one another to always push the envelope and not just settle for the standard fare.

I think we were really successful in doing that, going after people that have film careers and that were in the process of doing movies, that we could steal for an episode or two. And convincing them that it wasn't a huge time commitment, that they should be part of this kind of unique series.

HBO: Does anyone jump out, at you as an example of someone you managed to convince?

JOHN PAPSIDERA: Yeah, John Hannah, certainly. John Hannah starred in Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow and Four Weddings and a Funeral, and he had just come off starring in a series, MDs.

HBO: Right.

JOHN PAPSIDERA: He was a little hesitant to go back into the TV world, having just gotten done with starring in a series, and he had a lot of film people at him. But he came in, we had a great meeting with him, and he saw the opportunity in the material and agreed.

And Gabe Mann-- Gabe had just got done starring in the prequel to The Exorcist. Convincing people like that that they should come and be part of the show was great. I felt really proud to be able to do it.

HBO: Let's talk about some of the parts. You mentioned the character Ben. What would you say were the prerequisites for that part?

JOHN PAPSIDERA: It was a really tough. Initially, at the pilot, it was tough because you had a large group of people to get on the same page. There were four or five producers. There was the director, then there's the studio, and the executives, it was a lot of people to get in agreement.

And Ben was tough because you wanted somebody that obviously is a hero, but appears to be an anti-hero. And had a certain amount of boy in him, yet enough strength to actually carry a series. And those are a lot of different requirements--it's not like casting a kid in Freaks and Geeks that is part of an ensemble. He had to be a leading man, yet he had to still have a youthfulness and an innocence about him. And I think, ultimately Nick has an incredible presence and is a great actor, but also has a really haunted quality that we all thought worked perfectly for the period.

HBO: Before you got to Nick, were there a lot of different opinions about what you were looking for?

JOHN PAPSIDERA: Yeah, although we probably had the most consensus about Nick. And that's nothing about the other guys that tested for it; he just encapsulated a lot of different qualities in one package.

HBO is very comfortable with the "tip of the iceberg." They don't necessarily know where these characters are going, or what exactly these characters are when they start. And that gives you an amazing opportunity to shape characters.

HBO: What You mentioned that you thought Brother Justin was a, a tough part.

JOHN PAPSIDERA: Brother Justin and also Clea's role, Sophie.

Initially Sophie was written as kind of this gypsy girl. And, if you look at that, that's not necessarily what Clea looks like. I think, Dan Knauf had envisioned dark hair and exotic looks, and ultimately we saw a lot of people like that. It was really hard, there was a lot of different thinking on which way to go with Sophie.

HBO: Hmm.

JOHN PAPSIDERA: One thing about HBO is that they're very comfortable with the "tip of the iceberg," as we like to call it. They didn't necessarily know where these characters are going, or what exactly these characters are when they start. And that gives you an amazing opportunity to shape characters. But as casting directors it's a very difficult thing, because not everybody has the same idea of what they are, and where those characters are going.

HBO: What about the character of Samson?

JOHN PAPSIDERA: From the very beginning, I remember going into the initial meeting with Dan Knauf and [supervising producer] Dan Hassid, and pulling out Michael's picture and saying, "That's Samson."

HBO: Hmm.

JOHN PAPSIDERA: And, I just think he's an incredibly unique guy. A really good actor, but there is a vulnerability and a sensitivity to Michael that you just care about. It's almost like he's this other being. He's just got an amazing soul and an...aura about him. So for me, there was never any other competition.

HBO: What about Jonesy?

JOHN PAPSIDERA: We saw a lot of guys for Jonesy as well. And I think, it ultimately came down to a feel for the period, which I think Tim DeKay is great at doing. And a look that is not so on the nose as pretty boy.

HBO: Is there something about certain performers that you think brings out a, a period quality?

JOHN PAPSIDERA: Yeah, I mean, I think there's an indescribable thing that's very American. With Jonesy, we talked a lot about the fact that there's a look to baseball players. You know, you can't really put a lot of football players in a baseball outfit and buy it.

HBO: Right.

JOHN PAPSIDERA: I don't what exactly, but there's something very American about period baseball players. If you look at the photographs of Dorothea Lange. We tried to replicate that image of the Depression-- you have to worry about body types, you have to worry about the feel of people and how people sound.

I mean, some people would come in, and just speaking, had too much of a contemporary feel. And we'd look at one another and kind of go, "Hmm. Feels contemporary." And that's just a gut reaction.

One person sounding like they are from Van Nuys as opposed to the Midwest, can ruin an entire episode, or an entire scene.

HBO: Tell us about casting Adrienne Barbeau. How did that come about?

JOHN PAPSIDERA: I think as a casting director, you try and approach stuff as fresh. And I think casting Adrienne plays into that-something you haven't seen. And I think it played into the Tim DeKay casting, to some degree, because there were a few actors that were more known, had done series before, had a persona, and we didn't want it to be baggage.

We didn't want somebody to look at the piece and go, Oh, that's so and so from Eight is Enough. With Adrienne, it felt like it was an entirely new kind of way to view her. She also came in and gave an absolutely fantastic audition. Her Ruthie has a ballsiness and a solidity to her and a strength to her that isn't old, it isn't haggard; there is a sexuality and a vivaciousness to it. It just felt really right.

HBO: Did you deliberately avoid performers who are strongly identified with another project?.

JOHN PAPSIDERA: I have to say we did, in some ways. You don't want to be look at someone and think, "Oh, I remember. There they are from the show that got canceled last year, and here they are in this." I think part of the secret of casting is trying to make it as seamless as possible.

HBO: Do you think there's something about this project that makes that even more important?

JOHN PAPSIDERA: I do, and I think it has to do with the period quality of it. You have to buy it. If you don't buy the world that this series is set in, you're dead. I think it'll be hard enough for an audience to buy the mythology of what's happening, and the mystery and the magic that occurs within the show. So for them to battle also "There's, Erica Estrada off of ChiPs," it's too much.

HBO: Right.

JOHN PAPSIDERA: I don't want to sound pretentious. But the more seamless and invisible you can make that tableau of actors, the easier it is to digest the fantastic quality of the material.

HBO: Did you have any casting surprises in this project?

JOHN PAPSIDERA: Hmm....not Debra, the Bearded Woman. We knew that Debra would be fantastic as that. Again, that was a role that I think Dan Knauf saw very differently, but ultimately got what Debra brought to the table. A sexuality and a real strong presence.

I think that's always what we try and do, is bring the best actor to the table, because it ultimately gives you the most freedom. Especially in a show like this, to allow where characters go.

That was a huge part of the Amy Maddigan casting. Because the depth of what Amy Maddigan can do, opens up all kinds of writing possibilities.

The other thing is that you never know where these characters are going to end up. Somebody that came in one episode and we thought was going to be gone was Blake Shields.

HBO: Osgood?

JOHN PAPSIDERA: Yeah, Osgood. They fell in love with Blake in the episode that he was going to do and suddenly it was: "Well, Blake, we should get Osgood to come back. Or why aren't we using Osgood for this?"

I think it's a tough thing too, to have so many series regulars in such a huge cast, and be able to service all of them in a story line.

HBO: So do you have to be on call to handle shifts like that?

JOHN PAPSIDERA: Wendy O'Brien was, fortunately and unfortunately married to the project, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. That's just part and parcel to the demands of a show this big.

Interviews
Daniel Knauf
- Carnivàle Creator

Rodrigo Garcia
- Carnivàle Director

Mary Corey
- Historical Consulant

Casting Directors

Co-Executive Producers

Music Supervisors

Sara Ingrassia
- Set Decorator

Howard Klein
- Executive Producer

William Schmidt
- Supervising Producer

Jeff Beal
- Composer

Michael J. Anderson

Clancy Brown

Amy Madigan

Carnivale Features

Carnival Fact

Tarot cards first came to Italy and France in the 14th century. They were used to play the card game tarocchi, which had nothing to do with fortune telling.
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