For Casting Directors, the Hunt for a Killer Never Stops

On a Monday afternoon in February, Findley Davidson and Jonathan Tolins met for a video call. Tolins, the showrunner for the new CBS procedural “Elsbeth,” and Davidson, the show’s casting director, were finalizing casting for the sixth episode, which visits the offices of an exclusive plastic surgeon, and discussing the seventh, which attends a country club wedding.

“Elsbeth” is a “howdunnit,” in which Carrie Preston’s cheery, distractible legal savant (a character first introduced on “The Good Wife”), identifies a murderer already known to the audience. Each episode requires a buzzy guest star to play the murderer — the show had already secured the likes of Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Jane Krakowski and Blair Underwood. In the seventh episode, the killer is the father of the bride, a man who projects country club clout. Davidson and Tolins, who had each come with a list of preferred actors, batted A, B and C-list names around like so many celebrity tennis balls. Quickly, they assembled a ranked list of about a dozen men, more diverse in ethnicity and mien than Tolins’s initial character description — “old WASP-y money” — might suggest. (They eventually landed on the live-wire comic actor Keegan-Michael Key.) Then it was time to blue-sky the eighth episode.

“They just keep coming,” Davidson said.

Other well-known “Elsbeth” guest stars this season include Blair Underwood. Credit…Elizabeth Fisher/CBS

Procedural dramas — legal, medical, homicidal — are a durable form of comfort television, with familiar bands of lawyers, doctors and cops solving thorny problems in about 45 minutes of screen time. But each week’s new cases require new clients, new patients, new victims and killers and crooks, some at least mildly famous and each of them plausible for whatever fantastical circumstance the writers have dreamed up.

All of which means that delivering the satisfying, sink-into-your-sofa consolation of such shows involves a hectic, grueling, often maddening sprint to assemble new troupes of actors week after week, with casting directors receiving hundreds, sometimes thousands of submissions for every role. Within just a few days, auditions are vetted, offers are made, parts are cast. Then the process begins all over again.

“It’s go, go, go,” said Jason Kennedy, the casting director for the CBS series “NCIS.” He noted that the pandemic and the actors’ strike had constricted the process further. “There seems to be even less time there than there was before, and a lot more actors to consider,” he said.

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