“We went directly to the Mount Olympus of actresses,” jokes casting director David Rubin, CSA, on adding new faces to the second season of Big Little Lies.
In 2017, the hit HBO series changed the game for prestige television, uniting a jaw-dropping cavalcade of powerhouse actresses, including Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, and Zoë Kravitz. Rubin says the secret to assembling such a boatload of talent was two-fold: 1) Witherspoon and Kidman spearheading the project as producers, and 2) great writing.
“We started with two powerhouses already in place,” Rubin tells EW. “You can only imagine, with those wonderful actresses attached, they were magnets for other great actors. There’s also a compelling story that involved a number of strong female characters, which sorry to say, is a comparative rarity these days and was a terrific aid in attracting the best and brightest actresses around.”
But when it came to landing Streep, the most Oscar-nominated actress of all time, the idea actually began with writer Liane Moriarty, whose book inspired the series as a whole. “The development of the second season was prompted by the novelist, Liane Moriarty, who had an idea for furthering the story and wrote a novella that encompassed the second season story she proposed we tell,” he explains. “In the novella, she named the character of Perry’s mother Mary Louise — and Mary Louise is Meryl Streep’s given name. Though I believe we all would have said Meryl Streep upon reading the novella, I think Liane Moriarty was the first person to plant that seed.”
It also helped that Streep was already a confessed fan of the first season. Rubin says when they first approached Streep’s team with the idea, they learned she was a “huge fan,” and accordingly, the actress showed a strong level of interest from the word go. “The success of the first season and the themes of the first season spoke loudly to Meryl,” he says.
Rubin has faced many challenges assembling the cast, from scheduling complications to finding the right men and children to go toe-to-toe with the female ensemble. “All of these very busy, high profile actresses had schedules that collided at a very particular moment in time, and if we had shifted that a month or two in either direction, it would have been an impossibility,” he marvels.
For the men of Monterey, particularly the husbands played by James Tupper, Jeffrey Nordling, and Adam Scott, Rubin says they had a more traditional audition process. “There was a necessity to have actors of real craft and real power and real nuance in each of those roles,” he explains. “We did hold auditions for those roles, and it was really immediately clear that all these gentlemen in very different ways fit the bill because those male characters were as clearly and specifically delineated as the female.”
Still, even with that audition process, Rubin says they didn’t do chemistry tests with their leading ladies. “[Season 1 director] Jean-Marc Vallée is enormously intuitive, and he had the trust and faith of his partners in Reese and Nicole,” reflects Rubin.
For the kids in the series, he prefers to find unknowns and child actors who lack professional experience. “When children become professional actors, very often they’re placed in circumstances where they’re forced to perform with certain false notes [and] given results to play rather than internal emotions,” he explains. “When you have children who haven’t been exposed to that, you get a freshness.”
For instance, Iain Armitage, who stars as Jane’s (Shailene Woodley) son Ziggy, was new to performing but had gained a following by posting theatre reviews on YouTube with the help of his parents. “He was so perceptive and enthusiastic about the plays that he had seen,” says Rubin of what drew him to Armitage, who has since gone on to star as the title character on CBS sitcom Young Sheldon. Rubin notes Armitage’s time on the sitcom hasn’t altered what made him a great choice for Big Little Lies: “When he returned for the second season, it was clear to me the demands of doing a sitcom in no way altered the honesty and simplicity of his work as an actor.”
Rubin says he often has a more meditative process for projects of this nature. In addition to both seasons of Big Little Lies, he also cast another hit HBO adaptation, Sharp Objects.
In these instances, he starts with the book and then turns to the script as a map for compiling ideas. “With a piece that’s as atmospheric as Sharp Objects [or Big Little Lies], I will do long lists of actors not specific to any one role, but actors who feel as though they belong in the piece,” he says. “When it comes time to think about individual characters, I start with the list of actors and think where [they] might be placed. That process broadens my possibilities so I’m not limiting my selections to the way a particular character is described.”
Big Little Lies is now airing on Sundays on HBO.
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