SPOTLIGHT August 2021: Theo Park, Casting Director, TED LASSO
Theo Park is a casting director with clout! Recently nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for casting Ted Lasso, the phenom freshman television series that set a record for its number of Emmy wins for the actors Park cast in the show (along with other categories), she’s shaping the population of performers who are beloved by audiences around the globe. She is unquestionably enthusiastic about her work and readily acknowledges that she’s been fortunate in finding opportunities that have brought her to the pinnacle of success.
Park knew early in her life that film and television were in her future. At 18, she headed off to university and while she did not know right away exactly where her higher education would lead, her interest in acting and actors eventually set her on the casting director path in a sort of serendipitous way.
Possessing the qualities that every actor hopes to face when walking into an audition room — kindness, friendliness and enthusiasm, tops among them — the British-born London-based Park laughs easily, doesn’t take herself too seriously, and clearly means it when she says of her job, “It’s just really fun.”
Choosing the right actor for a role adds the spark that brings a project to life. The chemistry of a cast can help turn a good script into an unforgettable film, or an episodic series about a group of friends into a pop culture mainstay. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that an iconic role or perfect cast didn’t just fall into place by chance. It all begins with the casting director.
FAMILY AND UNIVERSITY LIFE
Theo Park’s father was a doctor, and while he was always supportive of his three artistically inclined daughters, she says fondly, “I do feel really sorry for my dad, because I think he wanted us to get into the sciences, but we didn’t. And I have no idea why we didn’t, but we’re here.”
She and her sisters have forged their own paths. One sister went into the art world and the other became a film producer. (Nira Park is frequent collaborator of Edgar Wright.) Even though they didn’t go into the sciences, she says of her father, “I think he’s very proud.”
In the summer before she headed off to university, 18-year-old Park worked with an actor’s agent, which she enjoyed. But she realized it wasn’t quite what she was looking for. She explains, “I had loads of fun, by sort of wanted to be on the other side of the other end of the phone, buying actors instead of selling them.”
Than, while studying film and English in school, she joined a short film project. “They made me do the casting on that short film at university. And that’s probably where I got the bug.” She goes on to share why she loves casting. “I think it’s because I’m a closet actor. I’ve always — back in my teens and as a kid — I just wanted to be an actor. I think maybe that deep down in my heart, I still think I’m an actor.” She adds with a self-deprecating smile, “I’d be a terrible actor. The second best thing was going into casting.”
Park’s experience working on her first short film may have given her a slightly unrealistic sense of how easy the job would be. She recalls, “I set up audition sessions, and we got some really great actors to come to the University to audition for our short film. I sort of thought, well, this will be easy, won’t it?”
Of course, the job isn’t always easy, and it entails a huge amount of responsibility, but the one thing Park reiterates again and again is simply how much fun she has doing it. “Everyone loves to think about who they could play. Using your imagination, and calling on actors you know, and thinking about how you might be able to place them, and where in a project, is fun!”
EARLY CAREER AND A DAY IN THE LIFE
For awhile after university, Park worked as an agent, despite that feeling from a few years earlier that it wasn’t what she ultimately wanted to do. But it was in the course of that agent work that she got to know Nina Gold, the Emmy award-winning casting director behind The Crown and Game of Thrones, among other notable projects. When Park was ready to move away from agenting, she called her friend. “I was really fortunate. I just phoned her up and said, ‘Oh, hey, if you ever need any help, I’m leaving agenting and would love to get into casting.’ And Gold said, ‘Sure. Could you give us some help for a few weeks on a movie?’ And a few weeks, lucky for me, turned into a few years and I became her associate.”
Gold and Park worked together on films like Paddington (2014) and Far from the Madding Crowd (2015). Park also eventually worked on projects without her mentor, building a resume that would include The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018), Master of None (2021), and that big surprise hit of 2020-21, Ted Lasso.
Although she says she isn’t in a position to pick and choose her projects, she does enjoy it when the right projects find her. The day-to-day work still thrills her, even though the last 18 months have forced a lot of changes that have presented their own kinds of challenges. With ongoing pandemic-related restrictions, casting directors haven’t been allowed to hold any form of in-person auditions, instead relying on actors’ self-made audition tapes and Zoom sessions to assemble their casts. While the virtual setting hasn’t inhibited her ability to do work effectively, Park does say, “I’m hoping there will be more in person auditions again. The best part of the job is meeting people in the flesh.”
It’s more difficult to meet new people and expand the roster of known actors right now, particularly with in-person auditions on hiatus, but tape submissions are the current answer to casting calls, and may remain a screening factor even when in-person auditions return. Park and her clients currently benefit from her familiarity with the work of a wide range of actors, many of whom she’s successfully worked with on previous projects (before Ted Lasso, she’d first met Hannah Waddingham at an audition for Game of Thrones, and she knew Juno Temple from Far from the Madding Crowd). Still, she’s always looking for new talent and in order to find it, she frequently attends graduate film showcases, and maintains close relationships with other casting directors, producers, and executives both in the UK and the US.
AND ALONG COMES TED LASSO
Although it wasn’t a product of the pandemic, many television fans in and out of the industry agree that one of the best things to come out of 2020 was a sweet, heartfelt comedy about an American college football coach who takes a job coaching a premiere league football team in the UK. Ted Lasso, which stars Jason Sudeikis, Hannah Waddingham, and a wide cast of talented up-and-comers who recently, as already mentioned, earned a record-breaking 20 Emmy nominations, the record for a freshman comedy series.
The show earned nominations for Comedy Series, writing and directing, and an incredible seven acting nods. Ted Lasso also scored a nomination for Theo Park as best casting director for a comedy series. It is her first nomination, but certainly will not be her last. “It’s just thrilling,” she says, sounding like she is still surprised by it all. When the congratulations texts started pouring in — while she was supposed to be on an electronics-free holiday — on nomination morning, “I thought, have they got the wrong number?”
And the good will for Ted Lasso hasn’t ended. Though she describes herself as “a slightly half glass empty type person,” it’s impossible to work on such a positive show without feeling some of the residual effects. “I do feel definitely a bit more positivity in my life because of it. I feel really lucky to be part of the Ted Lasso family, because the love and care that goes into the show, from the top to the bottom, cast and crew is really special.”
Assembling the cast was an exciting challenge that forced Park and her team to look not only for talented actors, but for actors who could also play football well enough to be convincing as members of a Premiere League team. Reviewing tapes and assessing skills was entertaining and exciting, and led to some unique opportunities. One such choice came in the casting of Dani Rojas, originally conceived as a brash, arrogant South American transplant to AFC Richmond.
Two great actors auditioned for the role of Dani Rojas: Phil Dunster from England and Cristo Fernández from Mexico. Upon meeting the two finalists, the producers ultimately decided to create two characters from one, giving Dunster the new role of Jamie Tartt, the arrogant, young ace from England, while Fernández, who Park describes as, “just not in any way arrogant,” was cast as Dani Rojas, a young ace from Mexico whose positivity rivals Coach Lasso’s and who immortalized the phrase, “Football is life.” And what a splendid contribution to the show from Theo Park!
WHY WE CHOSE HER
Theo Park is the embodiment of loving what you do. Her face lights up as she describes the thrill of finding the right actor for a part — or, in some cases, the right part for the actor. Equally important, she’s personally and professionally generous, as is exemplified by her recent donation of a half hour casting session to be auctioned for the benefit of A Cause For Entertainment (ACFE), a charity that supports and empowers research, education and individuals and families who are currently facing a breast cancer diagnosis. She also has a strong commitment to diversity and is excited to see the industry starting to make some long overdue and much needed changes. “Ten years ago, we would have to fight for it,” she says. “But now…we’re all talking about proper inclusion and diversity. It’s important. It’s really important.” — Karen Peterson