Nun on the Run: Casting the Weird and Wonderful Denizens of ‘Mrs. Davis’
Peacock’s “Mrs. Davis” is a juicy blend of absurd humor, technological malaise, cheeky action/adventure, and magician con artists. Not to mention a medieval quest in the age of smartphones and a bold stance on the viability of falafel with pineapple in it. At its simplest, the show is perhaps a parable about how mankind creates God, and so God becomes obsessed with why a nun in Reno won’t talk to her and sends her on a quest to find the Holy Grail. Really.
As much as the success of the “Mrs. Davis” tone rests on creators Damon Lindelof and Tara Hernandez and the writing team and directors, it is equally on the cast members to bring that manic, incredibly Reno energy to life. So Lindelof and Hernandez turned to casting director Victoria Thomas to structure an audition process that could find actors able to handle the show’s many layers simultaneously.
Thomas and her casting associate Elizabeth Brown were both excited about the challenge. “If you’re gonna be working on something, it is nice to have a nun be your lead character as opposed to, you know, Lawyer Number 2, who saves the day for people in court,” Thomas told IndieWire. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but I mean, the idea of casting a nun [for our lead] and other nuns and a sort of Middle Eastern Falafel restaurant owner who, well, who is he? Vivid characters who have a point of view that makes it a little more exciting and fun to cast. I mean, I think those [are] the sort of characters that make you think of certain actors that might fit.”
The “Mrs. Davis” creators and the casting team did light on an early idea for the sister who shoulders the show’s melange of absurdist humor, slap-dash action, and genuine longing and pain at the ways technology (and religion) create imperfect connections with others. Betty Gilpin’s name, specifically, came up early, but she wasn’t initially ordained for the role of Simone.
“Somebody like Betty came to mind fairly early on because she’s able to be real and out there and she’s capable of so much as an actress. I know I’m gonna believe her as a nun. I know I’m gonna believe her when she hops on a motorcycle and chases after a giant bug car or whatever. She’s going to invest a certain reality in [the part and the world], but also not be afraid of the weird,” Thomas said.
Gilpin had already done some pretty weird, intense stuff in Lindelof’s film “The Hunt.” But Thomas said that her alumna status actually extended the search for Simone. “Damon sort of has a history of not working with people twice in a row — not because he doesn’t like them, but just because, you know, ‘Let’s see what else is out there. Let’s go this new direction.’”
So the “Mrs. Davis” team kept looking while talking about a lot of nun movies for inspiration. “Everything from Audrey Hepburn to ‘Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows,’ you know?” Thomas said. “We saw a lot of talented ladies, but none that gave us what we knew that [Gilpin] would.”
Once Gilpin was cast as Simone, the casting team could get to work on the rest of the ensemble. But one of the most interesting aspects of the casting process was finding the iterations of the most mysterious character: The global AI phenomenon Mrs. Davis. Because Simone refuses to engage with Mrs. Davis, the AI must reach her by contacting strangers and asking them to serve as its proxy. Throughout the series, many passersby are pressed into service, and the casting process meant they were auditioning not just for that character but also for that character repeating what Mrs. Davis says through their earbuds.
“It wasn’t the usual character to have to read,” Thomas said. Thomas, Brown, and the casting team chose not to give directions but just present them with the concept and see what they did with it. “We let them tape, and then, if we wanted to, we gave them direction after that. We would explain how it actually worked,” Brown told IndieWire.
“Some people used a different voice, some people [gave] their voice just a little bit of an inflection, some [people’s] reaction time was slightly different,” Thomas said. But no matter what the actors did or how much of a robotic quality they adopted for Mrs. Davis, the trick was that the proxies always portray both Mrs. Davis and themselves. “[Every version of Mrs. Davis] was really two characters,” Thomas said.
And at least one of the dual packages led to another. “We saw Suzanne Cryer for the teacher [in Episode 1],” Brown said. “so when the fake mom came about, that was in everyone’s mind. But Kim Hawthorne, who plays the kindergarten teacher, definitely informed what proxying was gonna look like in general.”
But the hardest nut to crack — or H.A.T.C.H. to close as the case may be — was friendly falafel shop owner Jay, played by Andy McQueen. That search took months, involved an evolving set of sides and, ultimately, a few chemistry reads with Gilpin. Part of the challenge of Jay, according to Thomas and Brown, was that he was the direct opposite of Simone’s former boyfriend Wiley (Jake McDorman). McDorman gets to be an out-there, funny cowboy, and the pleasure and the skill in the role are being able to match how fantastic some of Wiley’s antics really are. “[Wiley] puts everything out there,” Brown said. “And Jay has such limited scenes, and so much of it is internal that it just really needed to be the actor [bringing it].”
McQueen’s version of Jay exudes calm and can, with the smallest, subtlest changes in posture and voice, go from comforting Simone to challenging her. That ability to match Gilpin’s intensity, strength, seriousness, and embrace of the weird defines the characters closest to Simone, albeit in very different directions. When thinking about Simone’s mother, played by Elizabeth Marvel, “She’s a big character. And just tough,” Brown said. “I think [finding] somebody that challenges Betty is something that we talked about a lot. And I think it takes a lot to challenge Betty.”
“Yeah. We needed a force. Because Betty’s strong. Betty, she holds her ground,” Thomas said.
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