From Bella Ramsey to Ayo Edebiri: How Casting Directors Balanced ‘Innocence and Ambition’ in Young Emmy-Nominated Actors

It wouldn’t be hard to confuse this year’s Emmy nominees for acting with some sort of Forbes list. The talent across the lead, supporting and guest categories for both actors and actresses in drama and comedy include seven under age 30: Lead comedy actress nominees Jenna Ortega (“Wednesday”) and Ayo Edebiri (“The Bear”); lead drama actress nominee Bella Ramsey (“The Last of Us”), supporting drama actress nominee Simona Tabasco (“The White Lotus”), supporting limited series actress nominee Camila Morrone (“Daisy Jones & the Six”), guest drama actress nominee Storm Reid (“The Last of Us”) and guest drama actor nominee Keivonn Montreal Woodard (“The Last of Us”), who is the second-youngest Emmy nominee of all time. It’s an interesting trend that speaks to the stories that resonated with Emmy voters this year — as well as the work done by casting directors to seek out talent that rivals that of seasoned performers.

Victoria Thomas, the casting director who earned an Emmy nomination for crafting the ensemble of “The Last of Us,” says that she leans into each actor’s youth when casting young talent. While looking for someone to play Ellie, the role that eventually went to Ramsey, now 19, she found herself avoiding candidates that seemed aggressively ready.

“You have to knock out a little bit of the, for lack of a better word, Disney-esque acting that can come when parents are prepping their kids for auditions,” Thomas says. “We were looking for someone unique, that you felt had been through something — someone not too polished, who had some
sort of raw quality.”

The producers and casting team were originally looking to cast someone 15 or younger before landing on Ramsey. Within the apocalyptic hellscape of “The Last of Us,” Ellie had been robbed of the chance at a real childhood, but the circumstances of her birth altered her blood in a way that may make her a carrier for the cure the world needs. Ramsey’s embodiment of that hope in the midst of chaos is what made the performer, who was nominated as an actress but is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, stand out to Thomas.

“They had an odd combination, even though they were older, of what we were looking for,” she says. “They look young, but it felt like they could easily access anger. You could see them in the difficult position they were going to be in in the show.”

Reid and Woodard manage that balance in “The Last of Us” as well. Reid, 20, plays Ellie’s friend Riley, who joins a revolutionary group that opposes the government’s handling of the fungal infection that has taken over the world. Riley’s hope for a better future, while risking her life and acknowledging that many
will die to get there, has shades of Reid’s performance in “Euphoria,” where she plays the kid sister of a drug addict (Zendaya’s Rue) whose alternating periods of sobriety and relapse cause major ups and downs for the family. That’s why Thomas and showrunner Craig Mazin brought Reid in.

“We wanted to find someone who felt a little older than Bella,” Thomas says. “Someone Ellie could look up to.” The intense joys and dangers embodied by Reid as Riley served as a model for the different emotional levels Ramsey had to hit as Ellie.

And on the younger end of the spectrum was Woodard, the 10-year-old deaf actor who plays Sam, the young child Ellie and Joel (Pedro Pascal) meet and try to protect on their journey.

“We got a script sort of late and had a little less than two weeks to find him,” Thomas says. “We were calling deaf theater companies, I was calling Marlee Matlin’s interpreter, Jack [Jason], and schools for deaf kids in Riverside, and also going the normal route. Luckily, Keivonn popped up” through
his representation.

Woodard then sent in a self-tape signing Sam’s lines, and “really rose to the occasion. He went way above and beyond what we even imagined,” Thomas adds. “There’s an emotional core in him that is accessible — an emotional sense that he has, or an ability to access that in himself, that I think is
very moving.

“There are harder stories being told about young people these days,” Thomas says, thinking about what struck her about Ramsey, Reid and Woodard. “It’s not all sunshine and flowers. Kids are very resilient, and that’s what people are looking for.”

The same is true of casting younger adults, says Jeanie Bacharach, the Emmy-nominated casting director of “The Bear.” Her process for filling the role of Sydney followed a similar path.

During a callback, 26-year-old Edebiri impressed Bacharach in a scene where Sydney interviews to become Carmy’s (Jeremy Allen White) sous chef. “It’s such a fine line of both innocence and ambition that Sydney has,” Bacharach says. “If one is out of balance, then the character doesn’t quite work, and she walked that sweet spot.”

She continues, “There’s tremendous vulnerability, accessibility and likability. You have to root for Sydney as she’s stepping into this very dysfunctional world. You have to believe that she [represents] a new way of working in the kitchen, that kitchens don’t have to exist in a dysfunctional and toxic way. She’s the new generation.”

Many prominent roles for young people during this television season seem to carry both jaded ideals and an innate naivete, and Bacharach believes that’s true of most young people today, not just their characters. “The world is so big now, with technology and all of that,” she says. “How do you stay young and present and appropriate, in terms of experience, while the world is there at your fingertips and gets big, super-fast?

“Once the world is open, it’s hard to go backwards. How do you manage that?”

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