Acting Teacher Extraordinaire for Transformative performatives

In Episode 061 of the Killer Casting Podcast, Lisa Zambetti interviews Terry Knickerbocker, an Acting Coach in Brooklyn New York on the transformative performances of cast members in HBO’s hit TV show Euphoria.

Audio Clip from Euphoria

Rue: (Zendaya) At some point, you make a choice About who you are And what you want.

Rue: Hey, I’m Rue I’m an addict.

Rue’s Mom: You’re about the start a brand new Chapter

Fezco: So new girl in town that I think you gonna be friends with,

Rue: I’m Rue

Jules: I’m Jules.

Rue: Suddenly the whole world goes dark

Rue: And nothing else matters, but the person standing in front of you,

Lisa Zambetti:

Hello, and welcome to Killer Casting. I am Lisa Zambetti and I’m a casting director. I cast for television, film, video games, new media, all kinds of things. And I have cast more than my fair share of troubled teenagers. You know, teenagers who are deeply damaged and who are damaging those around them. So maybe that’s why I am so into a little show on HBO called Euphoria because of its exquisite casting and, and acting that I really feel is transformative in a lot of different ways. So I wanna talk about that with my friend, Dean. Hey Dean.

Dean Laffan:

Hey there, Lisa, uh, good to be back in the pod after a little bit of a hiatus. So it’s nice to be, uh, back in the saddle, so to

Lisa Zambetti:

Speak. Absolutely. And you know, when I wanna talk about something like process/ actors process, there’s really no one else that I should have really been talking to except for a master teacher. And that’s who I have with me today. Could you please introduce yourself?

Terry Knickerbocker:

Thank you, Lisa. Thank you, Dean. This is Terry Knickerbocker. That word master is very daunting. I’m a, I’m a former actor, former director, and I’ve been teaching for a long time now and also simultaneously coach, a lot of A-list actors and, and maybe B-list actors on their way to becoming A-list actors. And therefore I need to watch a lot of content and luckily my accountant says that I can deduct all the subscriptions I have to Peacock and Paramount.

Lisa Zambetti:

Oh Yeah. Absolutely

Terry Knickerbocker:

And all that. Because it’s business stuff. So it’s a little bit, you know, my, my wife is a former actor and a therapist and you can’t just watch. It’s like you know, LeBron James can’t watch basketball and just pretend he’s a civilian. So I try to enjoy the work, but I’m also, it’s really hard for me to watch bad work and, uh, I, I have to change the channel. I’m also a dad and I have a, a, a three going on four month old daughter and an eight year old son. I live in Brooklyn. And, um, I love that show Euphoria. So I’m so glad we could talk about it because I, I ate it up when the first season came out, I was really starved for season two when the pandemic hit. So I was really, I loved what Sam Levinson did, who was the show runner, um, with those special episodes, focusing on Jules and, and, uh, Ru those one hour deep dives, especially the work of Coleman Domingo in the conversation.

Lisa Zambetti:

Absolutely.

Terry Knickerbocker:

With, uh, Zandaya as Rue. And now what a great season two. I mean, I can’t figure out which character I love more because I really am into it. The writers are very generous to these characters and they give them a lot to do. And, my God, I mean, Eric, Dane, a couple episodes ago when he went to the bar and came back and had that incredible monologue in his home to his wife and his two kids, I mean, that was just like a ten course meal for that actor. And I thought he hit a home run and, and there’s been so much of that. And I’m really so into Angus Mccloud as Fezco he’s taken it to level and God, I could just go on and on and, and Zendaya is crushing it.

Lisa Zambetti:

Yeah. So this was cast by the legendary,Mary Vernieu and Jessica Kelly and a, what they call a street casting director named Jennifer Venditti. And Jennifer is who found, Angus and who found Hunter, you know, they wanted, they wanted real people and they didn’t want to only go with big stars. And, you know, that’s just like the best thing that a producer or show can say to a casting director is I don’t need names, you know, but let’s focus on something else. Some other kind of authenticity Zandaya certainly is a huge name. I mean, she, wasn’t an obvious choice for this role of Ru who, if you haven’t watched this series, and you don’t have to watch the series toenjoy our conversation, because I really wanna get into process and, what she’s doing with her acting. But anyway, she was not the would be the first choice to come to mind to play this high schooler who is battling drug addiction.

Lisa Zambetti:

Actually she’s not battling at all. She succumbing to it. She’s reveling in her addiction that she is supposed to be clean and is supposed to come out of rehab and in recovery. But she quickly starts using again. And really the show is about her functioning as an addict and trying to hide it from everyone, from her friends, from her family. And so the casting itself was just so interesting to me and, and actually Terry is sort of sometimes very frustrating because producers will see actors like Angus and actors like Hunter and say, well, I don’t wanna cast any real actors in my, in my film, you know? I want real people and, that can be kind of frustrating because it’s kind of a once in a blue moon thing that it actually works out. Yeah. I don’t know if that’s been your experience and with your coaching in your, in your experience.

Terry Knickerbocker:

Well, it makes me think Lisa, about child actors, there was a film maybe 10 years ago called Beasts of The Southern Wild.

Lisa Zambetti:

I was just thinking that that’s exactly Quvenzhan√© Wallis. Yes. People always mention her. Yes.

Terry Knickerbocker:

Now that girl, they, they, they looked all over. This was an indie film shot, in New Orleans or not in New Orleans, but in the Bayou in Louisiana and they were looking for this young girl, they saw so many people, they found an extraordinary young girl she’s, you know, this African American amazing for that part. But then you watch her in Annie because now she’s got an agent and it’s like, that doesn’t work. And even though she has, you know, Jamie Fox and you know, lots of money in production that film tanked mostly because she’s not ready for that part because she’s a kid. But when you find a child actor or to go with your idea of like someone who’s not an actor, but is a real person, um, you know, you look at Henry Thomas in ET it’s the same thing. Like that YouTube video, if you haven’t seen it look up his audition.

Terry Knickerbocker:

And it’s just my God, you know why he got the part. He was perfect. He was perfect. And has he worked since sure. But I think at a certain point, you know, training, becasue I train actors is for when the acting gods don’t smile on you. So sometimes you get a part and it’s like, I get this part, I’m born to play this part. And Hunter is so good as Jules. I mean like just so good. And, and, and the guy playing Fez like all the, you know, like these are just, that’s perfect casting and they’re so good and they’re so compelling and they really get it. What will fascinate me down the line once Euphoria ends is happens next with those actors.

Lisa Zambetti:

Right. Right. Well, to your point, I mean, this is what I’m saying about Zendaya. You know, she was a child actor, you know, she made her, bones on all kinds of Disney products. And so to see her turn and you know, the theme of of today is transform, you know, transformation. And to really turn down the dark road and this authenticity of this addicted kid and a lot of people have kind of thrown shade at the show for glamorizing addiction. I’m like, who the, what the fuck are you watching? This is not a glamorized portrayal of addiction whatsoever. It is so stripped down and just,

Terry Knickerbocker:

Just dark,.

Lisa Zambetti:

Totally raw. Really, really raw. Yeah. And I wanna specifically talk to you Terry, about episode five, the first 15 minutes. This isn’t a spoiler because anybody who’s watched the show knows that there’s a reckoning coming with her character of Rue who keeps getting high, taking drugs, no matter that she’s going to narcotics anonymous, no matter that she’s going to school, you know, she’s, she’s just taking and taking and using, using. And finally, you know, there’s a reckoning and there’s an intervention. So episode five, the first 15 minutes of the episode is her absolutely being confronted with her addiction. But the first five minutes is a very specific scene between Zendaya, Storm Reid, who plays her little sister, and Nika King, who plays her mother. These three have this scene that is part scripted part improvised. And it had to have been one of the most breathtaking six minutes of acting that I’ve ever seen. I mean, what, what Zendaya does is, is shift back and forth between being feral and suicidal and bullying. I mean, she’s just going back and forth because she’s desperate to get her drugs. She’s desperate to get out of this confrontation, with her, her mother and her sister. And it was just, I mean, I was really affected by it. I don’t know if you have any thoughts about that.

Terry Knickerbocker:

No. What I really loved about that scene and then the reveal that Hunter was there, that Jules was in the room listening to the whole thing, which is like, the rug gets pulled out from under not only Zendaya, but, us an audience was her use of her body and the incredible generosity that she had and just how the set designer, I mean like her breaking down the door. Feral is the perfect word for it. And, and the other piece in this is she also doesn’t just need the drug. She needs the suitcase because she’s been threatened by the drug dealer, such a funny casting with the woman from Baskets, basically doing the same thing she does in Baskets. You know, it’s kind of weird. She’s the weirdest drug dealer I’ve ever seen in my life, but it’s funny. But she said, if you don’t pay me back, I’m gonna have you kidnapped by bad people who are gonna do bad things to you.

Terry Knickerbocker:

And so you’re also connected to the danger of — she doesn’t just need a fix because she’s withdrawing, she’s in terrible trouble because if she doesn’t get that suitcase back and sell some drugs, which of course she’s not gonna do, cuz all she wants to do is use. You start to worry the way she’s worried that she’s not gonna live till tomorrow. And so it’s all about survival and I just thought it was so generous. So raw, so mean. So charming, you know, she’s lying, she’s doing whatever she can–talk about playing an objective. She’s doing whatever she can to solve the problem. Whether that means bullying, as you said, threatening, begging, blowing the door down being mean being hurtful, being suicidal by any means necessary. And what’s most impressive is how “all-in” to me, how all in she and everyone else is.

Terry Knickerbocker:

I mean the other casting, you know, obviously it’s, it’s Rue’s scene, but for Storm and Nika to go where they go with her and be on the receiving end of all that stuff and take every step with her and never get outta character. I think it’s like, I think it’s a continuous shot. There’s not a lot of cutting that happens in that scene. What I keep feeling about the whole show is it is so made with generosity. The filmmakers are generous, the actors are generous. The music on that show is insane, you know, you know, and it’s just made, I think with a lot of love and authenticity. And, you know, what’s so interesting for me cuz I watch Zayadaya cuz I love what you’re doing is that she also, you know, cuz she does like a lot of fashion.

Terry Knickerbocker:

I see her in like TV commercials and she’s very glamorous and stuff and she’s, there’s something sophisticated about her and she’s also, you know, I was reading about her and she gives a lot of money to causes and charities and stuff. She’s captured the innocence of a high schooler. So she’s in these very grown up situations. But you also believe that she’s kind of figuring out her identity as someone who’s queer, her identity as a black young woman, her identity as someone whose dad is dead and, and the innocence, sometimes you see the woman and the warrior and sometimes you see this lost child and she goes to all those places and I just I’m obsessed just like you, I think it’s beautiful.

Lisa Zambetti:

And I love what you say about her. You know, her real everyday persona is very glamorous. And yet in this, she is so stripped down and she is androgynous in a way that I feel is very authentic to my kids are in high school. It feels very authentic to the kids that I see them hanging around with. Yeah. So I’m just I’m know Dean, do, I don’t know if Dean — hasn’t watched too far.

Terry Knickerbocker:

You’re fired.

Dean Laffan:

Yes. I know. Sadly, it’s hence the forced break, away from the pod recording has been because it’s been insane. However, my adult, my 20-something adult children, have been watching it and are watching it. So I’m getting all the buzz about it and very keen to get to it. But unfortunately not able to enter the pod with that one in yet. So it’s on the top of my list to get to, but not quite yet,.Terry, while I’ve got you, you mentioned something earlier before about casting and about being the exact right role at the time. And, and you were talking about child actors, but it reminded me of something that I read about you. And it was a story you were telling about when you cast, I think it was one of your good friends in a role that you thought was perfect for him, but it didn’t work out. Can you just quickly tell that story? Cause I thought it was fascinating.

Terry Knickerbocker:

Oh, well God bless you for your research Dean in an earlier

Dean Laffan:

Research is all I got Terry

Lisa Zambetti:

All, it’s gotta be all research

Terry Knickerbocker:

And bone structure. My friend, I can, you know, you look good there. I fell into directing. I was acting, I studied with an amazing teacher who studied with Sanford Meisner, William Esper, who died a couple years ago, but was my mentor. And I went there to act,. I accidentally fell into directing. My first wife, wrote a play and a very important experimental director here in New York named Anne Bogart, who–

Lisa Zambetti:

I know Anne. I studied with her for years. Yes.

Terry Knickerbocker:

So Anne was my teacher at NYU and then I did about nine or 10 projects with her as an actor before the CT company so way, you know, sort of in an earlier time of her life and she was supposed to direct this play and then she got another play at Santa Fe Opera, An opera. And so, and we were supposed to do this play at the Women’s Project at the American Place theater, which is a good, off-off Broadway theater in New York. So I got that gig. It got really good reviews. And then I got this like grant from the Drama League of New York for their emerging directors. And all of a sudden I was a director and the culmination of that was to direct a one act play sort of for people in the industry, mostly meaning regional theater, artistic directors would come to New York, looking for people to do their things in their season.

Terry Knickerbocker:

So I had a play by Maria Irene Forn√©s who’s a Cuban director, a wonderful gay Cuban director. So it’s a play called “Fred and Fina”** a very obscure play. And it called for a husband and a wife. And like this guy who had an affair with, with Fina and I loved this particular actor who I went to school with. He’s just a brilliant actor. He’s my favorite actor. You know, if you take acting class, usually there’s someone in class that you’re just like jealous of. You love them, you get inspired by them. And that’s what this guy was. And I knew he could play the part of Fred. So he came in, he crushed the audition, you know, and it was great. And you know, it was equity auditions and there was a casting director working for it.

Terry Knickerbocker:

It was a whole thing. But when I was looking for Fina, the Fina that I found was an actress named Alma Cuervo Alma. Alma Cuervo went to Yale with Meryl Streep. And the word on the street back then was if you think Meryl Streep was good, Alma Cuervo wiped the floor with her at Yale, but she happened to be Latinx and not really so commercial. So she really never had the kinds of opportunities that Meryl had. Not that Meryl doesn’t deserve everything she got, but Alma was the real deal. So then I did what I think you, Lisa would call nowadays a chemistry read, but it was really just a call back, but putting actors together. So not just to call them back for the part, but also to see how they, do. So I was doing of mixing and matching and like send people in and out.

Terry Knickerbocker:

And when my friend was reading with Alma, he came across more like her son than her husband. And that was just kind of about type and about size cuz Alma was big and this fellow was smaller. Alma was older, he younger. And so for the sake of the story, as much as I wanted this guy to play the part, because he was so good, it wouldn’t have served the story. And so I couldn’t give him the part and I was able to tell him why, cuz a lot of times actors who don’t get the part, they don’t even find out they don’t get feedback. And so I ended up casting, another guy named Stephen Rowe. Who’s a wonderful actor, but older, he went to Juilliard and was probably 10 years older than this other fellow. And it just made more sense for the story. So a lot of times you’ll get a great actor, do a great audition, but if it’s not right for the story, for whatever reason, it’s usually not that you don’t get the part because you are terrible. It’s because you’re too old, too young, too ethnic, not ethnic enough, whatever the vibe is, you know.

Dean Laffan:

What, what impressed me about the story Terry and why I wanted to the listeners to hear it was that in spite of the, for me as an outsider, you’re telling the story, this guy’s perfect. It’s absolutely perfect for the role, but then in the production you still had the discipline to say, “Well, as much as he’s a good friend, as much as I love him and admire him it for the sake of the production, it can’t happen.” And I think that takes courage and it takes, you know, you’ve gotta put the production above all else, which was really interesting. The other thing that you just mentioned was the other point I wanted to bring up and, and you’ve said that sometimes people, that, sometimes actors don’t know why they don’t get the role, but you never know where it ends. And there’s a story that you told, um, also about Duncan Jones and, and Sam Rockwell, which is a classic. Can you just quickly, like in 60 seconds, just tell that one.

Terry Knickerbocker:

I’ll do my best. So Duncan Jones is David Bowie’s son, Sam Rockwell, who I’ve been working together, we’ve been working for 30 years. We’re actually gonna work later on this week. He’s getting ready to, remount, which never got to Broadway, American Buffalo, with Laurence Fishburne and Darren Cris, which was supposed to open the week of the pandemic, they were about to go in previews. And then now it’s gonna be two years later and it’s coming back and they’re getting back into rehearsal. So Sam’s an old friend. He was also my best man at my wedding. And we’ve done a lot of work together and Sam auditioned, he doesn’t audition much these days he’s reached that level, but he auditioned for Duncan Jones for something and didn’t get it and thought that was it. Two years later, Duncan Jones reaches out to Sam’s agent, who’s the amazing Rhonda Price at Gersh She’s really very special

Lisa Zambetti:

She’s legendary.

Speaker 9:

She’s great. And she really believes in talent and she’s not just there for the 10%. And she’s a genius. Reached out to Rhonda and said, “I’ve written a movie for Sam. And it was based on that audition.” And the movie was “Moon,” which if you haven’t seen it is a very special indie sci-fi film. It’s amazing where Sam plays six different versions of himself. It’s about cloning. And, it’s basically Sam. Kevin Spacey’s voice is on it. And Dominique, oh, Canadian actor, British , I’m forgetting her name. McElligott plays the young daughter, I think, of him back on earth. But basically it’s Sam, playing a guy named Sam and who’s, who’s stuck in space on this space station. And so what’s the moral of that. This isn’t 60 seconds. So I’m sorry about that Dean.

Terry Knickerbocker:

But the moral of that is you never know where the bread you cast upon the waters is gonna go. He put something in a room and it stayed with Duncan Jones that he wrote a movie for him. Right. And it just wasn’t right for that project. But he saw something in Sam that inspired him so much. And two years later that came out and that’s, that’s really cool how karma and this business works. Cause you know, it’s a little tricky to say Kevin Spacey’s name these days. But one of the quotes I love from him is you’re not really auditioning for the job you’re auditioning for the next job. And so when you go into a room, you do your thing and then that’s it. It’s done. You move on and you don’t wait for the phone to ring. You know, that way you’re not so disappointed. And hopefully you have a lot of auditions. And if you keep putting that out there, the word’s gonna get around that. You do good work.

Lisa Zambetti:

I totally agree. And it’s very hard for actors to hear that. And really it’s kind of cold comfort to them. But you know, obviously someone of Daniel Jackson stature, you know, he’s, he’s worked a lot, but for the other Yomen actor, it’s very, very hard for them to know that they have been seen, that we do see you and we do, you really value every time you come in and you’ve worked so hard on this audition. And you know, I cast material that is incredibly difficult where you’re playing the worst kind of victim of the worst kind of whatever. And you know, I have actresses come in for me, 10, 11, 12, 13, times to play somebody who’s been terrorized and they have to bring it every single time. And it’s so painful. But, but when you do, when you are the choice we cheer for you, you know, we are so excited and you as actors, you just have to, that you are planting those seeds. You are sewing those seeds and you don’t know how, where they’re gonna sprout up. But if you, if you have the long game in mind, then I do believe that they will, it will grow towards you if, if you are around long enough.

Terry Knickerbocker:

But also Lisa, they’re gonna remember when you waste their time, and they’re gonna remember, you know, if you’re not nice to the, the secretary or the person in craft services, you can be sure that they’re gonna be directing your next film. And they’re gonna remember, you know, so it’s really important that you establish just going back to this idea of brand that like you’re a hard worker, like you show up, you’re off book, you’ve done your work. You’re not rude. You’re not disorganized. Like you show up ready? Don’t waste people’s time.

Lisa Zambetti:

Exactly, exactly.

 


**Actual title of the play is called “Lovers and Keepers”. Fred and Fina is the title of the first act.