SHAPING THE STORY
Casting director Kim Coleman helped to bring Aretha Franklin’s world to life with a dazzling combination of established performers and gifted newcomers.
By DIEDRE JOHNSON
HEN KIM COLEMAN CAME ON BOARD AS CASTING DIRECTOR OF GENIUS: ARETHA, CYNTHIA ERIVO HAD ALREADY BEEN CHOSEN TO PLAY THE TITLE ROLE OF ICONIC VOCALIST ARETHA FRANKLIN.
Having been part of the team that cast the British actress and singer in Harriet, the 2019 biopic about Harriet Tubman, Coleman was thrilled. She knew Erivo — who scored an Oscar nomination for her performance as Tubman — would set a standard for the entire production.
“Everyone was ecstatic,” Coleman says. “She’s so multitalented. I couldn’t really see anybody else playing the role, because whatever character she takes on, she immerses herself into it. She embodies the spirit of Aretha Franklin.” Courtney B. Vance, known to television audiences for his roles on The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and, more recently, Lovecraft Country, was quickly and easily cast as Aretha’s father, the famed — and, some would say, infamous — minister C.L. Franklin. “The producer, the network and our director, Anthony Hemingway [Shameless, Power], had a relationship with him as well,” Coleman says. “He was everyone’s first choice.
When it comes to casting directors, Coleman — one of the most prolific and versatile in her profession — is often the first choice as well. With a résumé that spans film and television, comedies and dramas, series and telefilms, she brings a breadth of experience to every project. Her numerous TV credits include Everybody Hates Chris, Survivor’s Remorse, Greenleaf, The Umbrella Academy, The Good Doctor, Snowfall, P-Valley, The Good Lord Bird, Lovecraft Country and Woke. She’s won three Artios Awards from the Casting Society of America, and in 2015 she earned an Emmy nomination for the acclaimed drama series American Crime.
Coleman and her team assembled the rest of the Genius: Aretha cast over ten weeks in Atlanta, a creative community she knows well from her many collaborations with Tyler Perry, for whom she’s cast such series as If Loving You Is Wrong, Too Close to Home, The Paynes and Sistas. For Genius: Aretha, Coleman, who has also cast several projects for filmmaker Spike Lee, saw hundreds of performers for both minor and major characters in Franklin’s orbit.
In addition to many established performers, Coleman found a number of exciting newcomers. One remarkable discovery was Shaian Jordan, who, in her first professional role, is a-revelation portraying Aretha as a child.
“We did a massive search,” Coleman says. “We saw so many amazing young ladies, and Shaian is someone I auditioned early on. She brought the emotional depth — for such a young actress — and the skill needed for the role. She was an old soul, and we thought she would be fantastic.”
The ability to both act and sing was essential for several characters. For the role of legendary blues singer Dinah Washington, Coleman recalls, “I auditioned actresses I knew had the vocal ability and acting chops needed for the role, and who looked like Dinah Washington. This role was very specific.” Ultimately, the part went to Stacey Sargeant, who brought a powerful combination of talent and authenticity.
Like so many aspects of production, casting is a highly collaborative process shaped in part by input from other members of the creative team. Coleman observes that ideal casting yields casting director, producer and director” when screening the final product.
In addition to experience, judgment and taste, essential traits of an effective casting director include patience and an instinct for how each performer can shape a narrative. “It takes time,” Coleman says, “and just looking at a particular show or film and really drawing the audience in and being a part of the world that they have created. I think that is the ultimate goal — to bring the story to life and for the audience to feel that.”