Casting a Diverse YA Genre Show

By Chanak Maduranga

Published on:

Casting a Diverse YA Genre Show

Twenty years ago, Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage’s breakout hit The O.C., about a group of teens coming of age in Newport Beach, premiered on Fox. By the time the 27-episode first season aired its finale in the spring of 2004, the show was the highest-rated drama on TV among adults 18 to 34 and had catapulted its stars — whose characters were affectionately known as the “Core Four” — to massive, near-overnight popularity. 

It wouldn’t be the first or last young adult series in the U.S. to generate a cultural frenzy. But the industry ecosystem that birthed and defined zeitgeisty YA shows like it — 22-episode drama series with largely white casts found through in-person auditions — is vanishing. As viewers have increasingly abandoned broadcast and cable TV, the linear networks these shows called home (Fox, The WB, UPN, The CW, MTV and Freeform) have also faced mergers, acquisitions, multiple rebrands or given up in the YA scripted space altogether. 

Despite all of that, Schwartz told The Hollywood Reporter last year that the young adult genre is enduring. “Young people will always want to see their stories reflected on screen. People will always remember what it used to be like to be a teenager and want to revisit that,” the executive producer of Runaways and Nancy Drew said. “It’s just about finding the right show at the right home [in] the right moment.”

On the heels of Netflix’s wider success in YA including edgier, genre-based YA entries like Wednesday and Stranger Things, the streamer’s latest series Dead Boy Detectives, which debuted April 25, may be exactly what Schwartz meant. The show centers on two dead boys, Charles (Jayden Revri) and Edwin (George Rexstrew), as they manage a detective agency alongside Crystal (Kassius Nelson) and Niko (Yuyu Kitamura), two living girls who — following supernatural run-ins — can see them. 

“Edwin and Charles have died, but in a lot of ways they’ve never had to face that they’re dead,” creator Steve Yockey explains of the show’s ghostly duo. “And here comes this living teenage girl [Crystal] that upsets the applecart. All of a sudden everyone’s having to learn how to grieve for these experiences that happened a long time ago or face things about their lives they’ve put behind them but never really processed.”

Adapted from the Sandman comics universe of Neil Gaiman, the show hails from Warner Bros. TV — a long-time home to YA ensemble favorites like Pretty Little Liars, One Tree Hill, Gossip Girl and Smallville. It’s also executive produced by Sarah Schechter and Greg Berlanti (who began his career writing on Dawson’s Creek), who have spent the last decade amassing a library of popular network and streaming YA titles: Riverdale, The Flash, Titans and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

“I’m attracted to writers and their passion, and I’m attracted to character,” says Schechter. “As well as this idea of, as you become an adult, you’re finding and choosing your own family. I’m always attracted to that as a producer because it’s about emotional connection, being understood and loved and encouraged and trying to do everything you dream of doing. And you’re feeling things deeply — experiencing and processing the world in a way that we’ve all done. It’s a universal experience.” 

Co-showrunners and EPs Yockey and Beth Schwartz are themselves no strangers to coming of age storytelling across the linear-streaming divide. Yockey, who is also showrunner of Max’s The Flight Attendant, wrote on The CW’s 15-year hit Supernatural, along with MTV’s Awkward and Scream: The TV Series

“I learned a lot about this particular type of storytelling from Supernatural. Not because the shows are on the surface similar, but because they are case-of-the-week shows that also have a larger arc that feeds what they learn from each individual case and how they emotionally grow across that,” he says of Dead Boy Detectives’ procedural feel. 

Brought on after the pilot, Schwartz spent years working with Berlanti, including writing for DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, and showrunning Arrow and Netflix’s Sweet Tooth. “I love ensembles. There was a joke on Arrow that if there was a scene of 20-plus people, I always volunteered to write it,” she says. “In this show, I loved the fun of the friendships and that everyone’s so distinct and different, but they all fit together.”

Before the series brought its core four together, Charles and Edwin appeared on HBO Max’s Doom Patrol, portrayed by different actors in an episode co-written by Yockey and that series’ showrunner and fellow Dead Boy Detectives EP Jeremy Carver. 

“We did a similar thing on Titans where we cast its Doom Patrol episode before it became a series. It was a great opportunity for us to find slight variations on the expectation of the pilot versus the episode of the show that it was born out of, which have different tones,” says Dead Boy Detectives casting director David Rapaport. “There are slight tweaks but the overall note [for the series] was we want to find another set of stars — people that have undeniable chemistry and bring these characters to life.”

With Gaiman’s blessing to “take what I wanted, leave what I wanted and let it be its own thing,” Yockey made Charles and Edwin slightly older than in the comics, but with roughly the same deaths and backstories. “[Gaiman’s telling] had a children’s story quality that added to the horror of what you were reading, but that doesn’t help us when we want to explore more adult themes in the show,” Yockey explains. “They’re being forced to confront things that no one at 16 or 17 should ever have to confront in a very adult way, and a big part of being a teenager, whether you’re alive or you’re dead, is the personal discoveries that come through that.”

As part of that adaptation process, he, Schwartz and the writing team were tasked with taking the characters on that “perilous” journey across eight episodes. “Sometimes in 22-episode shows, you have, ‘During these four episodes, the character’s in this place,’ and then in another four they’re in another place,” he says. “This show moves very quickly, but when we stop, we stop. And when we stop, it’s intentional. We give time for those characters to breathe. So we know Charles hits his emotional peak in five, Crystal hits hers in six, Edwin hits his in seven. It’s not a lot of space, but it is good enough as long as you plan well.”

“There are certain things you learn doing television with ad breaks about how you build shows and think in the long term,” adds Schechter. “It’s not, ‘Oh, it’s an eight-episode story,’ but ‘These are eight stories for our characters.’”

Patrick Rush, a casting director for Dawson’s Creek, The O.C. and Party of Five who was part of identifying the early star power of performers like Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt, James Marsden and Kate Mara, says that kind of smart and intentional writing, coupled with a respect for its audience and a good balance of drama and humor, are among the signatures of a strong YA series. 

“The shows that have been successful and that launch careers come from creators smart enough to not talk down to teens. When you respect young adults enough to not write for them in that way, they tune in and they tell their friends,” he says. “The O.C. didn’t start out as a hit, but every week those ratings were climbing because people were talking.”

But Rush notes that success in the YA drama comes from more than the writing. “Cast chemistry is everything,” he tells THR. In Dead Boy Detectives, there’s no shortage of it. “All of our actors, but specifically the core four, have this chemistry on and off camera that is undeniable,” says Schwartz. “They are having so much fun. They love each other. They’re so invested in their characters. With this it either works or it doesn’t and this really, really works.”

Yet, in the history of YA programs, a charming lead ensemble has rarely been coupled with such genre-indulgence and diversity. “The whole world was portrayed through TV as white and straight. Sitcoms, soap operas, YA,” says Rush. “But there has been a ‘know better’ moment and so now it’s not always just, ‘We’ll make two of them diverse.’” 

These are not stock characters. They’re fully developed and rich,” Dead Boy Detectives casting director Lyndsey Baldasare says of the series’ racial and queer representation. “It’s not, ‘We’re just going to put this token person here.’”

Of the show’s four leading characters, three are people of color, with one openly on the LGBTQ spectrum. Their infectiously arresting screen dynamic raises the question of how much Hollywood may have left on the table creatively and financially in the absence of diversity. UCLA’s 2024 Hollywood Diversity Report found that shows with diverse casts and content are favored by audiences and can in instances earn higher median ratings across a range of racial groups. (That research has also revealed that series with various degrees of diversity can perform better on different social platforms, where online word of mouth can help a show grow its audience.) 

Schechter notes that diversity has not only been a tenet of Berlanti Schechter Productions’ shows but also her own coming of age in the “very dynamic, diverse world” of New York. “We wanted to reflect that [in Dead Boy Detectives],” she says. “But also, as part of the evolution of figuring out the best way to tell the characters’ stories, the story we wanted to tell was not necessarily the same as what was told in Doom Patrol.” 

Yockey tells THR he’s aware of what has become the “party line” around representation. “The idea was to have a diverse show. I’m not bashful about that. But people say that and then you end up with an all white show,” he says. “Any showrunner is going to have a clear idea of who they want the people to be, but also be open to being surprised.”

Before auditioning actors, the creator charted various aspects of the characters’ identities to conjure a clearer idea of each, resulting in the show taking a varied approach to casting. “I knew because of when Edwin died and where he died, he needed to be a white kid. What that said to me was then we can really open the doors with Charles, and see who comes through,” Yockey explains. “I wanted Crystal to be biracial, so that as she slowly discovers more about her history, there could be some interesting stuff there with the two sides of her background.”

“I obviously look very different than Crystal in the comics, and it’s a discussion that I had with the directors and the producers,” Nelson explains. “But we looked at it as [giving] us another opportunity to make Crystal feel really current and for the show to stand on its own two feet.”

After Revri — who Yockey says the team “fell in love with” — was cast, the show creator went through the story and worked his ethnicity (the actor is of Indian, Jamaican and English descent) into Charles’ character and storyline. For Niko, an original character Yockey created, the breakdown called specifically for a Japanese actress, says Kitamura. The actress worked with the showrunner and the creative team on shaping Niko beyond her interests in manga and anime, as well as her look, which takes elements from the Harajuku and Decora styles.

“There is a huge fan base for animated manga and people who understand when you say ‘Tokyo and Harajuku girl’ what that might mean. But for people that might not understand, it’s exciting for me to get to portray a character like Niko, who also represents a plethora of really positive stereotypes that aren’t just rooted in Japanese culture,” Kitamura says. “They are who she is and the light that she brings into the group — her optimism and the sense of wonder.”

Casting began in August 2021, with calls put out to high schools, colleges and universities in Australia, London, Vancouver, Toronto, L.A. and New York. About 4000 online submissions emerged from agents and managers for each role, with just 600 performers taping for each part. During the process, the casting directors  also looked at pictures, resumes, demo reels, “people we knew, people we didn’t know,” Rapaport says. 

“When you’re testing, you want people to have depth who can go in different directions or give you surprising things because as they grow with these characters, they can give the writer something to play with,” he continues. “We’re also looking out for really good people who are team players because these actors are somewhat marrying these characters for hopefully several seasons.”

Nelson (Last Night in Soho), Revri (Fate: The Winx Saga) and Kitamura (Expats) together had a handful of recognizable credits before securing their roles. In the case of Rexstrew, Dead Boy Detectives marks his very first screen role, clinched just a year after graduating from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. As with many YA shows, says Rush, past work can matter less. “Casting young pilots is a lot more heavy lifting, but there’s no luxury to leaving stones unturned,” he explains. “You have to dig deeper and meet those kids you’ve never met before. Every year you’re looking for those young actors that make you say, ‘Oh shit.’” 

“It’s more exciting discovering people,” says Rapaport of casting for young adult series. “When I see someone and get super excited, it’s like falling in love for the first time.”

That feeling would emerge in what Rexstrew calls the “famous chemistry read” between the shows’ leads, who would eventually get along “like a house on fire.” Revri also recalls the way the actors clicked while testing. “When we did our reading together, the director of the pilot literally said, ‘Well, let’s just put that in the show.”

“It was kind of undeniable, even though it was on Zoom,” adds Rapaport.

Before the pandemic and the arrival of Zoom auditions, in-person casting was the dominant approach, with some actors and casting directors still adjusting to finding that chemistry without being in the same room. “I think Zoom chemistry reads can be really, really difficult because you’re having to try and interact with a sort of a barrier — with a screen,” says Nelson. “So there was really no guarantee whether or not we would actually get on because we’d never met in person until we started filming.”

But since the pandemic, Zoom auditions have become a new industry standard in a process that involves not just watching more tapes in the same window of time, but that can better resemble the small screen itself. “Sometimes a great audition in the room doesn’t translate on tape, and sometimes a so-so audition in the room is amazing on tape. People have different presences,” explains Rapaport. Baldasare adds that “the camera catches everything — subtle, little things that you might not think of, so even though Zoom is difficult, at the end of the day, you’re sort of using the same medium: a camera and a screen.”

He notes that the virtual auditions also cast a wider net than the 75 to 125 actors he saw for a role in the early days of his career. With a larger, more diverse pool, shows can have greater chances of finding burgeoning stars with the kind of chemistry that elevates a smartly written young adult show from good to a hit. 

“The show is colorful, it’s magical. It deals with love, grief, friendships, relationships, people who don’t know who they are finding out who they are through their friends,” says Revri. “It’s also inclusive, and so diverse — everything that I would want to watch in a show.”

Chanak Maduranga

passionate journalist behind 'USA News Now 24', dedicated to delivering timely and accurate updates on US affairs. Committed to journalistic integrity and informing audiences with credible news coverage.

Leave a Comment