Finding triple triplets for NBC’s This Is Us was much more than a search for look-alikes.
Casting an entire family of characters at various stages of life is no mean feat, but when that family includes triplets, the pressure increases — especially when the entire series turns on those characters.
"With kids, you really have to search," Tiffany Little Canfield says. As casting director for NBC's This Is Us, she had to deal with the fact that some kids come in with no acting experience, while others may have picked up stagier acting styles from other projects. "It's important to open the search up and see as many kids as you can."
When casting the younger versions of the Pearson family's "Big Three" — Kate, Randall and Kevin — Canfield and her team started with the eight-year-olds.
"We were looking for doppelgängers the audience can believe are the younger versions of these characters," she recalls. "But we were looking for something more difficult to find, which is the essence of the characters in these kids."
She explains: "For young Randall you need that type-A quality where you can imagine him annoying Kevin, but he also has to have a huge heart. He has to understand that feeling of being adopted, of being different from the people in the house, yet still feel very much a Pearson.
"For young Kate, we needed to have that bubbly life force pouring out in the way Chrissy [Metz, as adult Kate] has. She's got to have charisma and likability and all those things, but also a real streak of vulnerability.
"And for young Kevin, you need that adorably charming, goofy kid with a streak of blindness to issues other kids are dealing with. He's a little bit self-centered and maybe a bit self-involved, but in a way that isn't awful, because he's such a wonderful person."
Those qualities are harder to find than physical resemblances, Canfield says. "We decided it's great if they look like the adult actors, because we want them to be believable, but what was most important was that the essence of the actor matched the character, because the audience will only accept them if they really believe they are Randall, Kate or Kevin."
A lot of discussion took place before casting was locked. "There were certain actors in the mix who were terrific and looked more like Sterling [K. Brown], Chrissy or Justin [Hartley], but these kids felt like Randall, Kate and Kevin. That established what we would do and what we would look for when it was time to cast the teens."
Portraying established characters is a huge challenge for any actor, but especially for kids, Canfield notes. "It's so much harder than just being a kid on the show, because you have to study the performance of the adult and know that your character is going to grow up to be this person. That's going to guide your choices."
Chemistry auditions helped find the best trio of actors for each age. Lonnie Chavis, Parker Bates and Mackenzie Hancsicsak were cast, respectively, as young Randall, Kevin and Kate (who were 10 years old in season two), with Niles Fitch, Logan Shroyer and Hannah Zeile playing the same characters as teens.
Fortune intervened when Zeile was hired. "Hannah. Oh, my gosh, her resemblance [to Metz] is shocking. When she came in we discovered she can really sing, too, like Chrissy. It was like kismet," Canfield says, especially since they didn't know Kate would be a singer when they cast the role. "It wasn't one of the qualities we needed in the script where the teenage Kate first appears."
Canfield remains consistently amazed at the depth of talent all the kids have shown since day one.
"In the pool scene in season one, the kids floored us," she says of the episode in which a family trip to the local pool explores many issues: Kate is fat-shamed; mom Rebecca (Mandy Moore) is berated by some African-American mothers for not taking Randall to a barber who understands black hair; and Kevin, left to his own devices, almost drowns — and no one notices.
"Lonnie, as young Randall, has had some monologues where he is just devastating," Canfield continues. "I think all of us who have ever felt like an outsider have connected to him. And Jack's [Milo Ventimiglia] death was handled beautifully by the teens. That's the audience's link to the pain the adult versions still carry. Those kids had to nail that, and they really came through."
Season two added another challenge for Canfield: casting toddlers. Until then, the Big Three babies were from background casting, but when it came time for the Pearson kids to take their first steps, Canfield and her team were asked to cast the toddlers. "I thought it was going to be challenging, but it wound up being a really fun day of casting because the babies were so adorable. You can't help but have a good day when someone is handing you a one-year-old baby."
Canfield sees all six of the young actors learning and growing in their craft, and believes they're up for whatever hijinks or catastrophes the writers may have in store for future seasons.
"I've been blown away by the ensemble, how cohesive they are in terms of performances. You really believe they are Kate, Randall and Kevin throughout life. It doesn't feel jarring. It feels like they're the same people."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2018