Director Jonathan Levine on bringing together Nicole Kidman, Regina Hall and Michael Shannon.
Piecing together the cast of Nine Perfect Strangers was like putting together a puzzle. Adapted from the Liane Moriarty novel of the same name, the Hulu series centers on the guests attending a high-end wellness retreat and the unconventional Russian woman who acts as their mind, body and spirit guru. Each actor cast in the ensemble had to be right for their respective role, but also, because of the nature of the story -- and how each character is uniquely suited to affect the others -- all nine had to fit together perfectly.
When Jonathan Levine (who directed all eight episodes) boarded the project, Nicole Kidman had already cast herself to play the proprietor of Tranquillum House, Masha. (Kidman also serves as an executive producer on the series -- it was her production company that bought up the rights to the book.) Bewigged and speaking in a distinctly Slavic accent, Kidman has spoken about her Method approach to playing Masha.
"As a director, you want people to take big swings. You want them to be brave and you want them to dive in," Levine tells ET. "I love Nicole most when she's immersed in a character. I love to die for Nicole. You know, I just think that it's so fun when she's able to disappear into a big choice. It's a little scary, of course. I'm sure it's scary for her too, but I love what she did."
"To me," he continues, "that character is the distillation of the tone of the show. It's pushed, it's grounded, it's fun, it's weird. It's all these inherent contradictions, and yet we try to deliver it to you in this very elegant, entertaining package. She understood that right away, and I think we were completely on the same page about that."
Melissa McCarthy was likewise previously tapped to play the hapless romance novelist, Frances. "She's so perfect for it," Levine says. "I think it's her astonishing ability to make you fall in love with her and to make you feel her pain. Across the board, it was really exciting to show actors whether they be a dramatic actor in a more comedic light or a comedic actor like Melissa in a more dramatic light. It was really fun to walk that tight rope."
With McCarthy in place, Levine and the team went about searching for their remaining eight strangers. As Levine remembers it, Bobby Cannavale came next. His casting as Tony, the surly former footballer who forms a connection with Frances, came about organically through his proven chemistry with close friend McCarthy. (This is their fourth project together.)
"Them together is so great," says the director. "I love what Bobby's doing in the show. I just think he's so fantastic. And having directed Long Shot and just loving romantic comedies, I loved watching this relationship blossom in its own kind of little rom-com that's going on while all this stuff is going down."
Then came Michael Shannon as Napoleon, a high school teacher and the extroverted patriarch of the Marconi family. "I'm not sure you would read that character on the page and think Michael Shannon. And yet he just kind of blew me away with what he was able to do," Levine says, though he remembers even Shannon questioned being cast against type in the role. "He [kept] coming up to me and suggesting other people who could play the role better. We'd be standing on set, and he would be like, 'Hey, what about David Hyde Pierce?' I'd say, 'Michael, it's you.'"
Shortly afterwards, they landed on up-and-comer Grace Van Patten (who's since been cast as the lead of her own Hulu series, Tell Me Lies) to play Napoleon's daughter, Zoe. Australian actress Asher Keddie completed the Marconi trio as grieving mother Heather, who visits Tranquillum House on the anniversary of the death of the couple's son and Zoe's twin brother.
"Something that Liane said when I talked to her is, to entrust that Marconi story to us is a huge gift," Levine explains. "And we felt a great responsibility to do right by that plot line and to do right by the characters' journeys and to really try to understand this sort of unfathomable grief that they're dealing with and be very respectful and responsible with those depictions. And we talked a lot. They came to my house, and we all talked about the characters, about backstories, about our own experiences with stuff like that. We would talk a lot."
Luke Evans, meanwhile, joined the cast as the recently single and commitment-phobic Lars; Regina Hall as single mother and spurned divorcee Carmel; and Melvin Gregg (of The Way Back and American Vandal) as lottery winner and sports car obsessee Ben. "We have so many actors with so many different tools," Levine says. "It's like having a baseball lineup with a lot of utility players. Like, everyone can do anything."
"It's interesting because all of these guys have different acting styles," he adds. "Some people like to talk about something for a really long time. Other people like to not talk about it at all and just do it. Some people like to improvise on take one, some people like to improvise on take five. Some people don't like it when the other person in their scene improvises. It's so many different acting styles."
The final role to cast -- the last piece in our metaphorical puzzle -- was Jessica, the wife of Gregg's character who leverages their lottery windfall into a rabid Instagram following. "That character is a really tough one, tonally, to execute," Levine says. Ultimately, they found their Jessica in Samara Weaving, who broke out in 2019's campy horror flick Ready or Not and has since starred in Netflix's Hollywood, Bill & Ted Face the Music and most recently, Snake Eyes.
"Samara came a little late in the game," Levine recalls. "But again, I loved that she's taking a big swing. She's playing someone who's kind of [heightened] but you also know that person." Spray tanned within an inch of her life and clacking away with clawed acrylics, Weaving plays Jessica in influencer drag, barely hiding the depth of insecurity beneath. "I just find her so damn funny too. Just as an actor, I think she's just so incredibly gifted and funny."
The full cast -- rounded out by Tiffany Boone and Manny Jacinto as devoted followers of Masha -- came together for the first time on set in Australia. (The series filmed during the pandemic, so the cast and crew shot in a quarantine bubble in Byron Bay.) The group scene, which comes at the end of the first episode, marks the first time the strangers are all in one place. It was also Levine's first time seeing his cast together, and the cast's first time witnessing Kidman in character.
"The first time they saw her, we were shooting it. We tried to capture that magic," Levine says. "I'm sure she knew some of the actors socially and had worked with some of them before, but we tried to keep that mystery going up until take one of her entering the room where the strangers are. And there certainly was a very magical vibe in the air."
Nine Perfect Strangers premieres on Wednesday, Aug. 18, on Hulu.
Nicole Kidman Welcomes Guests Into Her Trippy Wellness Retreat in 'Nine Perfect Strangers' Trailer