Ironically, Tony Hale directly links the two series. He played Jerome Squalor in A Series of Unfortunate Events, and ended up being the top choice to lead The Mysterious Benedict Society. “We were such fans of Tony, and every role he’s done becomes an iconic thing,” Manfredi says. “He’s just so funny, and he had such a soulfulness to him and intelligence and compassion to him that he just kind of ticked all the boxes.” Hay added, “In the book, the character is reasonably a bit older. It’s more of a practical grandfatherly character than a fatherly character.” Mr. Benedict in the series is still eccentric, epilectic and tireless in his quest to right the wrongs in his world. At the end of Episode 2, the audience realizes Hale is pulling double duty in the series. He plays the sketchy institute headmaster and series villain L.P. Curtain. “We always saw it as a dual role, and that’s why somebody who is as versatile as Tony was, was so appealing to us,” Manfredi says. Novel readers know Mr. Benedict and Mr. Curtain are twin brothers. Hale makes a strong impression as Mr. Benedict in his introduction, and the challenge for the kids to figure out Mr. Curtain begins.
Along with the set design and Catherine Adair’s (recently known for costuming The Man In The High Castle and Fate: The Winx Saga) vintage kitschy costumes, casting is also a key part of distinguishing The Mysterious Benedict Society from other series. Reynie, Sticky, Kate and Constance in the books were characters not only defined by their intelligence but also for their innate sense of the truth in an uncertain world. “When we were casting with the kids, it was important to us to find old souls.” Manfredi said.
One of the most appealing factors to me as a reader over a decade ago was how Stewart’s vision of Stonetown had diverse representation built into the story. On the other hand, the adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events used raceblind casting to offset the white main characters Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler) originally described. Episode 1 of The Mysterious Benedict Society brings this to the screen by introducing Reynie as a Latine boy learning Tamil from his teacher Miss Perumal (Gia Sandhu). “We were very, throughout the process really, really focused on diversity and inclusion in the cast, Hay says. “We were really hoping to find a diverse Reynie and Sticky … We wanted Sticky to be an African-American actor.” Although racism in the world of Stonetown works slightly differently than in ours, neither character is isolated from others who look like them.
One of the kids had an unintentional shift in their heritage. “In the book, Constance Contraire is not Russian, but when we saw Marta’s audition, she illuminated parts of the character for us, and we all of a sudden just couldn’t see her any other way,” Manfredi says. Fans should be reassured despite this accent shift Constance in the first two episodes is still the obstinate, headstrong, and full of haterade little girl readers know and love.
This vision was also carried out in the casting of the adult characters in the series. “Rhonda Kazembe is such a huge part of the book and of the show, even a bigger part of the show than the book,” Hay says. “To find MaameYaa was such a gift, but yeah, that was really on top of our mind, and then throughout the rest of the show, again, from the perspective of wanting the show to look like the world and seeing it as an opportunity to really create a world that does reflect the world around us.” In order to fulfill this objective, a shift in the storytelling was required. In the novel, once the kids arrive at the mysterious island institute, all of the action revolves around the children. “It was important to us to keep the adults involved, to create a kind of parallel storyline to have that back and forth with the kids and the adults and learn from each other along the way, and solve the mystery together.” Manfredi says.
What can viewers expect from the remaining six episodes? Stopping Mr. Curtain’s evil propaganda campaign is the conclusion the series is leading to. “We hope that over the course of the season, there’s going to be a lot of twists and turns and hopefully it’ll be a lot of fun,” Manfredi says. “[Hopefully] these themes of empathy and the importance of truth and being able to look at a problem in many different ways…[will] resonate, and hopefully they have fun with it.”