Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Casting Lessons, or Why Not All Belters Are Tall

by Ty Franck


So this happened.

Which means we need to have a chat about casting choices.

We’ve been waiting for this.

The news has finally been released about the cast for The Expanse. The first thing we want to say is that we’re freaking delighted by all of them. We’ve seen a lot of actors trying out for these roles, and we’re very grateful to all of them. There’s nothing like enthusiasm for a project, and we were incredibly lucky to have the interest in The Expanse that we did. For every role we were trying to cast, there were a lot of amazingly talented, hard-working actors who tried out and didn’t get in. That was the worst part of the process by far. The best part: getting the team we got.

We’ve started filming already, and things are looking good. When it does finally roll out where all y’all can see it, we think you’ll be pleased too.

That said, we wanted to sit down a minute and talk about one of the decisions that we made about the Belters. Specifically: Not All Belters Are Tall. There’s reasons for this.

Going into this, we all talked a lot about how to approach translating Belters from prose into a visual medium. In the books, we make a point of how the bodies of people who’ve grown up in microgravity are changed by it. Taller frames, larger heads. Discomfort in high g. We floated ideas like using Lord of the Rings-esque special effects or having the Belter actors on stands and stilts. Or – and why I wanted to talk about it now – only hiring tall, skinny actors for those parts.

When you’re casting something like this, you want the best actors, but packed into that are a bunch of implicit obstacles: The best actor who is available. The best actor who is enthusiastic about the role. The best actor you can afford. Otherwise, Meryl Streep would be in everything. Those obstacles are unavoidable.

Then there’s another tier of obstacles. The ones that you might be able to bend on. The best actor who looks the way you had in mind. The best actor with the kind of accent you wanted. The best actor who’s name is already in the public consciousness. The best actor who has a real chemistry with the other actors you’ve already cast. The best actor who’s the same ethnicity as the character you had in mind. The best actor who’s tall.

If everything’s a priority, then nothing is.

We were involved in the decision to not require that every Belter be tall and skinny. It was the right choice. The pool of actors – especially of women – over 6’2″ is really quite small, and by having a wider group to select from, we got to prioritize things like chemistry and charisma, acting chops and similarity of personality to the character from the book. And race. Let me just tale a minute here to say that both Alcon and Syfy were staunch in their commitment to not whitewash the project, and I appreciate that decision more than I can say.

The other thing is this: people vary. One of the things we tacked against hard in The Expanse was the idea of giving all our Klingons bumpy foreheads. Belters are supposed to be diverse in their language, their culture, their politics, their modes of dress. And yeah, in their bodies. Which is to say, Belters are supposed to be people.

We’re still leaning toward examples on the far ends of the spectrum where we can. You’ll see tall, thin folks over-represented in the Belter population. But you’ll see other things – cultural signifiers, accents (at varying thicknesses), modes of dress – that also go with the Belt.

This isn’t a choice that Syfy made. This is a decision that we, the authors of the books and writers of the show, made and the other players involved backed us on.

And because of it, we’ve got a hell of good cast. And more than anything else, that’s what we wanted. We’re paraphrasing one of our producers when we say, “Height doesn’t act.” This became a truism for our show. If we get a great actor, people will quickly forget that they’re not quite as tall as their book counterpart. If we get a bad actor, no amount of height will save the performance.

So join us in welcoming this stellar group of people to the world of The Expanse. Give them a chance to blow you away with what they’re bringing to the roles. We think you’ll be happy you did.

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76 Responses »

  1. Happy to know the project is going very well, can’t wait to watch it. I am thinking maybe you can provide some scientific explanation for the height differences, like the place some Belters live has more gravity and some don’t. And may I ask if you can show us some concept design or filming pics?Thank you very much!

  2. Clearly a lot of thinking and hard choosing went into the process. Thanks for that. Super, super looking forward to the show.

  3. I devoured the first three books within the space of a month (no pun intended) and the fourth – while a long wait – was seriously worth it, so ever since the beginning, I’ve always wanted to know how anyone would be able to turn this amazing series into a show.

    That said, I think the cast you have so far is really good (especially Thomas Jane). Plus, I definitely imagined Cas Anvar and Dominique Tripper to look like both Alex and Naomi (I did, however, imagine both Amos and Havelock to be a little older, but I know the actors will do those roles proud).

    Am I correct that Holden has yet to be cast? If so, I would imagine that would be the hardest task.

  4. Thanks for this. I don’t think anyone should need or expect a verbatim rehash of the books right down to every last detail. This is a different medium and should be treated with care accordingly. It’s hardly the only thing about the books that will be difficult to transpose.

  5. Well, let’s step back a bit. The real truth here is that SOMEBODY has a big, fancy producers office, and SOMEBODY wants to flex that nameplate because Hollywood.

    Now where’s my cheese danish?


  6. Especially in the latest book it’s obvious how Belters are a different race of people and this is important. But humanity is great at making up and enforcing ethnic divisions without any physical difference. I don’t think communicating this will be hard.

    I’m willing to suspend disbelief for the protomolecule, short Belters is no problem. 🙂

  7. Ah, excellent update! So looking forward to this. I am very curious to see if the show keeps it’s a serious tone as the novels do, and not evolve into a “drama-lite” like “The Strain” did when it was adapted.

  8. Loved the books and can’t wait for the series! I have a question on physiology, though. Taller frames in low gravity I understand, but why larger heads? I spent some time researching trying to find the answer myself, but couldn’t find anything.

    • One of the things you see in null g is increased blood flow to the head. We figured it could lead to some changes if you spent a lot of your fast-growing years with more nutrients & oxygen getting there than would down the well.

      • Thanks for satisfying my curiosity, Daniel. It’s especially satisfying when what I read not only entertains me, but educates me and inspires me to learn more!

      • Ha, I always assumed the heads weren’t actually larger, they just seemed disproportionate on the extremely thin and elongated body of a Belter. Good to know.

  9. The pool of actors – especially of women – over 6’2″ is really quite small,

    That should make things interesting when it comes time to cast Bobbie Draper

    Actually, my guess with her is that they will just go with an actress who is just plain badass and tough – similar to how Katee Sackhoff played Starbuck

    • Speaking of…Ms. Sackhoff would make a great Bobbie Draper.

      If people can get part her role as Starbuck.

      • No, she’s not Polynesian, and we’re deliberately keeping the ethnic diversity of the books in the show.

        • Good on keeping the ethnicities… umm… ethnic. Plus, didn’t Avasarala comment about how the Polynesians run a little larger in size anyway? It might make the casting a bit easier although finding someone Bobbie’s size might be a (wait for it) tall order

        • but Avasarala is Indian, not Iranian 😉

          Stacey Leilua is 5’11”

        • “No, she’s not Polynesian, and we’re deliberately keeping the ethnic diversity of the books in the show.”

          I’m really happy to hear this, and from the casting announcements so far, you guys have done a great job. I unfortunately can’t think of any Polynesian actresses off the top of my head, but definitely hope you’re able to find one to play Bobbie.

        • Might I recommend Samoan actress Tamina Snuka? I think she would be the perfect Bobbie Draper.

  10. Hello,I was wondering if the television show of the expanse would show zero g, and gravity decreases/increases like in the books or would the show go the old standard tv scifi way of perfect artificial gravity and no explanation? Also, will the show be called the expanse? Or simply leviathan wakes

    • Yes, the show will have zero g segments and no artificial gravity. In many scenes the characters will be wearing magnetic boots, but sometimes we’ll do visual effects and wire work to allow them to float. The show is called The Expanse.

  11. My biggest questions is when will it premiere and when is the next book coming out?

    I love the books. My wife who is not a fan of sci-fi read all 4 in about 2 weeks. We are really looking forward to this. Keep up the good work!

  12. I cannot be more pleased with the casting decisions to this point. The interesting thing I found on reading, was as I became more invested in the characters, the less I envisioned their height differences. So, I feel opting to find better actors with a stronger connections was absolutely the right choice.

    Now all I have left to do is get cable and SyFy for this one. Unless there will be a digital distribution by episode…?

    Thank you for all of your awesome efforts!

  13. Everything of what you said about the casting makes perfect sense, and thanks for letting us take a peek at the thought process!

    Couple of questions:

    1) Is there any indication of when the show is expected to air?

    2) How violent can we expect the show to be? The books have some gore and a gritty feeling to a lot of the combats, and never shy away from showing how massed up battle can be. Will the show do the same, or will it be somewhat softer to be suitable for TV?

  14. Yeah the belter physique was something that was gonna be very hard to pull off. I for one won’t be with the sure-to-be-expected “OMG the series is not ‘true’ to the books”-crowd in that regard.

    Now, what i’m really psyched for is visuals! Can’t wait for the first set photos to come out to show how the ships/stations turned out. Also please let there be beautiful outside shots because SPACEPORN.

  15. Can you comment on whether or not Avasarala will retain any(some?) of her profanity in the show’s dialogue? 🙂

    • Syfy (and some of the other cable networks) have loosened up in the last year or two regarding language, but not to the level of HBO. Avasarala will undoubtedly swear more than you’d hear on broadcast network TV, but I imagine she’ll be toned down from the books.

      Unless they decide to go the route of some shows and have an “uncensored” version that could be released on DVD/Blu-ray.

      • I had the same thought…I’m excited about the show being on Syfy, where it should be, but, I’m going to miss the “expanse” use of the F word! Characters like Avasarala are shaped by their use of the word. Also, speaking of Avasarala, I see diversity being a goal on the show, but why is the actress playing Avasarala younger than 45-50? Book Avasarala has wrinkles and is referred to as “old lady” by Sauron. By the way, I don’t see Sauron or Bobby on the cast list yet.

  16. They have the cast and brief description of the show also listed on the syfy ( website.

  17. Hate 2 b the one dissenting voice (yea I’m hating), but the expanse should have should have been a movie series! The small screen just won’t do it justice.

  18. Aside from the fact that the entire time I was reading the books I was picturing the cast of Firefly with Mal as Holden, Jayne as Amos, Zoe as Naomi, and Wash as Alex, I’d say the casting so far looks awesome. Naomi in particular looks perfect. Totally nails the exotic belter look, even without being in costume. And when I first read about Avasarala being cast, I was a little put off by the fact that the actress is Iranian rather than Indian, but then I looked up a YouTube video of her and heard her voice, and I was like, “yep, that’s her.” Great job on casting and I can’t wait for the show to air!

  19. Is this going to be a summer or fall 2015 show?

  20. I’m a bit surprised that noone has mentioned or asked about Fred Johnson (who is not on the IMDB cast list as far as I can see.

  21. Any news on who’ll be doing the soundtrack? Please, please, please, don’t make it John Williams-esque. Pretty please.

  22. Oh boy am I happy!

    Just starting Cibola Burn and loving it. Most fun I’ve had in a long time with a series.
    After learning it is going TV I just started a reading mantra: “please don’t let them ruin this…” over and over.
    And now I found the source, this blog, and I am really satisfied to see the care you are putting into the little things.
    I know it will be a battle, but plesae keep your game face all the time and make this worthy of the books… but enjoy the process!

    • I’m glad the books are working for you. As to the show, there are a lot of very smart, very talented people putting their hearts into this. It’s already been a tremendous education for me, and we’re not close to done with it. 🙂

  23. Really excited about this tv show. Loved the novels.

    I’m not approaching the tv show from the “will it be faithful to the novels” angle but instead will it give me my dark, serious scifi on syfy fix like BSG, Caprica, Stargate: Universe and Helix?

    I’m excited! The only thing cooler would be a reveal that Revelation: Space and the Culture will also be made into tv shows. 🙂

  24. Just finished Cibola, got through it in 2 days. Addicted

    What’s with theexpansetv page? Is it unofficial? Seems a little flakey!

    Has Fred or Sam been cast yet?

    • The ExpanseTV dude is just some dude. He’s got nothing to do with us or the production.

      Fred has indeed been cast. Chad Coleman is doing his turn as the Butcher of Anderson Station. About Sam, I can neither confirm nor deny…

  25. Is there a reason why the Ade character was changed from being Nigerian?
    Looks like it goes against your efforts to keep the ethnicities as originally written.

    • There are several reasons that Kristin Hager got the role, all of which had long discussions and conversations about whitewashing and the diversity of the project. The short form is this: the diversity of the project is very important to all of us here, but being constrained by every detail of the books isn’t. Ade has been changed to an anglo woman. Admiral Souther and Dmitri Havelock are being played by non-anglo actors. In all, the mix of the show will, I hope, reflect a richly diverse set of characters in a richly diverse variety of roles. That every role isn’t exactly the same as the book is a feature, not a bug.

  26. As long as Alex Kamal has a Texas accent I will love this show!

  27. Any word on who will play Bobbie Draper or will she not appear in the first season?(which would be strange since Avasarala apparently does)

    • It’ll make sense when you see it.

      • I live in NZ and lots of Maori/Samoan people here obviously so I have the idea in my head of what Bobbie would look like.. Valerie Adams (athlete here), she’s 6’3″ .. shame she’s not an actress!

        Have to say that the Expanse books are amazing, i can’t put them down and you’ve caused me to miss my stop on the bus and get to sleep much later then planned many, many times 🙂

        Can’t wait for the TV series !

  28. Just now finished Book 3. Two weeks ago I came across a reference to “a SyFy production called The Expanse”. Imagine my excitement and my surprise – like a 15 year-old seeing Star Wars for the first time! Thank you both for these masterpieces. Like all your fans, I’m looking forward to the premier!

  29. You could have cast a bunch of Scandinavian and East African actors if you wanted an entirely tall thin cast, but I do like the idea of representing them by more than just their bodies. Enjoying the show and casting thus far. 🙂

  30. This series has the potential to dethrone bsg as the definitive SciFi series of my generation. I just hope that this series doesn’t see the same fate as firefly or star trek tos. Thank you guys for this series, books as well as television.

  31. I respect your casting Naomi is perfect even if she isn’t tall enough..

    But wealth would result in more earth like results, too. Proper hormones and giving birth in gravity would affect development. So the poorest might have the most physical alterations increasing their rebellious tendencies as well as making them more easily identified.

  32. It’s confusing that several of the female actors look the same.

  33. I love the books and respect the sentiments above. But I gotta say, in my opinion Naomi wasn’t a good casting. I’m sure the actor is talented and a great person. But she just isn’t Naomi. Hopefully she will grow on me!

  34. Also, even in the real world, different types of morphologies would react differently to growing up in zero g. Some morphotypes’ bone structures would stretch less than others, so it actually makes perfect sense to have different sizes.