How Only Murders in the Building Put Together TV’s Starriest, New York-iest Cast

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Only Murders in the Building is the kind of show that grabs viewers from the second it’s announced, simply because of who’s involved. Turns out, that went for the other actors too.

The show was first pitched to John Hoffman, previously a writer on series including Grace and Frankie and Looking, with Steve Martin already attached as a star and cocreator, and his friend Martin Short packaged in as a colead. From there, the creators behind the comic murder mystery—which follows three neighbors who band together to make a true-crime podcast about a killing that took place in their posh Upper West Side apartment building—could populate its cast with just about anybody on their dream list.

Said cast would go on to include a wide range of people: Selena Gomez as the final lead, the surly and mysterious Mabel; Nathan Lane as a lurking antagonist; Jane Lynch in an ingenious late-breaking guest spot. There were also A-list cameos and all-timer work from all-timer character actors, with the occasional breakout performance from lesser-known actors sprinkled in. Put simply, it felt like the perfect TV ensemble: plenty starry, with just enough discoveries and surprises along the way to keep it from feeling like too much.

But what was the key to striking that balance between the famous and non-famous? How did they hide a killer amid such big names? And who perhaps wasn’t the expected choice? We spoke with showrunner Hoffman and casting director Tiffany Little Canfield for a breakdown on assembling this irresistible ensemble. 

The Leads

John Hoffman: Steve Martin had an idea and he shared it with Dan Fogelman and Jess Rosenthal. And then they brought me in to meet Steve, to showrun and executive-produce and cocreate with Steve. I crossed my fingers that that would go okay. The minute I sat down with him at dinner, I did know that this show would also be Steve and Martin Short. That was the enticing thing, right off the bat.

Tiffany Little Canfield: We started working immediately on Mabel and we did our dream list of fantastic actors that John and Dan could meet and work with—which of course Selena was at the top of.

Hoffman: The whole show is built on classic meets modern in our minds. And just theoretically, we were thinking that way just across the board: How do we take these two legendary, classic comedians and then put them up against the clash of something New York, being modern now and finding that classic-meets-modern all around New York? Once Selena Gomez was brought up, it was just like, oh. That really was the light bulb moment.

Canfield: As a cast director, it’s so wonderful when your dream person is interested and available. Because so often, especially someone like Selena, who’s a multihyphenate—even if they want to do it, the timing is impossible. But we set a meeting with her and the guys and it went amazingly.

Hoffman: I had watched her on Wizards of Waverly Place and I immediately recognized: She’s got her own little vibe, with a sort of laser-like, dry, underneath wit to her. 

Jayne Houdyshell with Martin Short.

Craig Blankenhorn

The Building

Canfield: The tricky part of casting it is so much of our cast that is crucially important is our guest cast—which definitely has a financial difference in a big way. It also has a scheduling difference, because when someone’s a guest cast, you are working with them at their professional availability. Their full-time job is not your show, and you’re not paying them enough for it to be their full-time job. But in our show, the challenge was, with a murder mystery, you can’t lose anybody!

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