Shows click when actors mesh with roles

Chemistry. That elusive, indefinable connection between actor and role, and among actors in a cast, can turn a pilot into a hit and an actor-for-hire into a breakout star.

Robin Williams had it as Mork from Ork and turned an old concept into a hit sitcom. George Clooney didn’t when he was an actor-for-hire on several unsuccessful series, but once he found Dr. Doug Ross on “ER,” the show was a smash and he became a bona fide movie star.

Casting directors make their living searching for such chemistry, and their job is more creative — and more challenging — than ever before.

“TV is about characters inhabited by the right actors,” says Katherine Pope, prexy of Universal Media Studios. “Casting is so much more important to TV than to movies, because you’re talking about somebody who’s going to live with a character, grow a character for 300 episodes.”

Casting directors themselves tend to credit great scripts for attracting the interest of good actors. Linda Lowy, casting director of “Friday Night Lights” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” says: “Certainly if the writing’s not there and the story’s not compelling, you can get the greatest group of actors in the world together and it won’t be a great show. But if you have the greatest writing and you don’t have the right cast and the right chemistry, then you’re also not going to have a great show.”

Chemistry can mean different things on different shows. Lowy, a veteran feature-film casting director who never imagined she’d do a series, found the two skeins she was casting had very different demands.

“On ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ ” she says, “the challenge was to get a group of strangers together that have come from different places and are going to have a life experience as first-year interns. There needed to be diversity but great chemistry.

“In ‘Friday Night Lights,’ the challenge was to pull together a group of people where nobody was a stranger, that felt like they were from a tiny town. The challenge there was to make it feel very real.”

Frank Moiselle — nommed along with his mother Nuala for “The Tudors” — says that after years of watching, well, everything, he can sometimes spot chemistry when the actor walks into the room. “There certainly is a ‘wow’ factor there. Some people just ooze chemistry and you know they’ll work well with other actors.”

That’s where a casting director’s own talent and experience come into play. “It’s a difficult thing to quantify or give a substantive test for,” Moiselle says. “But there’s an inner spirit or a soul. You say that guy or girl is really good, they’re going to click with that group. You know it when you see it.”

With the growth of cable and the shrinkage of the network audience, casting is ever more difficult.

There are more shows, therefore more competition for actors, so casting directors have to cast a much wider net, getting to know actors literally from around the world. Budgets are tight, which encourages casting of unknowns — or at least actors with low quotes.

Casting directors always have their finds, though, and budget pressures sometimes mean they can get their finds on a show even without a long Hollywood resume.

Jeannie Bacharach, who casts “Brothers and Sisters” with Gillian O’Neill, recounts how Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, little-known in Hollywood, got the part of Kevin Walker on the show.

“I tested him on a pilot a couple of years ago that he didn’t get and went back to London. He happened to come back into town right as we were trying to recast the role. On this show, he’s our golden nugget, our great find.”

When an actor fits the part, afterwards the casting may look obvious. Frequently, though, it’s the casting director who finds someone unexpected to fit in the part.

The “Weeds” team of Anya Colloff and Amy Britt had a challenge with the role of Doug Wilson, which eventually went to Kevin Nealon. “That role was open and we read a lot of different types of guys,” Colloff says. “Kevin just came in, and it was pretty magical.”

With all this going on, Britt says that casting directors receive much more respect than they did 15 years ago when she started, and that has become especially true over the past five years.

“Casting directors used to be buried in the end titles somewhere. The change has come by leaps and bounds. It’s nice, and not just because I’m in it. We’re an integral part of the process.”

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more