Casting pros face frenzy of slots to fill

With so many new characters, craziness ensues

Before Dr. Gregory House met the applicants competing to fill three open positions on his medical team, casting directors Stephanie Laffin and Amy Lippens needed to find actors for the roles — 30 of them.

“We wanted to cast people who would work together, but also be very distinctive and different and individualistic so they could fill the roles that were created,” Lippens says of the requirements for a “House” story arc that started with the season’s first episode. “It was an extremely big challenge because we didn’t get to start that much ahead of time. We saw all types of actors in a very short period of time.”

While finding the 30 candidates was the show’s high-water mark for a single episode this season, it’s not unusual for doctor or lawyer skeins to have dozens, even hundreds, of guest-star spots to fill every year.

“Episodic television is extremely taxing for a casting director,” says “ER” veteran John Levey, who has cast every patient, physician and paramedic who has come through the doors at County General Hospital. “When you’re finished with one episode, you go ‘Yea!’ But the next thing you say is, ‘Shit,’ because you’re a little bit behind on the next one.”

While the number of speaking guest parts on “ER” is about half of what it once was — Levey filled about a dozen new roles every week this past season — finding the right actor for each part remains a constant challenge.

“I liken the casting process to sort of making a mobile,” says the four-time Emmy winner (two for “ER,” two for “The West Wing”). “Once you hang a certain (piece) from the crossbar, it gives you a sense of what you need to balance it.”

Here comes the judge

Ken Miller and Nikki Valko did some assembly work of their own this season on “Boston Legal” in putting together nine justices for the Supreme Court, where Alan Shore went to argue a death-penalty case. That episode presented some interesting challenges for the casting tandem.

“We had to find actors who not only resembled the sitting justices, but ones who could also sound right and carry the importance that they needed to bring to the bench,” Miller says.

On occasion, series creator David E. Kelley will write a role with a specific actor in mind, but finding the best person for the part is generally left to Miller and Valko, who previously have been recognized with Emmy noms for “Boston Legal” and “Malcolm in the Middle” as well as a statuette for “Ally McBeal.”

“There have been a couple instances where we couldn’t get the actor the role was written for, and then it’s up to us to find the next best choice and hopefully deliver,” Miller says.

The actors who fill those guest parts can literally come from anywhere.

“As the saying goes, we’re in a city of actors,” says Laffin, a past Emmy nominee for “House” who is constantly on the lookout for people who could potentially fill the show’s guest roles. (Her partner, Lippens, is a four-time Emmy nominee, twice for “Once and Again” and twice for “House.”)

“We always want to tell the truth of the story,” Laffin adds. “If we can walk away at the end of the day and say we did it to the best of our ability, that’s what we’re looking to do.”

So, with an abundance of roles to fill, do medical and legal dramas have an advantage over other genres in the Emmy guest-star category? Not necessarily.

“The leg up is when you have a really well-written role that makes you stand out in a field of very talented actors,” Miller says.

Levey agrees. “Good shows have the advantage,” he says. “While casting is not easy work, there’s an advantage to working on quality material. It’s that way in any field.”

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