Reality casting is its own drama

NOTHING RUINS an unscripted TV show faster than a participant who is clearly playing to the cameras, preoccupied with how his or her “character” will be perceived while dreaming about parlaying an “Omarosa moment” into an extended lease on those 15 minutes of fame.

So who better to help sift through candidates — stripping out psychopaths, plotters and poseurs — than someone who walked a mile in their shoes?

Jason Cornwell got a taste of being on camera in his 20s on MTV’s “The Real World: Boston.” Now 36, he’s part of the relatively small fraternity of casting directors specializing in reality TV, which truly qualifies as a life more (or less) real.

After his “Real World” experience, Cornwell segued into a casting gig and began working his way through various shows, casting “Beauty and the Geek,” “Black. White.,” VH1′s “Tough Love” and TV Land’s upcoming “First Love, Second Chance,” which offers one-time high-school sweethearts an opportunity to reconnect years later — and reunites Cornwell with producer Andrew Hoegl, who found him for his “Real World” stint.

The politics of reality casting also seem more significant lately, what with “America’s Next Top Model” hopefuls stampeding at an open audition a la “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and programs increasingly employing bait-and-switch tactics to punk contestants, such as ABC’s “True Beauty” or NBC’s “Howie Do It.”

GENERALLY VIEWED with a mix of typical celebrity adulation and thinly veiled disdain, reality TV’s raw materials are attractively malleable, sort of like the wind-up humans in Fox’s “Dollhouse.” But because of their eagerness to be “discovered,” producers run the risk of being manipulated as well.

Moreover, as participants become increasingly media-fluent they’re not above hitting back, from hiring personal publicists to lashing out via the Web to defend themselves, as Jessica Haraszkiewicz of Oxygen’s “Pretty Wicked” has done — charging that she was “deceived” about the premise and told the show would air on NBC. In addition to griping to a hometown Michigan paper, she used her blog to alter Oxygen’s “Live out loud” slogan, deleting the “V.”

Having been on both sides — and never particularly comfortablewith his fleeting taste of celebrity — Cornwell brings a different perspective to the process. The goal when casting for reality is to “find people that can’t help but be themselves,” he said, while acknowledging that the growing sophistication of these would-be stars has complicated matters.

“The younger they are, the more savvy they are,” Cornwell said, noting that he appeared on “Real World” before “Survivor” caused modern incarnations of reality to proliferate like a computer worm. Today, those casting such high-profile series must assume that “99.9% of people (applying) have watched a lot of reality shows” and are students of the genre.

SO WHAT ABOUT those that will do anything, including misleading producers, to get on TV? “We try to weed them out,” Cornwell said, conceding, “We have been fooled before. It happens.”

Yet Cornwell also feels a strong obligation toward the aspirants. “I’ve definitely advised people, ‘I don’t think this show is right for you’ … thinking it wasn’t a good fit emotionally (or) that this person can’t handle any type of fame,” he said.

Regarding those who do get chosen, he urges them to “Never, ever read anything that’s written about you” and offers warnings about “how much the editing process can change what you think you presented.”

Although I have my quibbles about reality TV’s nagging and increasingly prevalent sense of unreality, it has undeniably graduated from a novelty when “The Real World” began to an entrenched primetime staple. Assuming its inevitability, then, you hope the people deciding who makes the cut are vigilant about anticipating problems and avoiding a “Network”-style calamity, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.

Hoegl called Cornwell’s behind-the-scenes career path unusual, saying of reality contestants, “Most people are there because they’re exhibitionists. Their place they feel is in front of the camera.”

“It’s a small club,” Hoegl added, and for those yearning to gain membership, Cornwell “can explain it in a way that few others can.”

A small club, true, but the list keeps growing. And growing.

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