TV casting directors tell of delicate balancing acts
Discovering a kid who can belt it out like Jennifer Hudson; finding an actor who has an Eliot Spitzer-like bad-boy attraction; or digging up a young talent who gives off the vibes of a 150-year-old vampire. These are just a few of the challenges facing TV casting directors. Success is a result of skilled observations, grueling searches and just plain luck.
In casting “Modern Family,” Jeff Greenberg had to ensure that the 10 series regulars possessed a shared chemistry, a strong familial sense. “We slowly, carefully put it together,” Greenberg explains. “When you’re casting a family, the key is that you believe that the siblings all came from the same womb.”
The casting director, who has done around 35 pilots, reveals: “When you’re doing it, you never know if it’s going to come together in the final mix or not. This one came together, but it was very challenging.”
The hurdle for “Glee’s” Robert Ulrich was landing teens who could score the triple: act, dance, sing. “We were getting near the end of casting and we were really having a difficult time finding the Mercedes Jones character,” says Ulrich. “And (producer) Ryan Murphy wanted a big, big voice.”
Ulrich was still struggling when a friend uttered that old cliche, “My girlfriend’s roommate can sing.” So when Amber Riley belted out “And I Am Telling You” from “Dreamgirls,” Ulrich knew stuff like this really happens in Hollywood. “She sang two lines and I thought, ‘This girl is going to get this part.’ ”
In the early days of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,”casting director Richard Hicks would troll L.A. comedy clubs. “It was a little tough in the beginning,” explains Hicks, who cast the first three episodes. “We didn’t have people banging down the door to do ‘Curb.
And finding actors who were adept at improv was rough. The challenge was making sure that you got people who could deliver. Some people would come in and just freeze. That moment when you’re looking Larry David in the eye and he’s throwing you a curve ball, how you respond is a very from-the-gut process.”
Jennifer McNamara, who casts “30 Rock,” targeted New York improvs and comedy clubs like UCB and the Pit. She wearily recalls: “I spend many hours watching new and established talent. In New York, there’s a big community of up-and-coming comedians and standup improvs that I love.” McNamara, who works on both dramas and sitcoms, observes, “It’s hard for someone to be a good comedic actor. It’s hard to get the funny.”
Ripped from the headlines, “The Good Wife” mirrors the evening news and the familiar faces of Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards and Mark Sanford. “It’s what America sees everyday,” explains Mark Saks. “The challenge was how to make this believable in the cast I chose for this show. And the secret was finding the right guy in Chris Noth. Everyone doubted me when I put him on the list. But that role on ‘Sex and the City’ is iconic. You needed someone who could pull all that stuff together.”
Dexter” is what casting director Shawn Dawson calls a “casting juggling act. We tell an entire story in a season, so you’re dealing with actors’ availabilities. A character will be in episode three and then again in episode seven. You have to have great communication with agents, producers and writers and make sure that everybody you bring in is available when they want to bring that actor’s character back. That’s a hard thing with a show like this.”
In casting Stephen Moyer as vampire Bill Compton for “True Blood,” Libby Goldstein and Junie Lowry-Johnson searched for “an old soul with modern qualities.”
It was tricky,” says Johnson. “We had to find someone in his 30s that you believed was 150 years old, and Steve had that quietness, that stillness, an older quality. You could believe that he had been alive for 150 years that he had lived many lives. The fact that he’s British may have helped. Americans seem very modern.”
When Bruce Newberg started to cast the pilot for “The Closer,” network president Michael Wright told him, “You’re not casting the lead of a TV show, you’re casting the new face of TNT.” Newberg calls that challenge “daunting. To me, it meant movie star. It had to be a big get.”
Newberg immediately went for Kyra Sedgwick. “Every single person at the network and at Warner Bros. said, ‘You’re wasting your time. She’s never going to do it, Newberg recalls.”But parts like that don’t come up very often. Kevin Bacon was very encouraging for her to do it. But even when Kyra was interested, they still needed her to read for it. It was very difficult.”
Carrie Audino and Laura Schiff had different marching orders with “Mad Men.” They went for original casting. “(Producer) Matt Weiner wanted real people that felt authentic to the time period,” Audino recalls. “We had to cast a wider net and different types — people who don’t have much TVQ. When casting talent, if an actor is too recognizable, too associated with another TV role, it takes you out of the time period of the show.”