Broadway vets in smallscreen casting pool
For New York theater actors looking to score a TV gig, “Law & Order” used to be the great shining hope. And for a long time, it was the only game in town.
The recent five-year renewal of New York City’s film production tax credits have helped make Gotham an economically friendly place to shoot a tube skein. With a record 23 shows — from “The Good Wife” to “30 Rock” to Broadway-centric “Smash” — filming in the city this season, the burg’s stage thesps are suddenly hot commodities.
“Here we are, sitting in New York with all these brilliant actors, and we feel like we have this unfound treasure chest,” says Ross Meyerson, who with Julie Tucker casts Showtime series “Nurse Jackie,” and has worked on New York-set series including “Damages,” “White Collar” and “Rescue Me.” “A lot of times producers and directors come out from L.A. and they feel like they’ve entered a new playground.”
For stage actors in New York, where a baseline Off Broadway salary can be as low as $539 a week, a guest spot on TV can be a welcome uptick in income. Should a thesp score a more prominent starring gig, the resulting profile boost can help that actor generate further projects both onstage and onscreen.
Legit agents admit that, among some TV producers, directors and casting execs, there remains a lingering stigma to stage actors, particularly musical-theater types, pigeonholed as broad, jazz-hands performers who play everything way too big for camera work.
But there’s also a coterie of TV creatives who find plenty of reasons to dip in the stage-thesp pool.
“It’s talent with depth, and they can deliver that in a 10-minute scene,” says Bernard Telsey, topper of casting agency Telsey + Co., which works both on Broadway (“Rent,” “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”) and in TV (“Smash,” “The Big C”). “Even if it’s a tiny role, it’s somebody who was doing ‘The Cherry Orchard’ at MCC, or a new play at the Atlantic.”
For shows focused on singing and dancing like “Smash” and “Glee” — which counts Broadway babies Matthew Morrison and Lea Michele among its lead cast — it only makes sense to draw on the city’s supply of triple threats.
” ‘Smash’ gets unbelievable singers for the big musical numbers in the show,” Telsey says. “And I can give dancers, for example, two episodes with musical numbers that will supplement their unemployment (insurance), or the paychecks from the shows that they’re doing at night.”
Now heading into its third season, “Good Wife” has become one of the city’s more prominent employers of stage talent. Upcoming segs include stints from Bill Heck, Nina Arianda, Michael Arden and Brian Murray, among names that will be familiar to legit fans but not TV viewers.
“This is a show that takes place mostly in courtrooms and conference rooms, and it’s really about the words,” says “Good Wife” casting director Mark Saks. “So you go after theater actors, who you know can handle that kind of language.”
There can be hurdles. Some thesps who work primarily onstage can be unfamiliar with the accelerated pace of TV production. Tucker notes that for legit auditions, she sometimes works with an actor for 15 minutes, whereas for TV it’s more like 30 seconds.
“It’s really fast,” she says. “The experience of making choices based on reading a full script just isn’t possible.”
Then there’s the legit grind of the eight-show-a-week performance sked, which has to be accommodated for a hectic TV shoot.
“That’s a very big difference between the theater in Los Angeles and the theater in New York,” says “Blue Bloods” co-exec producer Michael Pressman, who’s hired Kelli O’Hara and Gregory Jbara as well as Will Chase and Laila Robins on the CBS police procedural, which is toplined by Broadway vet Len Cariou. “As soon as someone gets a paying job in L.A., they’ll get out of a play. In New York, you’re forced to work around an actor’s schedule because the theater comes first. That’s why they’re here.”
Grace Wu, exec VP of casting at NBC, agrees that scheduling for employed Rialto thesps can be tricky, but sometimes a series wants a specific stage actor.
“Tina Fey in particular is a fan of New York theater,” she says. “Tina had told our casting director that she’d seen Cheyenne Jackson in a show and she wanted to write a part for him.” The Broadway fave (“Xanadu,” “Finian’s Rainbow”) started a recurring gig on “30 Rock” in 2009.
Wu adds that the Gotham talent pool just looks different from the L.A. acting community.
“There’s an interesting ethnic mix there that you don’t always find in L.A.,” she says. “You’ve got more of the Nuyorican mix, and the Caribbean immigrants. When I think of New York, I always think of great, interesting faces.”
The benefits of casting stage vets is obvious on the smallscreen, according to those who embrace legiters.
“You watch ‘The Good Wife,’ and everybody is so fucking good on that show,” Telsey says of a skein with which he’s not affiliated. “Look at Montego Glover, the Tony-nominated star of ‘Memphis,’ doing five lines in the jury box!”