Playing a guest role on a TV show can be one of the most difficult acting jobs: While series regulars have the luxury of building a role over time, a guest star has to drop in and create a fully fledged character, sometimes with only a few lines.
Dawn Steinberg, executive VP of Talent and Casting at Sony Pictures Television, which produces such shows as “The Blacklist” and “Masters of Sex,” compares it to visiting a household. “You’re walking into a family dinner, the table has already been set,” she notes. “And it’s your job to sit at the table and pass the turkey, pass the vegetables, and fit in. Whether you’re the villain, the good guy, the uncle, the aunt, the doctor, the lawyer, your job is to fit in with an already established cast, and that’s really hard.”
Even when a recognizable name is cast in a role, one of the most important factors is that they not distract from the show. Steinberg says that on “The Blacklist,” actors must be able to hold their own opposite James Spader’s brilliant former agent Raymond “Red” Reddington.
“We have a saying on ‘The Blacklist,’ and that is: All roads lead to Red,” she says. “That actor has to be really up to the task of having scenes with James Spader. And we never want to overshadow the storyline and the world we are creating. You want the actor to disappear into the role.”
Sometimes the right actor is a recognizable face: Comedian Andrew “Dice” Clay was cast on “The Blacklist” as a plastic surgeon after his representation pitched him to the show. “He had just come out in the Woody Allen movie, he was in New York where the show shoots, and it all happened very organically,” Steinberg says. “A couple of us were nervous that he might take away from the show, but it really worked.”
(Illustration by Wesley Allsbrook for Variety)
CBS’ “The Good Wife” has certainly seen its share of famous faces — star Julianna Margulies jokes that “it’s rare when I show up to set and am working with less than two Tony Award winners.” Creators and executive producers Robert King and Michelle King say casting comes about in several different ways. “Sometimes they come to us,” the Kings tell Variety in an email. “Or Julianna meets a friend at a party — Matthew Perry — and asks him to come on board. Or our casting director, Mark Saks, sees an actor in a play and asks him to do an episode or two with us. And sometimes we write with an actor in mind (Michael J. Fox).”
Some of their casting coups in the first season included Denis O’Hare as a liberal judge and Martha Plimpton as a pregnant lawyer. “We’ve been so lucky in casting since then, it’s hard to talk about any specific coup,” they note. “I am amazed at the actors we get.”
Carrie Audino and Laura Schiff are the Emmy-winning casting directors tasked with populating Don Draper’s world on “Mad Men.” “We don’t ever cast for the sake of fame,” says Audino. “But sometimes there are people who are famous who are right for the part.”
Neve Campbell appeared in the season seven premiere as a woman who flirts with Don Draper on a flight. “Neve was just right for it,” she says. “She wanted to do the show, and it was a perfect confluence of things coming together.” Schiff says it was a similar situation when the pair cast Julia Ormond as Megan Draper’s mother — a role that nabbed her an Emmy nomination.
Though “Modern Family” has certainly had its share of big names drop by, Emmy-winning casting director Jeff Greenberg says they’ve since become more selective. “Early days in the series, we had a lot of names on, and there was kind of a backlash, like, oh, is this turning into ‘Will and Grace?’“ he admits. “The show didn’t need to rely on guest stars, and we really want to choose the right person for the part.”
Recent episodes have seen Fred Willard as Phil Dunphy’s equally guileless father, and a trio of hilarious comics — Fred Armisen, Stephen Merchant and Patton Oswalt. The role of a butler was offered to Merchant, but while the show dealt with his visa problems, a list of alternate names was made up that included Armisen. Someone mentioned that Armisen would be perfect for another role in the same episode, so he was ultimately cast as an ex-boyfriend of Mitchell’s.
Because “Modern Family” is such a hit, Greenberg admits there is no shortage of names looking to be cast, but the writers don’t write for an actor. “Jesse Eisenberg had been very proactive about saying he’d like to do the show when he ran into people and having his agent check in,” Greenberg notes. “And we finally found the perfect role for him as Mitch and Cam’s neighbor, and he was wonderful.”
With “Mad Men,” every actor — no matter how famous — must audition. And it’s become common for an actor to not book a role, but be called back again and eventually land the right part. Take Harry Hamlin, who earned an Emmy nod for his turn as ad exec Jim Cutler. “We brought him in for a different part at first,” Schiff reveals. “And Matt Weiner said, ‘I think I have something for him coming up. Keep him in mind for Cutler.’ So we did.”
Of course, the highest compliment is when a guest star becomes a series regular. The key to being asked back? “Doing a job well, having good chemistry, and really contributing,” Steinberg says. Amir Arison, who plays computer specialist Aram Mojtabai on “The Blacklist,” was recently promoted to series regular. “He was brought on as just a guest star, and the producers kept writing him in,” Steinberg enthuses. “I love that. I love when good actors get their shot.”