Casting director Robert Ulrich is responsible for nearly every character in “Glee’s” 100-episode history. For each of these actors, the first stop was a meeting with Ulrich and his associates in a tiny office.
“They come in and sing five feet from me,” Ulrich says. “We have laid down little mats so they have a dance floor.”
Audiences were treated to an inside look at the show’s casting process thanks to Oxygen’s two-season reality series “The Glee Project.” Through this process, Ulrich discovered current cast members Blake Jenner and Alex Newell, along with a handful of guest actors. The series expanded beyond Ulrich’s tiny office, but it still reflected “Glee’s” casting process.
“ ‘The Glee Project’ was really an extension of the casting of ‘Glee.’ We were looking for the same kind of people,” Ulrich says.
Even when “Glee’s” characters are written first and cast later, the actors’ idiosyncrasies and personalities can shape the roles. Kevin McHale loves hip-hop, and now, Artie Abrams is the glee club’s go-to rapper for numbers like “Billionaire” and “Friday.”
“I would always rap with friends as a joke, never serious at all. The writers took advantage of that and made me rap,” McHale says. “I would never feel comfortable putting out a rap song myself, but because it’s a character, you can get away with more.”
If acting and singing (or rapping) are the two most essential skills of a “Glee” cast member, dancing is the third skill. The show’s choreographers feel free to challenge vets such as Harry Shum Jr., Heather Morris, Becca Tobin and Jacob Artist.
“Jacob was doing backflips, more than we’d ever seen,” says Brooke Lipton, a choreographer on the show since the pilot. “We will ask, ‘Can you, will you do flips like this for six hours?’ It’s a lot on your body.”
While still offering feedback and guidance, the choreographers often gave Shum the space to improvise.
“When (choreographers) set boundaries but also allow the performers to escape and think outside the box, that’s when you can come up with something special,” Shum says. “When everything is specific, it becomes robotic.”
Although many of the show’s actors began the series with little formal dance training, they all have a unique style to be uncovered, Lipton says. While choreographing for a show like “Glee” might be theoretically easier with a “whole lot of Heathers and Harrys,” the passion of a performance is what matters most.
“Cory Monteith (who played Finn)wasn’t our strongest dancer, but he was one of our strongest performers. He sold everything,” Lipton says. “The cast owns who they are in their bodies, and they own movement, and that it was what makes it beautiful.”