Shows elevate when ensembles gel

Chemistry is mysterious but key to a winning cast

It’s somewhat curious that among the scores of Emmys handed out, there’s no category for top ensemble. As opposed to individual acting kudos, it’s a nod to a group of actors all working in tandem with one another to produce a resonant and organic piece of entertainment.

Steve Levitan, exec producer of “Modern Family,” ABC’s hit sitcom that won the comedy series Emmy and the Screen Actors Guild Award for comedy series ensemble, doesn’t want to tell the Emmy people how to run their kudocast. However …

“I will say that the SAG Award meant a lot to the cast. It was the one award they all wanted,” Levitan says. “It’s nice in that it acknowledges that in many good shows, certain roles tend to be showier, but actors can be featured in a way that’s not as showy when their performances may be just as outstanding.”

Talk to showrunners about the exigencies of the casting process, of nailing down amongst a disparate group of actors with a variety of performance styles that elusive entity known as palpable chemistry, and the word that invariably pops up is “lucky.”

“We got very lucky,” recalls Levitan, noting that his casting director auditioned 1,400 actors and ignored ABC’s advice to hire a “qualified, very funny actress who had a Brooklyn accent, which didn’t make sense” for Julie Bowen’s role.

“That you have chemistry with everyone else is a little bit of luck,” agrees Ray Romano, co-creator/star of TNT’s “Men of a Certain Age.” “You see that someone brings something even more to what was on the page.”

Luck must have also played a role when it came to casting a handful of shows on broadcast and cable. There’s “Treme,” David Simon’s sprawling HBO epic of post-Katrina New Orleans, boasting a gumbo stew of performers as raucously diverse as any Mardi Gras crowd; AMC’s “Mad Men,” whose actors crisply delineate the mores of the ’60s; HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” whose cast brings the Roaring ’20s to vivid, debauchery-riddled life; CBS’ “The Good Wife,” where actors deftly shift from legal procedural to smartly soapy character drama; Fox’s “Glee,” whose diverse cast not only veers from high drama to low comedy, but also belts out iTunes hits in between; and NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” and “Community,” where the talent trucks in snark and heart with equal ebullience.

Of course, those are only a few where the casts are in unison with one another and work off of each other’s strengths.

Romano’s “Men of a Certain Age” also boasts chemistry that extends from the three leads to the supporting roles, even though Romano admits that neither Andre Braugher nor Scott Bakula were on his radar when casting commenced. Braugher’s role was to go to Wendell Pierce until he got a role on HBO’s “Treme.”

“Our biggest concern was, can he do comedy?” Romano recalls. “We searched and found maybe one scene he had done that was a little glib. But we said, ‘Let’s go with the best actor in the room.’ And it paid off. His comedy’s even better because he doesn’t fall back on the usual comedy rules of rhythm. As much as he intimidated me onscreen, it’s believable that we’ve been buddies since college. He’s a regular guy, just with a bigger vocabulary.”

Speaking of “Treme,” its individual players — who range from an Oscar winner (Melissa Leo) to veterans of previous Simon productions (Pierce, Khandi Alexander, Clarke Peters) to a passel of professional musicians and neophyte actors (Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, Lucia Micarelli) — interact with one another in a thoroughly naturalistic manner.

Real musicians were necessary because “Treme” shoots and records its musical performances live on set, Simon says. Director Spike Lee recommended LeBlanc, a Katrina survivor, to Simon after interviewing her for his documentary “When the Levees Broke.”

“It was a leap of faith, but if we could get her to be as direct, as blunt, as exuberant as she was in the documentary, if you can harness that, she could be great,” Simon recalls.

Of Micarelli, a Juilliard-trained classical violinist, Simon enthuses, “How is she not America’s sweetheart? She has a great natural gift.”

He adds that a cousin asked him, assuming she was an actress, if she really could play violin, and suggests that acting comes more naturally to her than playing in the gritty, earthy style of New Orleans music.

“You can’t ask people who aren’t actors to do what actors do,” Simon continues. “When you say, ‘Be yourself,’ that’s the most loaded thing to say to a non-actor. It has its drawbacks sometimes — you have to write or edit around them — but it helps in more ways than it hurts.

“The secret benefit is that when putting trained actors among the real people you’re trying to depict, it elevates their game. They put their Hollywood presumptions behind. It leavens the performances of everyone.”

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