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Theater, Improv Backgrounds Help Build Emmy-Nominated Comedy Casts

Crafting an ensemble cast that has chemistry and serves a series takes experience and skill to a degree, but it can entail a healthy dose of risk-taking and finger-crossing as well.

When Jeanne McCarthy and Nicole Abellera first began assembling the cast of HBO’s Emmy-nominated “Silicon Valley,” show creator Mike Judge already had an idea about the types of actors he wanted to see in his fictional tech startup.

“Mike really knows this world,” McCarthy says. “It was great because (he) knows what’s authentic. (But) a lot of it is instinct. We were lucky that we were putting an ensemble together that could be populated with a lot of the people we have known from the comedy world for many years.”

Silicon Valley” — along with other outstanding comedy series Emmy nominees like “The Big Bang Theory,” “Modern Family,” “Orange Is the New Black” and “Veep” — rely on the strength of their ensembles to give their shows relatable humor and a depth of storytelling. Several of the acting nominees also come from strong ensembles, such as Ricky Gervais in “Derek,” Lena Dunham in “Girls” and Amy Poehler in “Parks and Recreation.”

Finding the right actors with the right backgrounds is always the key. Considering the shorter shooting schedules for TV, ensembles often can benefit from including actors with theater and improv backgrounds, such as Los Angeles’ the Groundlings and Chicago’s Second City.

“Orange Is the New Black” star Taylor Schilling, who attended graduate school at New York U., credits her classical theater training for where she is today. “Many of us have either been doing it for a very long time or a lot of us come from a pretty heavy theater background,” Schilling says. “So we’re really used to the idea of rehearsing, and your cast is like your crew. But the claustrophobic nature of the set itself certainly is conducive to getting really intimate.”

Life experience certainly factors heavily into an actor’s training. “I’ve spent the last five years just messing up everything I learned, then seeing what comes to the surface,” she says. “But I really do think that there’s something that comes with having a little bit more time in the world.”

Being skilled at improv was a consideration on “Silicon Valley,” even though the show is heavily scripted.

“Obviously, the Groundlings is the great training ground,” says McCarthy, who’s also worked on several projects with Judd Apatow. “We want actors who can go further after the printed dialogue is over. (That’s) where the gold is lots of times.”

“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” nominee Andre Braugher — who spent most of his career in drama up until his current sitcom — says he marvels at his co-stars when it comes to pushing for the humor and thinking on their feet. “It keeps me on my toes, number one, but also I get a laboratory in which I can see really accomplished comedians work on a daily basis,” he says. “Just the way they understand the script, the way that they deconstruct it, the way that they respond when it’s not funny. One of the lessons that I’ve learned from (“Saturday Night Live” alum) Andy Samberg is, ‘It’s not going to get any funnier in the editing room, so we have to make it funny right now.’”

Extensive training is critical when it comes to an actor’s ability to fit into an ensemble and adapt to the inevitable last-minute changes that happen to a script during production, which is why “Veep” casting director Pat Moran always asks actors to do a cold read.

“That way, your team doesn’t get caught with somebody who just managed do this one scene perfectly, and then falls apart at a later time,” she explains. “Any actor that I’m dealing with can take the script changes because they’ve auditioned ice cold.”
While “Veep” is built around a very recognizable leading lady, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Silicon Valley’s” cast comprises less-familiar faces by design.

“We never really talked about going to a well-known actor,” McCarthy says. “I don’t think Mike ever felt like that was the right way to do this. We always felt like we had to find people who were true to the world. You want relatable, but not relatable in a familiar way.”

A successful ensemble is always about the individual parts, but those parts extend way beyond the actors in the project.
“It’s very important, in an ensemble piece, (that) every person in that frame is significant,” she says. “Every person that says a few lines, they must not look like a sore thumb. It all has to relate to the ensemble. Also, there are two kinds of shows, ones
that are happy and ones that aren’t. This is a definite happy show. Beyond what we’re seeing on screen is the ensemble behind the cameras.”

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