×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Reality Show Casting Joins Social-Media Age but Human Judgment’s Still Key

Since the earliest days of Hollywood, aspiring actors have auditioned for their big break, while casting agents have pored over headshots and scoured résumés. But there’s one notable arena of screen appearances where the casts being sought aren’t trained thespians but everyday people — the world of reality TV.

For casting agents, finding the right individuals for unscripted shows, which live or die on the strength of their real-life ensembles, is no easy task.

Robyn Kass has been one of the industry’s most respected reality casting agents since the genre exploded with the arrival of megahits like “Survivor” and “Big Brother,” both of which premiered their U.S. versions on CBS in 2000. Kass was involved with the two shows almost from the beginning. The network recently renewed “Survivor” for additional seasons; “Big Brother” will premiere its 20th season on June 27.

Earlier, Kass had been casting relationship shows such as “ElimiDate” and “The Big Date.” Producers fine-tuning the concept of modern reality turned to her, hoping to use her experience to find dynamic real-world nonactors. “When reality first appeared, it was natural to go to people like me who knew how to form relationships with real people and to get them to tell me about their lives,” she remembers.

In those days the internet was in its infancy, and finding fresh faces wasn’t as straightforward as simply browsing the web. “We walked the streets of Santa Monica or went to nightclubs and bars, talking to people we saw and asking for their phone numbers,” she says. Auditions, meanwhile, were similarly quaint: Folks would mail in videos to prove their mettle. Kass recalls receiving “hundreds and hundreds of packages with letters and VHS tapes” from “Big Brother” hopefuls.

Lynne Spillman vividly remembers those days as well. She was the casting director on the first seasons of “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race” — another CBS reality juggernaut that began airing in 2001. “We used to say making and sending those videos was harder than actually being on the show,” she laughs.

Today, digital processes have become the norm for reality shows; anyone who wants to audition for an unscripted TV program can do so online. It can be as simple as posting a YouTube video. “It’s way easier,” Spillman says. “On the one hand that’s great, because anyone can do it and we get a bigger range of people. On the other hand, we’ve made it so easy that it’s no longer a hoop to jump through. And being on these shows is hard.”

Over the past few years, Kass says, the rise of social media in particular has completely altered the nature of the job — in ways both good and bad. “Before, we would fly out of state to interview contestants. Now we can Skype them in. It’s so easy to get hold of people or to go on social media and find interesting stories or experiences. It has opened up the world to us.”

“I look at their room. I look at their house. I look at all the things they’re not expecting me to.”
Lynne Spillman

Kass has a team of casting agents trawling through Instagram around the clock for people who pique their curiosity — though not everything they find is necessarily what it seems. “Boy, oh boy, do those millennials know how to use filters,” Kass marvels. “On the internet you can post the best of yourself. You’ll see and read just the highlights — and when we meet these people sometimes their life isn’t as interesting as it looked online.” She likens the process to using a dating app: Attractive pictures and a well-worded profile may be a positive sign, but often that leads to disappointment when it comes time to sit and talk face-to-face. Yet thanks to an elaborate vetting process, Kass is able to root out misleading candidates.

Spillman encounters much the same problem when she’s going through submissions for contestants on “The Amazing Race.” “What’s tricky is that because of technology, it’s really easy these days for people to make a fantastic tape with music and quick cuts,” she explains. “People can fool you. They can make a great tape, but that’s not who they are.” So as a precautionary measure she relies on all the information she can glean from online profiles: “I look at their room. I look at their house. I look at all the things they’re not expecting me to.”

Ultimately, casting a good reality-TV show — before or after the advent of social media — comes down to the shrewd judgment of casting directors who know what to look for and can sense which individuals will make for the most exciting television. “Don’t forget: These are normal people, not actors,” Spillman says. For her, the key trait is simple: “They either pop or they don’t. End of story.”

More Artisans

  • Chile's Production Incentives Include New 30%

    Chile Incentives Pilot Program Aims to Draw Producers With 30% Rebate

    With over 2,500 miles of Pacific Ocean coastline, the long and narrow South American country of Chile encompasses a remarkable variety of weather patterns and landscapes. Filmmakers traveling there will discover that the Chilean Economic Development Agency in alliance with nation’s film commission recently launched what it calls a Pilot Program for High-Impact Audiovisual Investment [...]

  • Set di "Gomorra 3", regia di

    'My Brilliant Friend,' 'Gomorrah' Show Different Sides of Naples

    When Saverio Costanzo, the director of HBO and RAI’s “My Brilliant Friend,” started to plan how he would depict the grand but gritty city of Naples — one that’s so vivid in the imaginations of millions of Elena Ferrante readers, he quickly decided that the working-class neighborhood at the core of her four Neapolitan novels [...]

  • (L to R) SAMUEL L. JACKSON,

    How a Costume Designer Brightened M. Night Shyamalan's 'Glass'

    Paco Delgado’s costumes are as varied as his films. Contrast the drama “The Danish Girl,” the futuristic fantasy “A Wrinkle in Time” and the period musical “Les Misérables.” Now he’s in comic-book territory with M. Night Shyamalan’s newest superhero/supervillain thriller, “Glass,” which Universal releases Jan. 17. The costume designer’s career began in Barcelona and London, [...]

  • Bird Box

    Los Angeles On-Location Feature Filming Surges 12.2% in 2018

    On-location feature filming in Greater Los Angeles expanded impressively in 2018, gaining 12.2% to 4,377 shooting days, according to FilmL.A. Production activity for feature films rose 15.5% to 1,078 shooting days during the fourth quarter, with 146 days coming from projects receiving California tax credits — including Netflix’s “Bird Box,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a [...]

  • READY PLAYER ONE

    How Writer-Crew Collaborations Are Changing the Script for the Creative Process

    In traditional filmmaking, once a script is written, the director and department heads break it down and figure out the costs and logistics of production. But if the screenwriter collaborates during the creative process with key crew members, the entire production can benefit.  Such collaboration offers the prospect of help on many fronts. For example, [...]

  • avengers infinity war

    'Avengers,' 'Lost in Space,' 'Ready Player One' Lead Visual Effects Society Nominations

    The Visual Effects Society announced nominees for the organization’s 17th annual awards on Tuesday. Leading the way in the film and TV fields, respectively, were Marvel’s “Avengers: Infinity War” and Netflix’s “Lost in Space.” Each picked up six nominations. Pixar’s “Incredibles 2” received the most nominations among animated feature contenders with five. “Ready Player One” [...]

  • Dynasties BBC Vundu Pack

    Bush Guides, Night Cameras Help BBC America’s ‘Dynasties’ Catch Unique Moments

    Just getting to one of the locations of BBC America wildlife documentary series “Dynasties” — presented by David Attenborough and following the lives of endangered animals — requires an 11-hour flight from London to Johannesburg, a two-hour connection to Harare, Zimbabwe, an hourlong chartered Cessna 206 trip to Mana Pools National Park airstrip and an [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content