Those who cast unscripted series often have thousands of audition tapes to pore through. Since the medium requires a diversity of perspective and personality, but not always special skills, what often catches the eye and helps one rise to the top of the pile is being an “open book,” says Goloka Bolte, co-founder of the Casting Firm, who casts “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” This willingness to share one’s true self can help make stars — or at least social-media sensations. Therefore, honesty and authenticity were two key traits for which all of this year’s Emmy-nominees in the reality program casting looked.
Born This Way
Casting “Born This Way,” a series that follows adults within the Down syndrome community, required trust from that community before anything else, says casting director Sasha Alpert. Now with a few seasons under their belt, Alpert and fellow casting directors Megan Sleeper and Caitlyn Audet are “still looking for people that are dynamic, articulate and have a lot going on in their lives.” It is often a lengthy process to find the right participants, partially because they are casting families, which means making sure multiple people are emotionally articulate and willing to have their lives broadcast to millions. And since the show is interview-heavy, Alpert adds they “looked for people that were uninhibited on camera.” Finding people who knew how to solve problems together became the sweet spot: “They know how to get into an argument and work through it, not just walk out the door and never be seen again,” Alpert says.
Love Is Blind
The new dating series needed people who were not only passionate about finding love and ready to walk down the aisle, but also those who were vocally very expressive. The series relied on each of the singles cast to purely communicate orally for the first half of the show, as they sat in isolated pods making connections through a wall. “If someone didn’t want to talk about love for four hours, they probably won’t make it through,” says casting director Donna Driscoll. The casting team of Driscoll, Kelly Zack Castillo and Megan Feldman also gravitated toward people who had a good sense of self. Driscoll notes: “It was about people who wear their hearts on their sleeve and have self-acceptance. You can get a good sense of a person, especially when you’re talking about their past and their future through that.”
When looking for new “heroes” on whom to center episodes of the self-improvement series, casting director Danielle Gervais says they “never want to tell the same story twice.” It helps that new seasons bring the Fab Five to fresh locations, and Gervais’ team of Beyhan Oguz and Pamela Vallarelli also includes location casting directors Ally Capriotti Grant and Hana Sakata. They undergo an extensive research process to look for compelling stories, not just those with the possibility for dramatic physical transformations. “We talk to individuals over Skype, and you’re peeling back the layers and seeing this kid has been through so much,” Gervais says. Some may still have walls up during the interview stage, so there is a bit of instinct involved in who will open even further once embraced (usually literally) by the Fab Five.
RuPaul’s Drag Race
As the popularity of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” continues to soar every season, the challenge is poring over an ever-increasing number of submissions, in addition to proactively searching for new talent year-round, whether it’s going to drag shows or watching YouTube. Through it all, Ethan Petersen, co-founder of the Casting Firm and casting director of “Drag Race,” says he and Bolte are always on the lookout for queens that have a great story, but “authenticity is truly the key.” After all, the success of the show relies on the connection between the audience and the queens. “They have to be amazing storytellers because they’re narrating the show,” says Petersen.
Supervising casting producer Michelle McNulty, who has been on the broadcast competition series since 2011, still listens to a potential contestant’s singing voice first and foremost. “When you’re singing and telling a story, your emotions are coming through, and you can almost get their story and their character based on their voice,” she says. Once the voice stands out, McNulty and casting producers Holly Dale and Courtney Burns look for the diamonds in the rough — those who would truly benefit from the coaching experience the show provides in order to finesse their sound and reach the next level of being a recording artist.