How COVID and Globalization Have Upended TV Casting: ‘Some of the Magic Has Been Lost’

This is the third installment of a five-part series examining the transformation of television as the industry prepares to celebrate the Primetime Emmy Awards on Sept. 19.

The pandemic has transformed the casting process – for now, at least – with Zoom actor tryouts largely replacing in-person sessions and self-taped auditions supplementing those as many of us hunkered down at home.

It’s not yet clear whether these virtual auditions are here to stay or will fade away once the global health crisis finally does. Casting pros and talent agents say there are clear benefits to virtual sessions conducted over video-conferencing platforms like Zoom but lament the lack of intimacy compared to in-person auditions.

In the short-term, however, many see these virtual auditions as having a big silver lining for Hollywood. When the pandemic shut down much of the industry in March 2020, Zoom enabled casting pros to broaden their reach further. Working-from-home, and not having to commute to offices or travel to meetings, they were able to see more actors than normal.

Barry McPherson, APA partner and co-head of talent, found that casting pros were seeing more actors during the early stages of the pandemic. “It was a captive audience, which was good for actors because there was more free time for executives to set up Zoom meetings and have more people on different projects,” says McPherson, whose agency represents “Reservation Dogs” star Paulina Alexis, Mel Gibson and Norbert Leo Butz.

It wasn’t just about seeing more actors, notes “The Handmaid’s Tale” casting director Sharon Bialy. “We are able to extend the scope and range of the search for actors for any given role promptly,” she tells Variety.

Sarah Finn found similar advantages when casting Disney Plus’ “The Mandalorian.” Virtual casting meant she was able to keep up with the volume and speed needed to cast the show, but more importantly, she was able to see a wider range of actors.

Television in Transition

Zoom and self-tape auditions have also enabled actors to get creative, transforming backgrounds and using props instead of taping against blank walls. They didn’t have to get it right on the first take, a luxury not afforded to actors during in-person auditions.

“Actors had the benefit of being able to record as many different versions of a scene as they wanted and have the ease and comfort of their own space which can breed a lot of creativity,” Finn says.

Robert Sterne, casting director of “The Crown” who won a Creative Arts Emmy over the weekend, says self-tapes are especially helpful on international projects. “It’s more inclusive economically as well as geographically,” he says. “In terms of opening more doors to a wider range of actors especially at a time when all the creative industries have been so beleaguered, it’s a force for good.”

But as casting professionals relied more on self-tapes and Zoom sessions during the pandemic, they began to note the inevitable downsides: bad lighting, unreliable internet connection and unprompted children and pets appearing. In a moment that went viral last November, a director trash-talked actor Lukas Gage’s apartment during a Zoom audition, not realizing the “Euphoria” and “White Lotus” actor could hear him. The actor posted a video of the awkward moment on Twitter, advising powers that be to make sure to mute their comments on Zoom meetings.

Awkwardness of virtual sessions aside, casting directors and talent agents miss in-person chemistry, and while some have tried to make the best of the Brady-Bunch style Zoom box to create rapport, it’s not the same, they lament.

“There is nothing better than being able to connect with an actor in person,” says Kim Williams, president, Casting Society of America, and VP casting, Disney Television Studios.

Buchwald talent agent Marion Campbell Kammer, whose company represents Kylie Jefferson (“Tiny Pretty Things”) and Bradley Constant (“Young Rock”), believes the pandemic has changed the casting process drastically. “It used to be that an actor would go into the room and read live for the casting director, producers, writer, and director,” she notes. “Being in the room gives the actor such a nice chance to connect with the creative team, talk to them, get to know them, and ultimately feel out their energy as they do the audition for them.”

The Zoom environment has been a difficult one to navigate for her clients, who include Judy Reyes (“Search Party,” “One Day at a Time”), Martin Sensmeier (“Yellowstone,” “The Liberator”), Ravi Patel (“American Housewife”) and Matthew Del Negro (“City on a Hill”).

“An actor can still chat with the team on zoom before they do the audition, but once they start the audition, everyone puts themselves on mute,” she notes. “The actor loses the opportunity to hear the reaction to the audition and I think that some of the magic of that process has been lost.”

Bialy concurs, lamenting “the opportunity to work with actors in the room and provide specific direction that we gleaned from in-depth conversations with the creators of the show. We have lost the ability to help shape each actor’s audition so the producers see their best take.”

Zoom auditions can be challenging, but at least there’s a level of interaction, however remote. “When it comes to self-tapes, it’s impossible to know if the audition is along the lines of what the creatives are looking for because, without proper guidance and feedback from a casting director, the actor is in the dark,” Kammer says.

As the return to in-person slowly emerges, there is hope for a hybrid of in-person and virtual sessions, especially since the latter affords more access and greater choice, as opposed to the limited accessibility of in-person. But Julie Harkin, who cast HBO’s “I May Destroy You,” says for all its efficiency, the self-tape “will never compete with the power of ‘in person’ meets — you get a much deeper understanding of the actor which enables the casting director to place them in the right role.”

And while the world of casting has evolved over the years, Kim Taylor-Coleman, Emmy-nominated this year for her work on “Lovecraft Country,” waxes nostalgic for hard copy submissions. “I would love opening up the 8×10 photos and reading everyone’s resumes. Something hard that I do not miss was editing auditions from Hi-8 tapes to VHS or CD’s. That was time-consuming.”