In the Casting Room: Casting Directors Share the Secrets Behind Their Emmy-Winning Success
Network leaders at CBS created the 2015 sitcom The Odd Couple around Friends star Matthew Perry because he always wanted to play the role of laid-back and untidy Oscar Madison. The first challenge the casting directors faced was finding someone to play Oscar’s assistant.
One actress they had in mind was known for being sarcastic, while another was known for having a hard edge. But neither actress would work—those two traits were already covered in Oscar’s character.
“We needed someone who brought a different tone,” says producer Bob Daily.
They eventually found the right fit in Yvette Nicole Brown, who perfectly balanced Oscar’s pessimism and sarcasm with her optimism and positivity.
Casting for television bears a striking resemblance to building a collaborative, dedicated and cohesive team. Several team-building tactics are at play in both situations, from taking into account how different personalities will mesh to trusting your gut and having an open mind.
Related: John C. Maxwell: Create Opportunity
Whether it means keeping talented people on the back burner for future reference or vying for an unknown underdog, many of the talent scouts behind TV hits have mastered the art of putting together the perfect team.
Here, three veteran casting directors discuss the challenges they have faced and share tactics for overcoming them.
By learning from their experiences and following these five strategies, you can be well on your way to building the perfect team as well. Claudia Lyon is the vice president of talent and casting for ABC Entertainment Group and has overseen casting for shows such as Criminal Minds and Scandal. Veteran producer Bob Daily has worked on hits such as Frasier and Desperate Housewives. And Jeff Greenberg, one of the entertainment industry’s most successful and awarded casting directors, with 13 Emmy nominations (one of which he won), has worked with shows such as Cheers and Modern Family.
1. Keep an Open Mind.
Whether adding to an existing team or starting one from scratch, you are most likely incorporating many of the same strategies as casting directors. Before anything else, be sure to approach the situation with a fresh, open mind. Think about how different people with different backgrounds, personalities and experiences can positively add to the overall culture.
Keeping an open mind can help ensure you’re pulling together people who will feed off of each other’s positive qualities and succeed as a group.
“The majority of shows start with a clean slate,” Lyon says. “The show-runner has an idea and characters, but unless the project comes with talent attached to it, we start from scratch. Sometimes you come in with people who are close to the prototype, but sometimes you are able to bring in someone you wouldn’t think would work but who makes it so special you work around it.”
In recent years, many networks have begun emphasizing the importance of bringing more diversity to mainstream TV. In fact, some talent showcases (events held by networks such as ABC to pluck up-and-coming actors from the masses) specifically target minority actors. Being open to diversity in casting—and in your team—means you will have the best possible person, regardless of age, gender or race.
“In the past 15 years, there has been a change in diversity in casting, and you see a lot of colorblind casting,” Lyon says. “When the producers send out casting breakdowns of all characters, in the past the ethnicity was written in, but now it often says to ‘submit all.’ It’s a wonderful time to be casting.”
Daily also looks for another type of diversity when filling roles. “It sounds New Age-y and California-y, but one thing I’m looking for is a person who brings a different kind of energy to the ensemble,” he says.
In keeping an open mind, casting directors also try not to pigeonhole the character they are casting and instead look at the big picture. When building a team, you may want to do the same; just because someone doesn’t fit a set “mold” doesn’t mean he or she isn’t the right fit.
“In the casting process, you know the character you want, but you have to be open to reinterpreting the character based on what you get,” Daily says. “It’s important to be open and flexible in what you are looking for. You never find the person you have in your head, so you have to look at the actor to see what they bring.”
“Think about how different people with different backgrounds, personalities and experiences can positively add to the overall culture.”
For Lyon, staying in touch with what’s happening in her industry is also an integral step in selecting the perfect cast for a show. You need to know who’s popping before the corn hits the oil.
“I read a lot of magazines and I love pop culture, so I find what seem to be the most interesting things that are happening,” she says. “So much of what we do is keeping an open mind and keeping up with the world.”
Much like Lyon, you should always pay close attention to who the up-and-comers are in your industry.
2. Trust Your Gut.
While it’s wise to approach team building with an open mind, it’s also important to take risks. Some of the most adept casting directors have trusted their gut by taking a risk and going with an underdog.
Related: Afraid of Risks? How to Be Bolder
For example, when casting for the popular ABC show Modern Family, producers screened several hundred actors to play Manny, the dorky, “old soul” son of Gloria (played by Sofia Vergara). They chose Rico Rodriguez, who had never done comedy before. Lo and behold, Rodriguez killed it on the show, and everything fell perfectly into place. The producers had a good feeling about him, and they were spot-on.
At times, you will meet people who have an amazing energy and presence. You can’t necessarily pinpoint what about that person is so magnetic—you’re just drawn to them. Even if you don’t have a current project to collaborate with him or her on, this is a person you envision working with in the future. As many casting directors have discovered, that excited, effervescent feeling in the pit of their stomach is usually right on target.
“You have to know how to follow your gut,” Lyon says. “You have to be able to identify that star potential.”
Lyon spent seven years at The WB casting teenagers, 20-somethings and complete unknowns. At times during her career, she had to push for others to see the same potential she saw in certain actors.
“The WB had a reputation of being a star maker,” she says. “You really had to champion and fight for people who you thought would become stars.”
For example, Daily says Frasier and Modern Family producer Christopher Lloyd always believed Ty Burrell (the actor who plays Phil Dunphy on Modern Family) would hit it big one day. Daily was a producer on Out of Practice when Lloyd cast Burrell in his first regular role in the 2005 series, which was canceled in its first season. Lloyd then cast Burrell in his 2007 comedy Back to You, which also only lasted a single season.
“Chris knew he was going to break, and he wanted him to break on one of his shows,” Daily says. “Then Chris got him for Modern Family. I think it’s fun to find those people because you never know who is going to be the next big star.”
Part of trusting your gut also means thinking about how the new actor or team member will fit in with the overall group dynamic.
Daily says it’s always nice to have at least a few cast members who have been through the grueling TV series routine and know how to guide cast members who are new to the process. For example, on Cheers, Ted Danson set the tone by not tolerating jerks or bad behavior on the show. And when co-star Kelsey Grammer got his shot as the star of Frasier, he decided he wanted to be the same sort of leader.
“He said, ‘If I get my own show, I want to be that guy,’ and he was that guy,” Daily says. “He set a harmonious tone. Life is too short to work with people who are difficult.”
And life is too short to be so safe—take some risks. Most times they will pay off.
3. Find the Right Fit.
When building a team, it’s likely you will have a myriad of talented people from which to choose. Discerning those who will be the best fits for your group can be challenging, but also rewarding when done right.
Occasionally, casting directors find a talented actor brimming with potential, but he or she doesn’t quite fit the bill for a current project. Instead of merely casting the person in a show just to give them a shot at stardom, the casting directors will keep the actor carefully tucked away for later consideration. The same applies for building a team: It’s not necessarily the most talented person who is the right fit, but rather the person who will fit best within the team in question.
Much like casting directors, you should keep these people on the back burner for future reference. Trust your gut when it comes to them: If you have a good feeling, you’re probably right. Don’t let their talents fall by the wayside. Greenberg has faced this situation numerous times.
“There’s always a lot of talent that is not being utilized because there are more actors than there are parts, so it’s easy to make a list of talented people,” he says. “The trick is finding someone suitable for the role, who is available and we can make a deal with. It goes way beyond just having a good idea for a good part.”
Last year, Lyon went to the Toronto International Film Festival to discover more actors to add to her “potential” cast wall so she could have talented people at her disposal for future projects. If she doesn’t have the perfect role for one of her “potentials” at the time, she will keep that person on her radar until she does.
“It may take a while, but I don’t give up,” she says. “If they have talent, I just need to find the right role for that person.”
Greenberg employs a similar tactic.
“Sometimes I’ll see people sent in for a role that I don’t think is quite right for them, but I keep them in mind for other projects,” Greenberg says. “Agents and managers are always submitting clients, and you are bombarded. But the standards are high.”
“As in most aspects of life, you should avoid settling when trying to find the perfect balance for a cast or team.”
Finding the right fit might even mean looking at the actor’s strengths and molding the role accordingly. A similar tactic can be employed when trying to create a successful team: By taking all team members’ personalities into consideration, you can better decipher who fits each role best.
“Oftentimes, what happens is that you tailor the character once you cast the role, and you play off of their strengths,” Daily says.
The process for finding the right person can be time-consuming and grueling. But don’t let that get you down. In casting, finding the right actor can make or break a show. And when you do make the right call, the grueling process feels much more worthwhile.
“TV is such a collaborative medium,” Daily says. “The writers and actors are working closely together, so if it’s not a good relationship, you will be miserable. I’ve been in both camps, although I usually work with people I love, but it’s horrible when it is the opposite. It makes it hard to collaborate because you have to trust each other and want to work with these people.”
As in most aspects of life, you should avoid settling when trying to find the perfect balance for a cast or team. Greenberg experienced this while casting for the characters Claire and Phil on Modern Family.
“You try to get the best person you can until the last moment,” he says. “If you don’t have it the day before, you look until you have it. You don’t want to settle, and we didn’t. Claire and Phil weren’t cast until three days before we started shooting.”
4. Adapt Appropriately.
When forming the cast for a television show, casting directors, network executives, producers and the head of the studio all weigh in on whom they favor. In short, there are a lot of cooks stirring the pot. A casting director’s favorite actor for a part may not be the producer’s favorite, much like you might prefer working with a certain team member over another.
Adapting appropriately can make or break your team. Sometimes it’s best to take a step back, think about all points of view and make a decision that benefits the overall team—even if you doubt whether it’s the right move.
Greenberg employed the tactic of adapting when necessary while casting for Modern Family. When auditioning Eric Stonestreet to play the part of Cam (the flamboyant husband of Mitch, played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson), he wasn’t sure whether the two would have the right on-screen chemistry.
“That role wasn’t written to a big man and they had already cast Jesse, so they weren’t sure they looked like a couple at first,” he says. “But he was funny and sometimes that overrides the prerequisites of what you are looking for.”
In this case, it did.
“When [Stonestreet] and [Ferguson] did the screen test, they had great chemistry, but it was not a slam dunk by any means,” Greenberg says. “It blossomed into a credible actor who got the role of a lifetime.”
Worth noting is that Greenberg also incorporated the tactic of “trusting your gut” in this situation. Stonestreet had been auditioning for Greenberg for 10 years, but Greenberg was never “fortunate enough to hire him.” For Modern Family, Greenberg had a gut feeling Stonestreet was the right man for the role.
While casting the roles of Phil and Claire, Greenberg didn’t always agree with his colleagues on who would be the right fit. But he learned that flexibility and being prepared with a slew of backups can make for a much smoother process.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to the network and they have said, ‘No, no, no,’ ” Greenberg says. “Four times for Phil, four times for Claire—all with different actors. You have to bring in multiple choices for them because they don’t want to see just one. But you often have your favorite.”
In the case of Modern Family, Greenberg had his favorite. He and the producers were passionate about casting Burrell as the character of Phil. They even created the character prototype with him in mind. Luckily their intuition was spot-on: Burrell was cast for the part.
By adapting to what the network executives wanted—while also sticking to their guns—Greenberg and his team worked together and cast very successfully for Phil and Claire. After all, the actors who play them (Burrell and Julie Bowen) each have six Emmy nominations and two wins.
Greenberg says the casting crew also had to adapt when selecting the actor to play the part of the older successful businessman Jay Pritchett, patriarch of the family and husband to the much younger Latina, Gloria (Sofia Vergara). Everyone thought Craig T. Nelson (known for Coach and Parenthood) would be perfect for the role.
They made a first offer to Nelson, but a deal could not be struck because he wanted more money than the production could spend. After Nelson passed on the role, everyone was still looking for someone who “checked all the boxes” and was also affordable. A call went out to Ed O’Neill, known for his stint on the raunchy sitcom Married… with Children.
“Mr. Nelson loved the material, but wasn’t willing to come down on wanting leading man money, and that’s not our show,” Greenberg says. “But Ed saw the value and told his manager to make the deal, even though it was less. The ironic thing is that because our show became such a huge success, Craig would have made a small fortune if he’d taken the role.”
5. Bite the Bullet.
Sometimes producers’ hands are tied when casting for a show.
“The network can say we’ll pick up a show if you cast ‘blank,’ then you have to go with it and try to make it work,” Daily says.
You might face the same problem when growing your team. For the situations in which networks will only pick up a show if a certain actor is cast, sulking and wallowing won’t get the casting directors and producers anywhere.
Daily says it’s usually wise to go with the flow, stay positive and try to make it work.
“You don’t have to be best friends with the people you work with, and you try to separate the personal from the professional,” he says.
If the actor is going to be the best overall fit for the show—even though he or she might present some challenges—then the producers bite the proverbial bullet and do it.
“You won’t enjoy the experience as much, but you have to do it,” Daily says. “But it is so much nicer when you can choose your own actors.”
Daily emphasizes that he doesn’t have to bite the bullet too often. He says that while some think of Hollywood people as tough to work with, he can count on one hand the number of times he has faced this particular problem.
On the rare instance that a show sees major success, most people are too busy counting themselves as lucky to worry about this challenge. They feel grateful just to be on a successful show in an industry where failure is the norm.
“I think that’s more the case than not, because most of us are aware that we have great jobs and we don’t want to mess it up,” Daily says.
In the television business, so many things can go wrong—even when everything seems right. So hitting the jackpot by putting together the perfect cast for a show is not something to be taken for granted.
At the end of the day, casting the right group of actors or building the perfectly harmonious team happens when you take the time and consideration to interweave all of the above tactics. And when you do a stellar job, magic can happen.
“You have to have the right cast, good writing and directing, and all of those things working together,” Daily says. “When you do get that lightning in a bottle, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
This article appears in the March 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.