TV Pilot Season: 6 Casting Directors Talk Diversity Push and Stars They Couldn't Get

In what has become the most competitive year on record, the industry's top wranglers weigh in on the hardest roles to cast, most rewarding discoveries and the most unique places they've found talent.
Top (L-R): Grace Wu, Tess Sanchez, Sharon Klein; Bottom (L-R): Beth Klein, Dawn Steinberg, Ayo Davis  Courtesy of Subject

A version of this story first appeared in the April 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

With 87 pilots in the works, the broadcast networks have had their work cut out for them as they try to lure top talent in a landscape where scripted originals have topped 400 and stars continue to find short-order cable and straight-to-series streaming shows more appealing. As the casting portion of pilot season winds down, six casting directors — ABC/ABC Studios' Ayo Davis, Universal TV's Beth Klein, 20th Century Fox TV's Sharon Klein, Fox's Tess Sanchez, Sony Pictures TV's Dawn Steinberg and NBC's Grace Wu — open up about the big diversity push, growing competition and discovering new talent.

What's been the most glaring new trend in casting this pilot season?

B. KLEIN Rather than the normal casting and testing process, a lot of actors are getting test offers converted to straight offers. So we're skipping the audition process altogether.

S. KLEIN Dealing with exclusivity. Everyone has a gazillion pre-existing recurring roles. The competition, too. If I hear one more time that so-and-so has a straight-to-series offer for a Netflix show, I'm going to shoot myself!

SANCHEZ Actors asking for [shorter deals] and specific locations. They'll call and say, "I won't work in Vancouver," so we'll shoot the pilot there but the series in L.A. People also ask for shorter episode orders and fewer years than a standard seven-year contract. We've been trying to hold strong.

STEINBERG Color-blind casting. There used to be a time when it had to be written that way to look for an actor with a specific ethnicity. Now it's just who is the best actor for the role.

WU Diversity is on everybody's minds with all of our pilots. We're talking about it a lot.

What's been the biggest challenge?

B. KLEIN We're all trying to allow our producers their process and see as many actors as we can to find the absolute perfect people — but that doesn't go hand in hand with moving quickly. And if we don't move quickly, we lose people to all the other projects.

SANCHEZ A lot of actors want to do multiple projects, and they want to have an opportunity if they're going to do a pilot here to be able to do a certain amount of episodes or finish an arc elsewhere. People will say, "This Netflix show is really important to me, and I want to continue to recur on it," and it's a deal-breaker.

STEINBERG Everybody vying for the same actors at the same time.

Who's the actor everyone was after but nobody landed?

DAVIS Idris Elba.

B. KLEIN Alison Brie on comedy and drama.

S. KLEIN Rose Byrne just had a baby but somehow was still getting offers! Craig Robinson (The Office) — everybody wants a funny guy, and he was offered everything. [He chose to recur on USA's Mr. Robot.] I gave four or five offers to Alison Brie.

SANCHEZ Andre Holland (The Knick). He's passed on everything — comedy and drama. We've definitely made offers to Alison Brie, Craig Robinson and O'Shea Jackson Jr. (Straight Outta Compton), too.

WU We must have made Alison Brie at least three offers. We made some offers to Leighton Meester.

What was the hardest role for you to cast?

S. KLEIN A comedic, diverse leading man.

STEINBERG That 30- to 35- year-old leading man. For a lot of those guys, we started to go to London and England. And a lot of actors don't want to do 22 [episodes] anymore; they want to do cable shows. That's a problem. We need good actors; it's not going to be the models who didn't train.

WU The funny, leading lady or leading man in his 30s. All those people are working; and if they're not in TV, they're in features.

Your most rewarding discovery this year?

S. KLEIN Kylie Bunbury on [Fox's] Pitch and the three girls on Lee Daniels' Star, who all are unique and have gorgeous voices.

SANCHEZ Kylie Bunbury. She's been training as a pitcher and can throw a 60 mph screwball. And she can act!

STEINBERG We just put this stunning British black man Paterson Joseph [HBO's The Leftovers] in NBC's Time.

WU Jessy Hodges in our comedy Good Fortune. It's a tough role because it's a girl in her 20s who has to be appealing, accessible and funny — the whole package.

How has the industrywide diversity push impacted the casting process?

DAVIS It has created more opportunities to cast diverse actors as leads. When I started at ABC 14 years ago, there was no Kerry Washington or Priyanka Chopra front and center on a TV show.

B. KLEIN I've seen more diverse casting announcements, and I've seen more people on our casting reports booking jobs that are diverse — and big roles, not just supporting roles.

WU Where I see the change the most is with talent representatives. It feels like some agencies and managers, who in the past may not have had the most inclusive client list, have now signed more diverse actors because they know there's a need and demand for them on the broadcast side.

What's the most unique place you've found talent this season?

DAVIS Our Talent Showcase and Digital Talent Competition have been great pipelines. [That's where] we've found amazing actors such as Lupita Nyong'o, Gina Rodriguez and Chadwick Boseman.

SANCHEZ We have an actress, Amiyah Scott, on Lee Daniels' Star who was discovered on Instagram.

STEINBERG We have Sensory on CBS, where we have a Latino lead, and we did a two-week search in Miami. [The pilot has since been rolled off-cycle.] We try to target areas we think may have inner-city people we're not getting in L.A.

What casting most surprised you?

SANCHEZ Sarah Shahi as [CBS'] Nancy Drew. A cool casting.

S. KLEIN We had an offer out to Tony Danza [for Pitch] but he opted for Sebastian at NBC.

STEINBERG We had an offer out to Sarah Shahi on Notorious and ended up getting Piper Perabo, which we're thrilled about.  

What's the casting that has you most envious?

B. KLEIN Hugh Laurie [who booked Chance, a two-season straight-to-series drama at Hulu]. We've been trying to get him back since House.

SANCHEZ Kristen Bell in [13-episode straight-to-series comedy] Good Place on NBC.

WU Aaron Paul in The Path on Hulu. 

How has the increase in co-productions impacted casting?

B. KLEIN We love doing co-pros, but you're adding an additional group of people to a process that needs to go really fast.

SANCHEZ You have 25 more executives weighing in on one role. It slows down the decision-making process a little bit.

STEINBERG It's more people getting involved in your deal-making process, and the more layers you add to it the more time it takes. And there are so many people vying for the same talent that you just want to speed up the process.

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