Casting Brass: Networks

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Peter Golden has a fear.

Every pilot season (which runs roughly from February through April) the CBS executive vp talent and casting worries that he'll open the trades to find that an actor he loves has signed on to a show at another network. He has another fear, too: that an actor he was planning to cast in a new series had his option picked up by a dying, but apparently not dead, show.

To keep those concerns at bay, Golden says he spends his days "talking to every agent, all the casting directors and producers on every one of our projects, and my counterparts at each of the studios."

The story is the same for all network casting chiefs, whether Grace Wu at NBC (brought in under former head of casting Marc Hirschfeld), Keli Lee at ABC, Marcia Schulman at Fox, or Lori Openden at the CW. Many networks employ five to 10 in-house casting staffers, often appointing them to specialized genres (comedy, drama, alternative). With the proliferation of top-drawer dramatic shows on cable in recent years, from HBO's "Big Love" to A&E's "Mad Men," the talent pool has thinned and the competition has become fiercer.

"There are so many things that make it bigger and more complicated than when I first started," Openden says. "Cable casts differently than we do. They may only do 13 episodes a year; we do 22. There was also no midseason then; now, shows can start anytime. That means actors become available at different times instead of once a year, so you're often waiting for an actor."

But there is an upside to the cutthroat chaos.

"It has pushed us to be as inventive, forward-thinking and creative as possible," Wu says. "If our development people are really high on a script, they'll usually get it to me right away so I can try to attach talent early or at least put some ideas together."

From there, casting executives like Wu work with writer-producers and outside casting directors for individual pilots to narrow the candidates for each role. The level of network involvement varies from company to company ("Unlike other studios, all of my casting executives are in casting sessions with the producers and casting directors," Lee says), as does their taste in talent.

"At the CW, we do a lot of stunt casting -- anything that brings attention to our shows," Openden says. "We're a little network and need to be out there getting publicity, so we love having musicians on our shows and other names that are in the press."

At most studios, half a dozen actors will read at a "studio test" for casting department heads, the independent casting director and the show's creative brain trust. Then a final three will read at a "network test" with the network chiefs. Once a show goes to series, the department heads usually sign off on the casting decisions themselves, "unless it's a potential series regular," Lee notes. Auditioning is left to the show's independent casting directors.

Some might view the corporate side of casting as too detached and constraining, but Golden loves it.

"As an independent, you can really pick and choose your projects," he says. "But you're like an actor, always auditioning for your next job."
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