Fox's Top Casting Exec Reveals Her Actor Wish List, Impact of Trump's Muslim Ban: "I'm Scared"

Photographed by Tommy Garcia
Sharon Klein, photographed Jan. 30 in her office on the Fox lot in L.A., watches “a lot” of Food Network when she’s looking to unwind.

"I've been here 16 years and I've never not gotten a work visa when I've needed it," says Sharon Klein as she discusses TV's diversity push, in-demand talent, competing with Netflix and the craziest thing she's done to land a star.

Every year during pilot season, the kitchen in Sharon Klein's Santa Monica home transforms into a war room. At one end of the center island is Klein, executive vp casting at the Fox TV Group, on her phone lining up talent for the studio's batch of pilots; at the other, her husband, 20th Century Fox TV president of business operations Howard Kurtzman, on his phone seeing that those deals get made. "Together we can get an entire pilot done," says the 16-year Fox veteran. "I'll be like, 'You've got to call so-and-so and get this done right now.' "

That sense of urgency never has been more crucial, as Klein, 52, whose big break came on the 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, now is fighting for talent in the Peak TV era. To stay competitive, she and her team of 10 (plus her nearly 50 outside casting directors) devour as much TV and film as possible and continually update the status of the talent on their target lists. (Current entries include Maya Rudolph and Nathan Fillion.)

With another pilot season ramping up, the New York native, who added the Fox Broadcast Network to her purview in the fall and now oversees more than 60 projects a year across Fox, 20th TV and Fox 21 TV Studios, sat down to discuss the actors atop her wish list, the role she consistently struggles to fill and the ways that deals have changed in a 400-plus-show universe.

What's been the biggest change to the way you approach casting?

When I first started doing TV, I did From the Earth to the Moon on HBO, and it was not unlike The People v. O.J. in that it was based on real events and we cast actors to play real people. It was 1998, and I couldn't get a star to be in it. Even if it was HBO, it was still television. Then there was a shift, and we could get any actor we wanted. Anyone. But now in the last five years, everyone's working, so we're back to discoveries.

They're already working in television?

Yes. It's crazy, these availability lists we make are insane. They're five pages of "not available." And that's for good shows — shows that are definitely getting picked up next season. We usually do a target list — last year our target list included Corey Hawkins, Miranda Otto, Queen Latifah — and you work through it and check everybody off. I'm telling you, on my list of 10, if I don't check them off by tomorrow, they'll be gone.

How has that changed the way you structure deals?

It's case by case. Exclusivity still is hard because you don't want [these actors in another show that's] on at the same time. What we can loosen up on occasionally are pre-existing recurring roles. So maybe they finish up their arc on Stranger Things or whatever it is. What we did with Kaitlin Olson — allowing her to do both FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Fox's The Mick — was a once-in-a-lifetime thing because it's the same [Fox] family and she was willing to go from one job to the other with only a few weeks off a year. But there are other things, like you guarantee fewer episodes. And it comes down to the script. For so long we were so strict about our deals. "This is what we do," there's precedent — and now, precedent is out the window.

A Netflix may not be willing to offer backend, but it'll give $300,000 an episode at the high end. How do you compete?

First, there's no media circus like a broadcast media circus. And you can create a star. Look at Taraji [P. Henson]. So, sure, you could get a very dainty, lovely show on any of those other places; but if you want to get that L'Oreal ad, you better be on broadcast TV. You're your own business, and it's better business to be on a successful broadcast show.

And yet, the industrywide sentiment seems to be, "Ugh, broadcast."

It's crazy. Look, it comes down to the material. If it's great, then you hope it sells itself. And then you look them in the eyes and say: "Why wouldn't you do this for your future? You're going to want to retire; are you going to retire on that $300K an episode and out, or are you going to retire on your brand that you create from being on a big broadcast show?"

Complete this sentence: I wish agents understood that …

Just because someone is pretty or handsome doesn't mean that they're a good actor.

Whose names are atop casting wish lists this pilot season?

Maya Rudolph had, like, four offers this weekend, but she wants to develop for herself. Connie Britton will have a lot, and I don't know that she takes any. Who else? Nathan Fillion, Michael Pena, Eva Longoria, Sandra Oh …

How have salaries changed in the Peak TV era?

If you took our high end from five years ago and now, it's probably pretty similar. It's the middle — those secondary, supporting roles — that's increased because there's so much more competition.

There's been a major diversity push in television. Have you witnessed a shift?

Compared to 1998? Yes. But I feel like [at 20th] for the past five to 10 years, we've always been doing it. With more and more diverse producers and writers and directors, it's a natural progression. I don't really see it as an issue anymore.

How do you foresee President Trump's immigration ban impacting the casting process?

I'm sure everyone is talking to their immigration attorneys right now. But I don't know. Honestly, if you're trying to get a work visa in three days, who at Homeland Security is going to pay attention to you? I've been here 16 years and I've never not gotten a work visa when I've needed it. I'm scared ...

What's the craziest thing you've done to land a star?

Truthfully, I'll go into [Fox TV Group chairman] Dana Walden's office, close the door and say, "We're calling this person now," and she'll rock it. She's my secret weapon. But ultimately, you want someone to come to it themselves. That's the thing about broadcast — if you're in it for 22 episodes for 10 years, you want the star to want to be there.

How has where and how you discover talent changed?

We pride ourselves on actors [at 20th], so I'd much rather get a call that so-and-so just graduated from Juilliard and meet them than troll YouTube.

What is the hardest part for you to cast?

The traditional male lead, 35 to 50. Part of it is that that group — the Mark Ruffalos — is only doing movies. And I want a certain kind of guy. A Kiefer Sutherland or James Spader — an interesting, dynamic actor, and those men are needed in features. A young, hot whomever? I can find them, no problem.

Why do casting directors so often go back to actors who have been in failed pilot after failed pilot?

There are people who you think will be stars in the right role. We had a deal with Mandy Moore for three seasons. She did two pilots for us, we let her go, and then we made another deal with her because I just thought she was someone who was going to hit if we found the right thing. This Is Us was the right thing.

What's the most sought-after role for an actor today?

They all call and want to be on a Ryan Murphy show.

***

"YOU'VE GOT TO TRUST ME..."
Klein is known for her instincts and her brutal honesty

WENTWORTH MILLER (Fox's Prison Break

20th TV had secured a prison but not a star when principal photography began on Prison Break in winter 2004. Klein’s heart was set on Miller, whom she’d loved as a young Anthony Hopkins in The Human Stain, but his status on a Listserv read "not interested in TV." Undeterred, Klein began hounding his agent.

COREY HAWKINS (Fox's 24: Legacy)

When Klein first approached the Straight Outta Compton actor’s rep, she was turned down; Hawkins wouldn’t be interested — plus, he was off to Vietnam for a film. "We begged," she says. "We said, 'You've just got to read it.' You'll go from being the 15th guy in whatever that movie was to the guy.' "

DARREN CRISS (Fox's Glee)

After seeing Criss audition for a guest spot on Glee, Klein ran through the halls of 20th insisting they lock him up as a series regular. "It's happened a few times where I'm running down the halls screaming about someone," she says, adding that Amber Riley's audition — she sang Jennifer Holliday — had her in tears.

MILO VENTIMIGLIA (NBC's This Is Us)

When casting the father in the breakout multi-generation family drama, creator Dan Fogelman had something specific in mind. "I called him about Milo, and he said he wanted a doughy guy," says Klein, who pushed for the showrunner to take a meeting. "I kept saying, 'Meet Milo because Milo is doughy inside.' "

This story first appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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