How to cast Emmy-worthy reality shows

Sallyann Salsano

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SallyAnn Salsano knew she was in the presence of greatness.

Deep into the casting for what would become MTV's "Jersey Shore," scouts for the prolific reality producer had plucked what looked like a perfectly tanned and buffed specimen out of an Atlantic City nightclub. Even better: His name was Mike Sorrentino but he called himself "The Situation."

"I was like, 'Get comfortable, this is going to be a while, I want to know what makes you tick,' " Salsano recalls of her first interview with Sorrentino. "And he says, 'Baby, if you want to know that ...' And the next thing I know, he's shirtless."

Salsano cast him almost immediately.
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"When anybody comes in and, within 30 seconds of meeting, feels like they have to have their clothes off to be comfortable with you -- well, that was him putting his best foot forward," she says.

Salsano got lucky with The Situation, Snooki and the rest of the "Jersey" kids. But reality insiders know that even the most established series like "The Amazing Race," "Survivor" or "Project Runway" struggle to find compelling cast members.

"We all know that people want their 15 minutes of fame," says Ellen Rakieten, who booked "Oprah" for more than two decades and now executive produces NBC's "The Marriage Ref." "But audiences are savvy and they want people they can relate to and resonate with."

Finding that diamond-in-the-rough typically starts with a casting tape. Producers are looking for those willing to reveal personal information freely.

"Who do you hate? Who do you love? Have you broken the law?" asks Robert Galinsky, who founded the New York Reality TV School and now trains potential candidates on how to be the right kind of contestant. "Have you had mental breakdowns? The person who shares that readily and communicates that clearly is the person who's going to get tested."

Rupert Boneham has competed in three "Survivor" seasons.
 

A theater director and TV producer for about 15 years, Galinsky says he has helped more than 700 hopefuls since he opened his school in 2008. He offers a five-week course and an intensive session, with teachers including former participants on such shows as "Survivor" and "Amazing Race." Graduates have gone on to appear on "Groomer Has It," "The Fashion Show" and "Hole in the Wall."

One student who stands out for Galinsky is "Survivor" Steve Pickett, who has tried to get cast on the CBS franchise 17 times.

"Every year he gets closer and closer," Galinsky says. Pickett flew from Oklahoma to New York to study at the school and refine his submission tape. "He's a cool, interesting guy who makes steel parts for machines; he owns his own shop. But his first tape was him standing against a wall, tossing a ball up and down and catching it in a glove while he talked about himself. I told him, 'Cut me a tape where you're banging on a piece of molten metal while you talk about why you should be on 'Survivor,' show me you hoisting up an engine on a chain while you talk about yourself.' That gives casting directors way more to go on."

There are stars that naturally shine through, of course. "So You Think You Can Dance" executive producer Nigel Lythgoe recalls that when he produced "American Idol," he saw that star power in eventual Season 4 winner Carrie Underwood's first taped interview.



"My son went down to her farm to film her and brought this footage back, and there was this shining light," he says. "Bright, smart and an awful lot of humor. That came across very early on, plus this natural quality and great voice. The farm footage absolutely did it for me. She really popped."

"American Idol" casting directors screen as many as 100,000 people before anyone gets in to see the judges. "Biggest Loser" producers vet tens of thousands of applicants per season. While many submit their information through special casting websites, most are found through large-scale casting calls and submission tapes.

In addition, for competitive shows like "Project Runway" or "Top Chef," casting directors will go directly to the source, often cold-calling prospective contestants.

"I wouldn't have done the show if they had not called," recalls Matthew Morris, a finalist on Bravo's "Shear Genius." "They really tried to go above and beyond and get good caliber people, so they cast half of the people based on previous resumes, then the other half were wild cards and people who auditioned."

"Dancing With the Stars"
 

"I'm old fashioned in that I like to go out there and hand-pick people instead of waiting for them to come to us," says Randy Bernstein, founder and president of Casting Duo.

Bernstein discovered Christian Siriano, Season 4 winner of "Runway" and a breakout star, at a casting call.

"He was sitting out on the street and I heard this voice and said, 'Who is that?' " Bernstein recalls. "From the voice to the energy to his skill, he was all in one. He was someone I wanted to watch week after week."

Once one or two individuals are locked in, often the rest of a cast is brought on to round out specific personality slots: The silly one, the smart one, the mean one, etc. Producers are looking to create a story arc that will play out all season, which means that cast members must be able to hit certain emotional notes.

Next come the medical, psychological and background tests. The extent of testing is usually dictated at a network level, and private physicians are usually hired, though sometimes the testing is done through a university like Stanford. Applications can be as long as 40 pages and ask about drug and family history, as well as domestic violence disputes. Extensive details are required for each reply.

"I tell applicants to set aside two hours and do it in pencil, go away and come back the next day and then do it for two hours in pen," Galinsky says. "The tests tell them about you and what you do and show your commitment level, based on how long and thorough your answers are."

All the testing in the world, however, can't always pinpoint a potential disaster. Dave Broome, president of 25/7 and a creator of "The Biggest Loser," says his company is working on a show right now where half the potential cast tested positive for herpes.

"We had to let them go," he admits.

But venereal disease is nothing compared to the effects of truly dangerous people like Ryan Jenkins, a contestant on VH1's "Megan Wants a Millionaire," who was charged with murdering his wife before he killed himself in August. Jenkins had met (and wed) his wife after the show wrapped, but none of the battery of tests he was put through caught his homicidal tendency.

"There are things that slip through the system," Broome acknowledges. "It's an umbrella with a few pinholes in it, and raindrops get through. But if you consider how many reality shows are on TV, it's amazing you haven't had more bad incidents."

The reality genre has been around long enough for applicants -- and teachers like Galinsky -- to think they know how to give casting directors what they want.

That's not how Galinsky sees it.

"People come in all the time with ideas about what they should be doing, as opposed to who they are," he says. "This one girl came in and I said, 'We need to know who you are.' And she said, 'I'm from Connecticut, I live on a farm and I'm the poorest person in school.' After we spent time on her introduction, it became, 'I live in Connecticut, I'm up at 6 a.m. feeding pigs, then I'm cleaning our award-winning llamas, and by 7:45 I'm on a bus to a private school, and for my birthday my father bought me a John Deere tractor.' That sounds way better."

To a casting director like Bernstein, such fine-tuning raises eyebrows. "If you need to be taught to be yourself, you have other things to worry about than getting on a reality show."

That won't stop nutty applicants from getting through to the casting suite. Bernstein recalls a "Biggest Loser" wannabe who showed up straight off the train, disrobed in front of producers and put on a different outfit. Another arrived with 12 hamburgers and proceeded to eat them in front of the casting directors to prove he had a problem.

"After all that effort, they didn't even get on, neither one," Bernstein says. "It happens all the time: People show up and think if they're a great character, they'll get on the show. And it just doesn't work that way."
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