TV Pilot Season Confidential: 6 Casting Executives on Hiring (and Paying) Talent in the Time's Up Era

From 20th Century Fox to Universal, casting pros dish on pay disparity, the roles they struggled to cast and the hires that have them envious.
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From left: Pilot season's most wanted: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Michael Pena, Damon Wayans Jr., Jenny Slate, Leslie Odom Jr., Lauren Cohan, Rosario Dawson and Michael C. Hall.

"We have even less time this year" has become a familiar refrain, and this TV pilot season was no exception as casting directors scrambled to populate 76 pilots in the face of mounting competition from cable and streaming outlets. Adding to the usual set of challenges were a push for even greater diversity (calling all Asian males!) and a new California law that bans potential employers from asking about an actor's prior salary or "quote." 

With most key roles now filled, six top 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 — get candid about the stars they wanted and the leverage they lost as the small screen adapts to the Time's Up era.

I wish agents would stop asking …

AYO DAVIS … for offers! I'll get an email saying someone is testing on Tuesday, and we have to get an offer out on Monday to beat it.

BETH KLEIN … what's in the budget for the role.

DAWN STEINBERG … calling me when they have one offer to see if I'll give them another offer to only put up the price of their first offer.

SHARON KLEIN … what kind of wine I drink.

TESS SANCHEZ … where the series is shooting! It knocks off half their list if you say someplace other than L.A. or New York.

How has the push for pay parity impacted dealmaking?

GRACE WU If someone is of the same stature and they're co-leads, then that's something we would discuss and consider — we couldn't overlook it.

S. KLEIN We are being more cognizant of it. When we put a two-hander in place, that is the first conversation. Look at the cast for Single Parents [Taran Killam, Leighton Meester and Brad Garrett] — they're getting the same amount.

What has been the most glaring new trend in casting this season? 

DAVIS Female leads.

B. KLEIN We have even less time this year than last. Now you're lucky if you have time to watch a self-tape before that actor has four offers on the table. And fewer people are auditioning because they have the leverage to say, "If you want to be my top priority, don't make me audition."

STEINBERG The networks picked up scripts later, and while you should have 10 to 12 weeks to cast something, now they're saying, "We shoot in five or six weeks."

WU Having diversity in our shows in a prominent way, which now we're seeing more than ever across the board with all the networks.

S. KLEIN There's a huge amount of mid- to late-30s, female-led dramas. And business-wise, we're dealing with making deals without quotes. Each year, there are fewer and fewer people available and more and more people working. And we want exclusivity [assurance that an actor won't work on another network's show].

SANCHEZ What's old is new with talent from the '80s and '90s like Lea Thompson, Don Johnson and Katie Holmes. There's opportunity for people of all ages.

Who's the actor everyone tried to land this year?

DAVIS Jenny Slate, Rosario Dawson and Leslie Odom Jr.

B. KLEIN We went after Damon Wayans Jr. and Lauren Cohan and got neither! A lot of people went after Matthew Goode and Michael C. Hall.

STEINBERG Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

WU Alessandro Nivola, Logan Marshall-Green and Olivia Munn.

S. KLEIN Jessica Biel, Nick Offerman, Tatiana Maslany, Alfre Woodard and Michael Pena.

SANCHEZ Ramon Rodriguez.

Who's your most rewarding discovery?

DAVIS Justin Johnson Cortez, a Native American actor we hired on Staties. He won over our producers in his first take.

STEINBERG The actors in their 70s whom we've attached to NBC's Norman Lear comedy Guess Who Died: Hector Elizondo, Christopher Lloyd and Holland Taylor.

WU Natalie Morales in the Josh Malmuth and Mike Schur pilot.

S. KLEIN Callie Hernandez [Mixtape] is a star.

How has the new law about salary histories impacted your deals?

B. KLEIN Negotiations are definitely going longer as there's a lot more back and forth.

WU We're probably paying actors more than what their quotes are. Anyone who had quotes that were historically lower has benefited.

S. KLEIN I've been doing this a long time and know what people's quotes are and where they should be. I think we're making deals we would have made last year.

What's the casting that has you most envious?

DAVIS Walton Goggins [in CBS' L.A. Confidential].

B. KLEIN: Damon Wayans Jr. [in CBS' untitled Austen Earl comedy] and Lauren Cohan [in ABC's Whiskey Cavalier].

S. KLEIN I love Damon Wayans Jr., but we didn't have anything for him this year, and Les Moonves called him personally to get him.

SANCHEZ Emmy Raver-Lampman [from the touring cast of Hamilton] in Netflix's Umbrella Academy. I was convinced we were going to put her on a Fox show.

What's the biggest change to the way you've done business this season?

DAVIS The no-quote system [as part of California's new law]. We've spent a lot of time on the phone with business affairs, and it takes more time to get deals closed.

B. KLEIN Relenting on auditions. It's pretty glaring that the process is getting truncated and what we're used to — multiple auditions — seems to be shrinking because of time and competition.

STEINBERG The no-quote system has made it really hard to negotiate deals.

WU There is much more tolerance for being supportive of people being attached to other projects. We want to have protections in place so that you're not seeing an actor playing a lead role on another network at the same time.

S. KLEIN We took much more care in budgeting these things with an eye toward equality.

SANCHEZ We've had writers come in with roles that aren't seven-year parts but instead three seasons. That's exciting because it gives us the opportunity to get creative in our dealmaking.

Give us an example of how #MeToo and Time's Up have impacted pilot season.

STEINBERG [Actress] Genevieve Angelson passed on a pilot because they wouldn't pay her parity with her male co-star. Good for her.

WU In terms of casting and how we're talking about characters, we're all feeling like marginalizing women or female voices is just unacceptable.

SANCHEZ We've done more examining of gender in specific roles. Like, why can't that be a female police chief? Why can't that governor be a woman? It was reflected in the pilots we pick because we had so many female leads.

Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston and George Clooney are each making in the $1 million range for their TV roles. What's the impact on you?

DAVIS Everybody always wants that quote. It makes the conversations more extensive.

STEINBERG Whenever you're starting up something, you probably overpay a tiny bit just to attract those people.

WU It only impacts us if it's somebody of their stature.

S. KLEIN Those people were never going to go for the traditional model of network television.

SANCHEZ Talent salaries are creeping up in general.

Given the competitive environment right now, what is the one thing you have had to relent on?

DAVIS Exclusivity. The industry standard is actors can only guest in three episodes a season. We've been a lot more flexible this year than any other in order to land talent. Every actor is working on something else.

B. KLEIN Auditions, which flies in the face of what this is all supposed to be about. Now it's all straight offers, because otherwise somebody else will take the talent.

STEINBERG Exclusivity. But sometimes it helps if you have an actor going out and doing another show during, which they're also promoting, and bringing eyeballs to your show — as long as we're in first position!

What was the hardest role for you to cast?

DAVIS Asian males, and there are a lot of Asian male roles.

STEINBERG A funny guy in his 20s, any ethnicity, because they're all working.

WU We tried to cast leads with people who didn't feel overly familiar or conventional. [Lead actress] Sarayu Blue changed the Aseem Batra comedy, so we're now casting actors who are of South Asian descent to play her parents, and her kids are going to be biracial.

S. KLEIN The 35-year-old female single lead in a drama. Everybody's working!

SANCHEZ Single female leads in their 30s. It's been challenging to convince an actress who has or is starting a family to move to Vancouver, Chicago or Atlanta to do 22 episodes and potentially uproot a family. We're going to have to get creative.

What casting most surprised you?

DAVIS Toby Kebbell in Salvage. I did not think we'd be able to land him.

WU Jessica Alba in NBC's Bad Boys spinoff. We thought we already had our star in Gabrielle Union, but she was determined to land a big star [opposite her] and was responsible for delivering Jessica.

S. KLEIN It surprises me that pilot season is still a thing!

SANCHEZ Damon Wayans Jr. on a CBS multicam.

How has the new law about salary histories impacted your deals?

B. KLEIN Negotiations are definitely going longer as there's a lot more back-and-forth.

WU We're probably paying actors more than what their quotes are. Anyone who had quotes that were historically lower has benefited.

S. KLEIN I've been doing this a long time and know what people's quotes are and where they should be. I think we're making deals we would have made last year.

DAVIS Exclusivity. The industry standard is actors can only guest in three episodes a season. We've been a lot more flexible this year than any other in order to land talent. Every actor is working on something else.

B. KLEIN Auditions, which flies in the face of what this is all supposed to be about. Now it's all straight offers because otherwise somebody else will take the talent.

STEINBERG Exclusivity. But sometimes it helps if you have an actor going out and doing another show that they're promoting and also bringing eyeballs to your show — as long as we're in first position!

This story first appeared in the March 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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