Interview: Casting Director Robert Ulrich on Discovering Unknown Actors and Tips on Self-Taping Auditions

"Even if I know the character well, I pre-read fifty people or at least a great deal of people, sometimes even for a one line role" - Casting Director Robert Ulrich

Casting Director Robert Ulrich

Bite-Size 6 with Robert Ulrich

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Robert Ulrich, one third of the Emmy award-winning Ulrich/Dawson/Kritzer casting trio behind Glee, CSI and Supernatural, talks about the fun of discovering unknown actors, looking at every submission sent in and his list of bugbears when it comes to self-taped auditions.

Robert gives us ‘the bite’ on your 6 hot questions!

You are an Emmy award-winning casting director, with a wealth of experience casting shows like Glee, CSI and Supernatural. I mean the list is endless. What inspires you to keep going to the office to look at actors all day long? 

Robert Ulrich: Perfect time to ask me I was in the office last night until 2.30am. In all honesty, casting was the ideal job for me.  I am obsessed with the entertainment business and have been since I was little. And I love the interaction with the actors. I started out as an actor. So I think for me, who wasn’t ever gonna make it as an actor, this was just the perfect avenue in the entertainment business.  Every day is different. It isn’t always fun, but the times that you are able to cast someone who you think is wonderful and see their joy makes the times when it’s hard worth it.

Can you talk us through your process of selecting a shortlist of actors for a role?  

Robert Ulrich: A casting directors power lies in the fact that there are thousands and thousands of actors. And out of those thousands you might bring in six or seven for a guest spot. Then up to several hundred for a pilot. But having said that, it makes it really hard, because the way that I work is if three thousand people get submitted for a one line role, I go through all three thousand submissions myself. Oh yeah. To this day, even if I know the character well, I pre-read fifty people or at least a great deal of people, sometimes even for a one line role. It’s just part of what makes it interesting and exciting.

When we get a script and we begin to cast it, we rely heavily on Breakdown Services and occasionally on Actors Access. Like on Glee, we relied heavily on Actors Access for the pilot and still occasionally use it. The singing made it specific and not every person was represented with an agent. And because of the speed at which television goes, if we didn’t have those services, we couldn’t possibly do it. In addition to those wonderful tools, my brain carries around tons of information (about actors) that I can draw on. I also have two business partners and several associates. When I can’t think of anybody or even when I can, I can always say ‘Hey Carol who did you see for this role?’ So I always say when I go on interviews that it’s three brains for the price of one between Eric, Carol and myself. The truth is it’s more than that with Shawn, Liz and Alex and everyone that makes up this office. And if a new actor comes to town and meets me and not Eric and Carol, we share that information.

Do you feel it is important to cast new unknown talent? 

Robert Ulrich: I don’t know if it is important but it’s certainly more fun. For me the part of the job that I don’t really like is making lists. If we’re doing a pilot and we’ve just done a ten page list for a male lead character, ummm… that isn’t fun. It’s a lot of work and you are just dealing with ‘names’. Don’t get me wrong it’s awesome when you get a big ‘name’ for a pilot, but it’s not really in my opinion casting. I am sure that 90% of casting directors would come up with the same list.

To me the art of casting is about discovering. I am very proud that so many shows I’ve done have been with young people. I’ve had the opportunity and the honor of giving so many of them their first jobs and their SAG cards. It’s wonderful to see their happiness, to feel like you’re part of their beginning and it’s also fun to share them with the world. And for actors who are not household names again it’s the same thing.

On the other hand, there so few ‘overnight’ successes. I can guarantee that if you talk to (seasoned and name actors) they’ll be saying ‘I worked really hard and slaved away’. I mean you’ll read about someone being described as never been seen and I’m like ‘I’ve seen them 100 times for auditions’. They’ve all worked super hard to get there.  And I often see that working against them. Someone will come in who was fortunate enough to be on a show for 7 years and they may not be wanted because they are too well known. That’s also a sad thing for those actors. It’s just a tough business in general.

What would you say is the rough ballpark, percentage wise that ‘unknowns’ are really being considered for roles as series regulars in pilots?  

Robert Ulrich: It depends on the pilot. For instance when we did Glee, (Ryan Murphy) wanted it to look like real high school students. We knew from the very beginning that we didn’t have to consider ‘name’ actors. So in Glee it was 99% unknown talent with the exception of Jane Lynch and we still auditioned that role. I mean we cast some kids who had never been in front of a camera. The pilot I’m doing right now, two of the main roles are older and we are trying to get movie stars in the roles and I hope we do. But if we don’t we’ll begin auditioning it with seasoned actors as they have to carry the show. Many of the other roles are in their 20s, so we are trying to discover new actors.

What would you consider are your three bugbears that actors do on self-tapes? 

Robert Ulrich: Self tapes have become a major tool in the casting process. When casting pilots, we receive tapes from all over the United States, and the world. I might be unusual in the fact that I really don’t have many things that bother me about actors. Some say people shouldn’t use props, I go ‘If it works for you and you do it well, why not?’ If Meryl Streep did it, it would work. I don’t really have such restrictions.

But if I had to come up with a list, the first thing would be you shouldn’t generally wear white. That sounds like the most ridiculous thing but we’ve had actors literally disappear on camera. I would say the same for wearing blue with a blue background.

The next one is it should be recorded from about the chest up. Sometime actors are so far away you can’t see their face and you’re like ‘Who is that?’ It goes without saying that the quality and sound should be decent. And that the background shouldn’t be too distracting unless occasionally it’s something that enhances the scene.

The last thing is some people don’t have readers and they literally say their lines and then take a beat before saying their next line. No. You need a reader. And you should try to get a decent reader if you can. I’ve seen so many self-tapes where the readers are so funny that you are distracted from the tapes. It’s really about making the tape look as professional as possible. Execs are watching the tapes in their living rooms or quickly during the day at their office. There is an expectation of it being a little bit more of a performance level than it used to be many years ago when producers were in the room. Everybody is so prepared, so the people who aren’t prepared tend to stand out. So be prepared.

If an actor was to contact you in a clever way to self-promote (so no emails, no phone calls, no weird stuff), would you welcome it? 

Robert Ulrich: I would, but I am very reluctant to say that other casting directors would agree. Even for me, it would depend on what it was and how it was presented. I would say it shouldn’t be something that costs a lot of money. It probably shouldn’t involve them coming in person. During the day I’m so busy that I can’t even see straight. We don’t go to lunch in our office. We don’t go to dinner. As I said I was in the office last night until 2.30am. And on Saturday we were here until 11pm. So it would have to be just the right thing. An agent sent us a care package for pilot season with medicine and candy which we’ve been eating all day, which was great. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking for gifts. And actors should not be spending a lot of money unnecessarily. It’s hard enough to be an actor as it costs so much money. But something clever, considerate and you promoting something you are up to is fine by me.

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