Psychologist, detective, sociologist or spy? The casting directors of reality TV must be experts in each of these professions in order to crystallize an ensemble of compelling characters out of thousands of applicants. Unlike scripted TV shows, in which roles are defined and actors are picked from auditions based on how well they fit the character, reality TV shows start with a premise and characters aren’t created until auditions are over.
Survivor, the show that defined reality TV, airs the premiere of its 27th season, entitled Blood Vs. Water, tonight on CBS. Returning cast members are competing against their own family members this time around, and that casting dynamic should make for a compulsively watchable season. The longevity of Survivor—and of any reality series—is dependent on its cast and later installments such as Survivor’s family-based cast would not be possible without shrewd casting directors.
Generally, once a reality show’s concept is successfully pitched to a network, producers hire the showrunner and line producer. The next big hire is the casting team, composed of casting associates and the director. For a series like Survivor, the casting team is given around four months from start to finish to find the right contestants. While big networks can afford the extra time and resources, not all projects are the same. “Competition shows take months and can start in August, if airing in February, or it can be condensed and quick,” says Heather Muir, whose work includes Canadian Idol, Big Brother Canada and Canada’s Got Talent. “Can I do it in six weeks? Well, what’s your budget?”
But the budget isn’t the most crucial element of reality show’s success; it’s the casting team that really makes or breaks a show. Veteran casting supervisor Roz Taylor-Jordan, whose credits include the first four seasons of Survivor and who’s gone on to cast 30-plus shows, defines her position: “My job is to be able to identify a good character and to tell you what these characters are. Everything starts with casting, you sink or swim with your cast.”
Interestingly enough, the casting directors we spoke with all shared similar personality traits. All were easy conversationalists, persuasive communicators and readily personable, traits that put applicants at ease and that facilitate their ability to screen applicants effectively: “You really just need to listen to what people tell you, they tell you who they are in the interview,” says Taylor-Jordan. “If you ask the right questions, you’ll uncover more about them than they think they’ve given you.”.
For shows that haven’t aired, casting associates have to spread the word wherever they can, be it Craigslist, newspapers or other media. The initial casting calls are usually vague for legal reasons, as they cannot mention the show’s entire logline since the end product differs from the initial pitch.
Muir has cast many a pilot and knows a pilot’s untested waters bring uncertainties to light. “The pilot stage is even longer because [executives and producers] don’t know exactly what they want. People can tell you this is exactly what I want, and then, by the time you finish the pilot process, they’ve settled on something that’s completely the opposite on what they’ve told you. With casting, as in life, you have to start with a goal in mind but be flexible all the way.”
On the flipside, if the show has been on a few seasons, the team has to brace itself for a daunting number of submissions. Taylor-Jordan witnessed the drastic change between the first and second season of Survivor. “The first season we got 2,000 tapes,” she recalls. “The second season, and I have photos, we received 50,000 tapes.”
After casting open-calls and reviewing audition tapes, initial interviews are scheduled. Experienced casting directors, who’ve combed through thousands of submissions, will tell you they can tell what kind of person you are within five minutes. “We’re easily in the same group as tattoo artists, hairdressers and bar tenders,” says Isabel Reyes, who began as an accountant on Survivor: The Australian Outback before becoming a casting director on Trading Spouses and then supervising the casting on shows like LA Ink. “We have the same psychology skill. We can diagnose someone in a few conversations.”
Everything starts with casting,
you sink or swim with your cast.
On a long-running competition show like Survivor, applicants put their best foot forward in presenting themselves, that is, their “surefire” notions of what they think the casting team wants. However, all the casting directors we spoke with said the same thing: They ignore facades and search for someone who’s genuine. Reyes, for example, looks for people who are real and uncensored, “not crass or rude,” she explains, “but who say what they feel at that time. They unload everything, don’t ever carry any weight, they don’t carry any personal drama.”
Reyes hunts for that diamond in the rough. “It’s one thing to be like everyone else, and it’s another to be relatable by everyone else. The [relatable] people are generally nice and do everyday jobs. They’re funny, gregarious, and have charisma… They’re good people who have a story Americans can relate to. They could be in any type of setting and wouldn’t be shaken off their foundation.”
Marketing also plays into the contestant calculus. Someone can’t just be relatable, they have to be succinctly describable, explains Reyes. “Everyone has an archetype, it doesn’t matter what show you do. If you can’t give someone a tag line, like the snob, the book worm or the jealous step sister, you’re not going to be on the show.”
After archetypes are discerned, it’s a matter of identifying the right combination of contestants to form the most entertaining ensemble. This is far from easy as producers and network executives can dismiss certain candidates, thereby throwing off the mix of characters assembled. By example, if casting a five-person ensemble Reyes states, “[I would] want two people that totally get along the second they meet. Then I want the girl they wouldn’t get along with and a guy that’s attracted to both sets of girls, so there’s inside competition between them and another guy who would be his buddy. It’s how they would play off of each other.”
It’s a continually shifting chess game in which casting directors seek to predict how their opponents will move. “We have to predict the future, like how would these people react?” says Reyes. “We do so much research that by the time they’re on the show, they’re our best friends.” Taylor-Jordan adds that, on top of identifying archetypes, for returning shows, “You don’t want to keep repeating archetypes. You really look at the best candidates. You don’t start with archetypes, you start with people. Reality is all about the people.”
Predicting how people will form relationships is one thing, but predicting how people will react under constant pressure is quite another. Survivor, The Amazing Race, Project Runway and The Biggest Loser are all examples of shows that throw contestants into the deep end and see how they swim. To mitigate risk, contestants are tested for physical fitness by doctors and mentally using the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) personality test, Explains Reyes, “We do test them to see how someone would be under pressure because you don’t want to endanger the crew or other contestants.” But the tests can’t compare with what really happens under pressure, an element that fascinates Muir, “What’s really interesting is often the people that you think are heroes become villains and the people that you think are villains become heroes.”
After casting associates pitch to casting directors and supervisors, they pitch to producers who then pitch to executive producers who, in turn, pitch to the heads of their production company. Lastly, the heads of the production company present their best contestant choices to the network. At this point, the contestants are flown in to meet with network executives. At any time executives may change their mind about a certain contestant. That’s why casting directors like Reyes have many back-ups at the ready: “We’ll cast 20 people for five, so if one main girl can’t make it, instead of casting the other guy we initially wanted, we’ll throw in someone else.”
By the time a show finally makes it to air, what was originally bought in pitch form by producers, the long and arduous casting process has fleshed out with relatable, entertaining characters. It’s all a combination of network metrics and that “sixth-sense” alchemy that casting directors bring to the table. Taylor-Jordan spoke of what makes reality TV casting so special: “Casting directors in reality TV work in tandem with executive producers. They really do trust us, they have to. That really means a lot to me, and I don’t take that for granted because they’re banking on what I tell them is true. My voice matters in reality more than in any other industry … that’s a real gift. The best part is I’m really changing someone’s life, good or bad. But most of the time it’s good. I mean look at Honey Boo Boo.”
Survivor: Blood vs. Water premieres tonight, September 18 on CBS at 8 p.m. ET/PT.