Casting TV shows is a challenging process – no less so when you’re asking people to just be themselves. Glenda Hersh, co-president and co-CEO of Truly Original, the unscripted production company behind Ink Master (season 11 is airing Tuesdays at 10p on Paramount Network), as well as History’s Swamp People, truTV’s Hack My Life, and Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta, among others, offers insights into keeping it real.
Cynopsis: How do you start the casting process?
Glenda Hersh: It all really depends on the project. At times, you’ll have the concept or story idea and will set out to find the people/characters that can bring that story to life. For example, if we’re looking to develop a series that spotlights a specific trade, within a specific community – or part of the country – we of course seek out the individuals who are making big moves in that industry and who have a certain reputation, or sometimes, a particularly unique business method or lifestyle.
Other times, the approach is reversed. You’ll be fortunate to come across amazing characters and will build the series around them – whether the focus is on their personal lives or occupations or hobbies, or all of the above.
Either way, its essential that the process be tailored to the project at hand and that every stone is unturned in assembling the most compelling cast possible. In unscripted, series live and die on the quality of their characters, and a tremendous concept will fall short of success every time without an honest, authentic and entertaining cast in place to execute.
Cynopsis: How do reality shows differ from each other in casting?
Hersh: Every series requires its own unique approach, but the process can definitely vary quite drastically from genre to genre. If it’s a project for which we’re seeking real organic friendships and relationships, a traditional word-of-mouth method can be quite useful in finding the right fit – while other projects can call for more non-traditional tactics.
For a skill-based competition series like Ink Master, there are a number of boxes we have to check when narrowing down the contestants for each season. Yes, we’re looking for interesting and entertaining characters, but they also need to be incredibly skilled artists and, on top of it all, have the strategic mind for a competition of that nature.
Similarly, for Deal or No Deal, we’re looking for individuals who have the ability to navigate the game and go the distance. Another major focus – for Deal, in particular – is on finding people with compelling personal stories and real motivations for participating in the game. The person who ends up on the stage with Howie needs to be someone the audience can root for, and you find those folks through traditional methods like live casting events and social media outreach.
On the other hand, when casting for a docuseries like The Real Housewives, one of the most crucial elements is transparency. We need individuals – or often times, a group of friends or family members – who are truly willing to open up and allow us into their lives in an authentic way.
Cynopsis: What are red flags you look for?
Hersh: There are definitely those people who want to play a “character,” rather than simply being themselves. They’ve seen certain personalities on TV before and feel they need to fit into a particular archetype or create a specific persona. When that becomes evident, it’s an immediate red flag.
Of course, there are also the people who are just looking to become famous, and aren’t necessarily willing to open themselves up or allow for the type of access many unscripted series entail. You really have to keep an eye out for the folks who sign up for every show they come across. At a certain point, it becomes clear that, for them, it’s less about sharing their lives and experiences and more about being seen on TV.
Cynopsis: What casting missteps have you seen?
Hersh: Every producer who’s worked in the industry long enough has run into a situation where they’ve assembled a cast – or members of a particular cast – who initially meet all the criteria. They’re authentic, engaging, entertaining, interesting and an open book… however, those amazing personalities don’t quite translate onscreen and viewers aren’t able to relate. It’s something that comes with the territory and is simply a reality of the business that we, as producers, always need to be aware of.
It’s also extremely important that people understand what they’re getting into. In unscripted, many times, we’re plucking individuals from obscurity and placing them into a national spotlight, and with that, comes a great responsibility to prepare them for what’s ahead. We have to be tremendously clear up front about the amount of time and commitment the production process will require – as well as the level of exposure the project may generate. Some people truly believe they’re ready for it but then quickly become overwhelmed when the series gets underway.
That said, if expectations are properly managed at the onset, those issues can be avoided.
The Cynsiders column is a platform for industry leaders to reach out to colleagues, followers, and the public at large. In their own words and in targeted Q&As, columnists address breaking news, issues of the day, and the larger changes going on in the ever-evolving world of television, video and digital. Cynsiders columns live on Cynopsis’ main page and are promoted across all daily newsletters. We welcome readers’ comments, queries, and column ideas at Lynn@Cynopsis.com.