Savvy casting is key in reality TV. Practitioners need passion — and persistence.
You've got to put in the hours. Enthusiasm and passion are a must. It can't hurt to have a mental Rolodex. And, above all, you need to be sincerely interested in hearing other people's stories.
These are the qualities of a top-notch reality show casting director — one of the most important yet overlooked jobs in the industry. "They're unsung heroes," says Brooke Karzen, Warner Horizon's executive vice-president of unscripted and alternative television. "We don't work off a script, and we're not creating characters. It's up to them to find the people on whom we're hanging our entire stories."
At NBC's Little Big Shots, Kat Erangey and her four-person team use every resource, from YouTube to personal recommendations, to find 88 talented and chatty young contestants. The kids, aged three to 13, come from all over the globe. A few years ago, Erangey was running a half marathon in Disneyland when she encountered a girl who was obsessed with Abraham Lincoln. That child ended up talking with host Steve Harvey on the season-two premiere last year.
The kids never audition in person, so they must pop over Skype. "This show is hard to cast," Erangey admits. "We have to know the 'it factor' as soon as we see it. Other shows often take kids that we found first." (To wit, season-one theater critic Iain Armitage later landed the lead role in CBS's Young Sheldon.)
Veteran Lacey Pemberton, casting supervisor for ABC's The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, has been with the franchise for so long — 17 and 13 seasons, respectively — that she used to view audition video-tapes on her office VCR. But her goal remains unchanged. "We want to make sure you're ready to take the leap of faith and fall in love," she says. "If you want to just be on TV, there are easier ways."
Pemberton personally watches two-minute clips of every hopeful and will meet with roughly 75 of them. "I want to get to know them the old-fashioned way," she says. "I don't care how many sunsets you have on your Instagram account." She pitches her favorites to execs from Warner Horizon (including Karzen) and the network. Twenty- five people will ultimately get the chance to date in front of 6 million viewers.
For both casting directors, rampant social media use is the biggest challenge. "I want our audience to meet a contestant by watching the show, not by turning to a Facebook page," Pemberton says. Erangey also wants her viewers to be in on the discovery. "We want to track down kids before anyone else," she notes. "You can't do that when they go viral or have web pages." She must also deal with the red tape of visas and contracts for international acts.
"If [casting directors] lack trustworthiness, you're not going to get the most sought-after people on your show," says Karzen, who also works with Erangey. "Contestants must trust them with their stories. We must trust them when they pitch us. They are the gatekeepers."
Erangey wouldn't have it any other way. "I love my job," she says. "I'm changing people's lives forever."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2018