Welcome to part four of the behind the scenes look at the making of On The Rocks. Last time, I wrote about the writing staff and how stories were broken for the series. This time, I’m going to focus on the intricacies of casting.
Web Series Aren’t Just For Friends and Roommates
In the early days of web series, most shows used limited sized casts comprised of friends, family and roommates of the creators. But, as web series have become more and more mainstream, their production has become more professional. Professional productions need professional actors, who aren’t always easy to find, especially when you can’t pay them upfront. Fortunately, the makers of On The Rocks had an ace up their sleeves.
Meet Ali Chen, a writer for On The Rocks who is also an experienced casting assistant.
Chen has been in casting since 1997 and worked with Joseph Middelton for five years. Chen got involved with On The Rocks through writer/director, Violet Ket.
“I’d known Ali for about a year before On The Rocks. She’s always impressed me with her diligence and professionalism and I was so happy when she expressed interest in this project,” said Ket. “She was the first person we turned to.”
Show runner, Sam Miller, who had previously worked in comedy development at ABC and as an assistant on Desperate Housewives, knew the importance of good casting and was thrilled when Chen came on board.
“Ali volunteered early on to lead the casting process and we got really lucky because of that. Ali launched into a casting process that rivals anything I’ve been a part of on the network level,” said Miller. “Ali just really understood the process. She knew who would be good on camera and who would be good on stage. We wouldn’t have found the quality of actors we did without her.”
The difference between multicam and singlecam comedy isn’t just aesthetic. There is a different tone and flow to multicam and it requires a different type of acting, something to be aware of when casting, Chen said.
“The big things to look for when casting for a multicam are people with a good sense of comic timing and who understand how jokes can change on the spot. You have to be really flexible,” said Chen.
Even though On The Rocks was a web series, Chen took the casting seriously.
“I never saw this as just a web series. Because I come from a professional casting background, I cast it as if it were a professional project,” said Chen.
It wasn’t just the show runner who was impressed with the casting process. Alicia Ying, who plays Andrea, admired the professionalism Chen brought to the process.
“The casting process for On The Rocks was just like testing for a network pilot. It was very professional. Ali was a wonderful casting director and did a great job making sure that everything ran smoothly,” said Ying.
What Do You Do With 1,000 Head Shots?
Before we go any further, let me just say that there is nothing wrong with using friends, family and roommates in your web series. A lot of great shows use amateur actors. But, if you want to go pro here is how Chen and Miller approached the process.
“First and foremost, make sure it’s a SAG-AFTRA project. Union actors are more skilled than non-union. It’s night and day,” said Chen. “Even if you think there isn’t, you will realize the difference as soon as you hire someone.”
It may be different if you’re shooting in a small town, but if you’re in LA or New York, go union. Because of their increased role in the entertainment business, SAG-AFTRA covers web series, but don’t let that scare you off, Chen said.
“SAG-AFTRA makes the signatory process very easy and affordable. There’s a deferred payment option under the New Media agreement that allows us to hire actors at a reduced rate, payment is deferred until the show makes an agreed-to amount of revenue.” said Chen.
If you’re SAG-AFTRA signatory, you can use Breakdown Services to find performers. Chen also put the word out through other local groups.
Not being an actor myself and knowing little about the field, I didn’t think a web series would generate much interest. Then, Ali hit me with the numbers.
Over 900 people submitted for the role of Sally, the female lead. David, the male lead, had around 800 submissions and supporting character, Ryan, had over 1,000.
If those numbers seem daunting, they are. Fortunately, Ali’s been doing this for a while and knew how to whittle the field down to a more manageable size.
“I looked for people with improv comedy training and the right look. I also didn’t want this to be an all white cast,” said Chen. “We wanted this show to reflect today’s modern culture and it was imperative to me that we get actors who were a mix of ethnicities. So, I kept that in mind as I went through the headshots.”
Miller was also keen on getting a diverse cast. Crowd sourcing the writing and production staff from a Yahoo writers’ group lead to a very diverse staff and Miller wanted the same for the cast.
“My experience in network casting is that networks want diversity and audition for it, but can’t really deliver. We didn’t want a token minority and we didn’t want ‘minority’ to become the defining trait of that character,” said Miller.
Once the field was down to about 100 actors per role, the next step was getting people to come in and read sides or send in tapes. This further reduced the number to about four per role.
Respect the Chemistry
The final part of the casting journey was the chemistry reads. Chemistry reads are when you get the actors together to see how they play off each other and how they work as a group. Chemistry reads can be very intimidating, especially if you’re working with less experienced actors.
Sarah Stoecker, an experienced improviser who plays Sally, was initially a little intimidated by the chemistry read. Stoecker said a good casting director can help make the chemistry read easier by being supportive and putting the actors at ease.
“Sam and Ali are both incredibly professional and made me feel like I was in good hands throughout the process. Ali’s buoyant sense of humor set a fun tone for the chemistry reads, which was especially helpful to me as I had no idea what I was doing,” said Stoecker. “These two are really outstanding creative forces that I’m grateful to be working with.”
To Miller and Chen, Sally was the toughest role to cast and the chemistry read was essential for finding the right actress.
“Because so many of the actresses were in their 20’s they were less experienced and hadn’t had time to hone their comedic skills, even if they had comedy backgrounds,” said Chen. “The chemistry reads got Sarah the part. Some of the other actresses were too nervous, had probably never done chemistry reads before and just shut down. Sarah didn’t. She read with three different Davids and was the best fit.”
Stoecker wasn’t the only performer chosen on the strength their chemistry read. James Lontayao, who plays biochemist turned mixologist Ryan, was so good he was cast almost on the spot, Ket said.
“We had an idea what we were looking for in Ryan, and we’d seen a few very good candidates, but none of them was quite the right fit,” said Ket. “Then, toward the end of the day, James walked in and the moment he opened his mouth I knew we had our Ryan.”
Chemistry reads are an essential part of the casting process so it’s important to have as much of the staff present as possible. We had eight of the ten staff on hand for the read, all crammed into a single room. It was uncomfortable, but less uncomfortable than having to recast.
Not having casting director won’t kill your web series, but it’s going to save you a lot of time and effort. If you don’t have access to a professional, or can’t afford one, find anyone with experience, said Chen.
“Most importantly, be respectful of the actor’s time, especially if they are not being paid,” said Chen. “Always, always, be professional and organized.”
So, that’s the casting process. It didn’t have a lot to do with me as a writer, but I’m glad I was there for it. It was a fascinating peek behind the scenes. Next time I’ll get into the business side of launching a web series (it’s more complicated than you might think) and delve into the technical side of how we actually filmed the pilot.