Trying to keep the real in reality

As reality shows multiply, finding regular folks gets harder and harder

Pop Culture

March 09, 2003|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Sun Staff

FALLS CHURCH, VA. -- Midway through a casting call this week, Fear Factor producers had made barely a dent in the line of hundreds that clogged the parking lot -- but Mikey Glazer already knew the afternoon was going to be a success.

Glazer, casting producer for the NBC reality show, had personally auditioned about 50 people in two hours, and one thing stuck out.

"I didn't get any headshots today," said a smiling Glazer, whose show features contestants performing gruesome tasks like eating sheeps' eyeballs to win $50,000. "I didn't get people showing up with their managers or agents or whatever and they're saying, 'I can be whatever age you want me to be,' or 'I was on Jenny Jones, Elimidate ...' "

Instead of interviewing aspiring models, actors and actresses, Glazer met accountants, sales managers, stay-at-home moms. They didn't have bottle-blond hair and Baywatch bods but split ends and beer bellies. Many even wore shapeless flannel shirts.

The reason for this was simple -- Glazer's casting crew stopped in tiny Falls Church, a 2.2-square-mile city of about 11,000 filled with strip malls, Jiffy Lubes and the myriad other landmarks of everyday America.

Glazer had come to Falls Church specifically to find "real Americans" -- an elusive breed that has become something of an endangered species in the world of reality shows.

Looking farther afield

It used to be that all producers had to do when casting for reality shows was hold auditions in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. These days, however, the number of reality shows seems to be endlessly multiplying, and casting producers are finding that holding auditions in these big cities tends to yield an inordinate amount of a certain type -- actor / model wannabes. And the instant stardom of reality-show cast members like Joe Millionaire's Evan Marriott has inspired even more fame hounds to flock to these auditions in search of their 15 minutes.

To find real people, producers have had to rethink their strategies.

For Glazer, it's meant veering from his usual casting tour that goes to just seven big cities. To recruit for Season 4 of Fear Factor, which begins taping in May, he's wending through 22 cities, including Joplin, Mo., Omaha, Neb., and El Paso, Texas. Robert LaPlante, a producer who cast for Fox's Love Cruise and NBC shows Dog Eat Dog and Around the World in 80 Dates, recently began sending scouts to grocery stores, bars and shopping malls to spot potential reality-show stars.

Even reality-show veteran Jon Murray, co-creator of MTV's The Real World, did something different in a recent casting.

"We went to Montana," Murray said of casting for the show's 13th season, which is set in Paris and will air this summer. "We hadn't been there before."

Casting is crucial to the success of every reality show. Because the shows are unscripted and the cast members are generally untested on camera, the possibility for failure looms large. And the casting process was a challenge from the start, Murray said.

"At the very beginning, we had to explain to people that we wanted to put them in a house and film their lives," Murray said of Real World, which premiered in 1992. "No one understood it because it hadn't been done. They didn't really understand until the show started to air."

No professionals, please

But as Real World caught on and its stars became celebrities, a different challenge arose.

"We've always been cautious about casting people who have the goal of using this as a stepping stone to get into the broader entertainment world," Murray said. "The main thing you want to guard against is someone giving you a performance.

"We had a young woman, Beth S., who basically hid from us the fact that she wanted to be an actress," he added. "We were wondering, why does this Beth walk into the room and position herself so she's facing the camera, or always find a way to put her face in the camera? And then her cast mates found her 8-by-10 glossies. We were overjoyed when they outed her."

Casting producers of the new crop of reality shows have the same problem. And in big cities, there is the added problem of the glut of casting calls.

"When you get to the bigger cities, I definitely run into people who have tried out for a lot of shows," Glazer said. "I feel like, if I was there casting Are You Hot? or Temptation Island or Beat Your Mom With a Stick, they'd be there still."

'Life of the party'

The dream cast member reality-show producers have in mind is the "person who can't help but be themselves, ... whether the camera is on or off," LaPlante said.

And Glazer believes this dream cast member is even better when found in Middle America.

"We want the people who are the local celebrity, the life of the party, the people who, in their group of friends, they're the one that's outgoing, they're the one that everybody knows," he said. "In big cities, you have some of that, but in small towns you have this texture and character to the people that you can totally tell, 'That's Kirk, and he's from Joplin, Mo.' "

At the Falls Church casting call on Wednesday, it seemed Glazer was well on his way to finding what he wanted. The crowd of 450 that eagerly awaited an eight-minute audition resembled an army of Gap-jeans-and-baseball-cap-wearing clones most commonly found on weekends in Safeways and Macy's across the region.

As for reasons for auditioning? No one cited a Hollywood career as the end goal.

"It's a challenge," said Aaron Engler, a 23-year-old federal officer who lives in Washington.

"I'm bored," he added. "I'm just very bored."

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