Reality bites: filling the reality casting pool
As Australian producers create more reality content, is there an endless supply of willing people to cast in these shows? Georgina Pearson finds out how reality casting works and those cashing in on the success of its previously unknown stars.
Flick through a TV guide on any given day and chances are there will be at least one reality show filling a prime time slot. Right now, two major programs are on the schedule – The Biggest Loser and My Kitchen Rules. Fifteen years ago, it seemed unlikely Australian audiences would become so enamoured with watching people just like them doing ordinary things like cooking, singing, dancing, dating or even losing weight. But reality television is so prominent in today’s television landscape, entire network schedules are built around these shows, sometimes with dire consequences (hello Excess Baggage).
And with this steady stream of programs requiring bodies to fill them – reality shows hitting our screens in the coming months include The Farmer Wants a Wife, The Voice, MasterChef series four and Big Brother – casting is big business.
When the producers of these shows start planning their next series, the first call they make is to husband and wife team Kirsty and Graeme de Vallance. The team behind casting agency Cast of Thousands, the de Vallances have assisted the producers of some of the biggest and most prestigious reality shows in Australia.
After working as a producer for more than a decade, with credits including SBS talk show Insight, Kirsty de Vallance knows the inner workings of the television industry. She made the switch to casting seven years ago teaming up with husband Graeme, who had previously worked in advertising. “It seemed like the perfect opportunity for us to work together. I’ve never looked back,” Kirsty says. “We deal with pretty much every production company in the country and the networks as well.”
The casting process is a long one. “We get a call from a company saying they are planning this type of show and here is what they are looking for. Every casting is different. For something like MasterChef, we have up to 7000 people apply and we have to go through all of those applications.”
Karen Warner, executive producer for FremantleMedia, has worked with Cast of Thousands on shows including Grand Designs and The Apprentice. She says: “It is very important to get the mix exactly right because a show lives and dies by its casting. The first thing we do is put together a wish list and present our ideas to the network. We collaborate on every aspect of the casting and having people like Kirsty and Graeme giving advice is a vital ingredient. It’s quite a science.”
Surprisingly, applicants are not always actively seeking the spotlight and a great amount of research is required to hunt down the right personalities. “In the case of MasterChef we research food blogs, talk to amateur cooks and visit food shows to encourage people to apply,” says Graeme de Vallance. This research process was particularly important when the show was in the first series. “It is vital you get the right mix because the success of a show rides off the first cast.”
While the audition process we see at the start of many series looks terribly exciting, the casting legwork that gets contestants to that point is far from glamorous. “It’s not pretty, it’s not sexy and it’s frigging boring,” says Graeme de Vallance. “There is a lot of talking to people, a lot of calling up and asking people if they know of someone. There is a misconception thousands of people out there want to be on TV and while some do, 99 per cent don’t. It’s hard work.”
Another person looking to cash in on the never-ending demand for reality talent is Emma Ashton. Through her reality television blog, realityravings.com, Ashton offers a service to potential reality stars. For a fee, Ashton guides individuals through the application process. “I kept getting emails from people wanting advice about how to get on shows. So I thought, maybe there is a market in this,” says Ashton. For an applicant to rise to the top, their application has to pop. Ashton says: “It has to be straight to the point and catch the producer or casting director’s eye.” Aaron Harvie, a season two MasterChef finalist, knows first hand how the audition process works. “When I applied I always had the mindset that ‘oh, I’m not going to get through’ but after about a month I got the call and from then it was all go. I had a few rounds of cooking before I had a final sit-down interview with the judges,” says Harvie.
Apart from the skill required, Harvie believes his nature and background helped get him in the door. “I have an open, friendly personality to start with, but I think my background in music was a positive. All the others had backgrounds as accountants or lawyers, so mine added a bit of colour.”
Another website helping cast reality TV, including Ten’s upcoming series The Shire, is starnow.com.au. While it is free to register on the site and list casting calls, applying for roles and joining the ‘talent directory’ requires membership starting at $5.99 a month.
Regardless of how an applicant comes to the casting process, there is no one type of person that makes the cut, but Graeme De Vallance says a few key values are important. “There is no hard and fast rule but two things must stand out for me and those are honesty and integrity. We always want to cast people who have some sort of likeability or connection with everyday people.” It is also important applicants want to be on a program for the right reasons. Ashton agrees. “The one thing casting directors do not want is people who say they are going on the show to be a star or get a career out of it. That is a big no-no,” she says.
Dreams of fame
Yet, the lure of a career in the spotlight is tempting. Ashton says: “Look at Mel from the Amazing Race who’s now a radio host. Chrissie Swan is another perfect example and Polly from The Renovators going on Celebrity Apprentice.” For Harvie, being on MasterChef has clearly helped his career. “It’s changed my life. I can now have a career in cooking which is my passion. I have also got several ad endorsements.” Harvie was recently the face of a series of Pizza Hut commercials which would have netted him a tidy sum.
For those in the business, there are a number of familiar faces as with most casting calls come repeat offenders who apply for every series.
“Sometimes people that apply for shows many times have their heart in that specific program, and for reality TV that is absolutely necessary. Sometimes these people can be good because they are so unabashedly keen,” says Graeme de Vallance.
The most difficult show to cast was SBS series The Family. “Casting for that took me a good six months. We were looking for a family where we could put cameras in their house for eight weeks. And we wanted a family with a multicultural background, which made it even harder. I literally called every single person I could think of,” says Graeme de Vallance.
Despite the hours of research, reality casting is clearly one of the most colourful jobs in the television industry.
“The most interesting things happen when I go to people’s homes to interview them. A couple of times I’ve wished I gave Graeme the address in case I didn’t come back. But then there are times where I’ve expected the worst and I discover a person has an amazing hobby I didn’t know about. It’s a great industry to work in. I love it,” says Kirsty de Vallance.
- This piece first appeared in Encore magazine. Subscribe to the print edition here or download the iPad edition here.