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'Reality' turns its back on big cities

Unscripted shows hit the smaller towns, looking for people without dreams of making it in Hollywood.

March 19, 2003|Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Baltimore Sun

FALLS CHURCH, Va — Midway through a casting call recently, "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 staged but unscripted series, personally had auditioned about 50 people in two hours, and one thing stuck out.

"I didn't get any head shots today," said a smiling Glazer, whose show features contestants performing gruesome tasks such as eating sheep's 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" bodies but split ends and beer bellies. Many even wore shapeless flannel shirts.

The reason for this was simple: Glazer's casting crew stopped in this 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 here specifically to find "real Americans," a breed that has become something of an endangered species in the world of reality shows.

It used to be that all producers had to do when casting reality shows was hold auditions in such cities as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. These days, however, reality shows seem to be multiplying endlessly, and casting producers are finding that auditions in these big cities tend to yield an inordinate amount of a certain type: actor-model wannabes. And the instant stardom of reality-show cast members has inspired even more fame hounds to flock to these auditions in search of their 15 minutes.

New tour routes

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

For Glazer, it has meant veering from his usual casting tour, which goes to just seven big cities. To recruit for the fourth season of "Fear Factor," which begins taping in May, he's wending through 22 cities, including Joplin, Mo.; Omaha; and El Paso. 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 generally are untested on camera, the possibility for failure always looms large. And casting 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."

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 steppingstone 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."

The dream cast member whom 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.

'The life of the party'

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, 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 stores across the region.

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

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

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

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