BACK STAGE WEST
August 29, 2002
If NBC's Tuesday night staple Frasier has acquired the old-shoe status reached by only a handful of classic sitcoms, casting director Jeff Greenberg is among those who keep up the show's polish and luster with his often inspired choices. As in past seasons, Greenberg has shown exquisite taste in finding spots for theatre-trained thesps on this crisply written show--about which the over-used clichˇ that sitcoms are "like little one-act plays" is completely appropriate.
This season, in particular, Greenberg gave actors best known for their dramatic work a chance to flex their comic muscles: from The West Wing's formidable Allison Janney (as a painfully mismatched blind date) to that droll, often steely little Scot Brian Cox (as Daphne's gruff Dad). "I was thrilled to be able to use him," said Greenberg of Cox, best known for frightening turns in such films as Nuremberg and L.I.E. "His comedy work in the past has been very subtle, like in Rushmore--very low-key. This was the first four-camera work he had done, and it was a different kind of energy than we had seen from him before." Janney--who basically did one sharp, short scene of escalating tension with Frasier--was a longtime fan of the show who managed to find two half-days off from West Wing and pull it off.
But by far the season's most striking and delightful bit of casting was musical theatre star Brian Stokes Mitchell as Frasier's haughty neighbor, Cam Winston, with whom Frasier engaged in an all-out war of sense and sensibility. If any actor could match Kelsey Grammer at his particularly competitive (that is, male) game of conspicuous elegance and hauteur, it's Mitchell, best known for serious roles in Ragtime and King Hedley. It was his delightful turn as a vain actor in Broadway's Kiss Me, Kate, though, that alerted Greenberg to Mitchell's comic instincts. Mitchell stayed on a few episodes, and the writers even wrote in his mother (played by Emily Yancy) as a love interest for Martin Crane (John Mahoney). That Mitchell and Yancy's characters were African-American wasn't mentioned in the script or the breakdown--a perfect example of colorblind casting. Who else but Mitchell could match wits and manners with Frasier?
And who else but Greenberg could pull together yet another season of class talent? Scanning the credits for Season 9, I spied a lot of theatre names I recognize: Dan Bucatinsky, Mary Jo Mecca, Suzanne Cryer, Raye Birk, Hal Landon Jr., Philip Casnoff, Juanita Jennings, Brian T. Finney, Mark Capri, Jay Karnes, Brian Kerwin, Tom Irwin, and Stephon Fuller, among others. Perhaps the greatest tribute to Greenberg's acumen is that Frasier is nominated for three of its guest star turns this past season: for Brian Cox's, for Anthony LaPaglia's return engagement as Daphne's loutish brother, and for Adam Arkin's wiggy turn as an obsessed Frasier Crane fan. All three represent dramatic actors at their comic best, and that's not a coincidence, Greenberg affirmed: "We're always looking for good, strong actors that have a comedy bent and don't get a chance to do it very often."
They, and we, need look no further than Frasier, TV's repertory comedy theatre.
Artios: Won in 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999; nominated 1998, 2000, 2001, and 2002. Emmy: nominated in 1996, 1997, 1998, and 2001.
The casting mission on this ABC hit, for those who chose to accept it, was a real nail-biter. This J.J. Abrams and Ken Olin-produced spy series is an ensemble-based, character-driven drama and a star-driven action thriller, all rolled into one. The pilot not only required an attractive young lead who could go from girl-next-door college student to kick-ass undercover operative as easily as changing her eyeliner--it required a large variety of supporting characters rife with mystery and authority, familiarity and quirks.
Luckily, Abrams tapped Janet Gilmore and Megan McConnell (best known for their Emmy-nominated work on The Practice) to assemble a pilot cast that's like a great theatre rep company, with venerable veterans Victor Garber, Ron Rifkin, and Carl Lumbly alongside young, stage-trained pros like Kevin Weisman, Merrin Dungey, and Bradley Cooper, to support a star, Jennifer Garner, who has exactly the right chameleonic look, physical stamina, and acting chops to carry the show on her lean, fit frame.
McConnell and Gilmore had cast Garner as a recurring love interest the season before on Abrams' Felicity, and Garner was always the favorite for Alias' lead, Sydney, despite the interest of some name actresses in the role.
"We played the name game for a while, but their agents all said 'offer only,' " said Gilmore, meaning that actresses with clout wouldn't read for the role. Garner did, along with several others, but all along, said Gilmore, the producers and casters "all had our fingers crossed that Jennifer could meet the high expectations for the role." Probably the Krav Maga training didn't hurt.
Cooper, who plays a dangerously inquisitive reporter, was unknown to the casting directors but blew them away in his audition, whereas Dungey and Weisman are both actors McConnell and Gilmore consider "go-to" talents. In describing Weisman, Gilmore could be summing up the show's acting requirements in general: "He's incredibly inventive, yet grounded and real."
McConnell and Gilmore felt so invested in the project that, Gilmore confided, the two CDs flew on their own dime back East to recruit Garber and Rifkin, even though ABC's New York casting department would usually handle such duties. It was hard, then, when the two Manhattan Beach-based casting directors had to make the choice--for personal and geographical reasons--not to cast the series when it was picked up. "It was really difficult for Megan and I to give up that show--it's like giving up a child, and it's so important to you who takes care of that child. So we were ecstatic that April took it over; she does the perfect job."
April Webster, who's currently working on the fifth episode of the second season, has had her work cut out for her, assembling a global gallery of villains and surprise guests throughout Alias' first season, but she calls McConnell and Gilmore's original cast "an incredible gift" to her. "These are people who know how to work as an ensemble, so when you bring new actors in, they don't feel left out," said Webster.
Looking for audition tips? Specificity, rather than generalized choices, seems to be the show's focus. "I get things saying, 'They're Arabic, but they're from this particular region.' It's very specific. I'm trying to find Uzbekis right now; there aren't many Uzbek actors in L.A." Webster added: "I've spent the season getting to know what an Alias actor is. What we look for is not stock characters, like the usual bad sheriff or bad senator--they're complicated, not the kind of traditional bad-guy characters."
Some of her interesting choices included the lean, charming Scottish actor John Hannah, whose arc as a brainwashed hitman went from terrifying, hollowed-eye apparent psychopath to frail but angry victim. "When you get characters like that, it sparks the imagination," said Webster. "It makes casting fun."
Another casting coup Webster cited was David Anders, whose character, the shady Sark, was bumped up to a recurring role when he caught on with producers. Anders first auditioned as a Russian, then an Irishman, and finally, over the phone, as an Englishman. Clearly, versatility isn't just one of superspy Sydney's job requirements but also one of the key traits of all its actors--not to mention its top-flight casting directors.
Artios: nominated in 2002.