The Art of Casting Authentic Unscripted Shows

Posted on: Nov 02, 2023

Photo Credit: Rommel Canlas // Shutterstock

By Gabrielle Glenn

The chemistry we see between cast members on an unscripted show can be downright magical. One minute they’re locking horns over the latest conflict, and the next they are clinking champagne glasses in mutual admiration.

While the on-camera connections between cast members may appear seamless and natural, the reality is quite different. Behind these seemingly effortless interactions lies the dedicated effort of a team of casting, development and producing professionals. Their meticulous work involves the challenging task of scouting, selecting and assembling individuals who possess the ability to deliver compelling on-camera chemistry.

What makes casting an unscripted show unique is the need to have strict, clear-cut standards for finding the right cast members, while casting a wide enough net that ensures that you’ll find the best people. Casting is all about finding the right balance between on-camera personalities, so there’s just the right amount of conflict or drama. 

Understanding Unscripted Shows

Unscripted TV has many different subgeneres such as reality-drama, competition, docuseries and crime shows. Each subgenre requires different casting needs. For example, crime shows that include reenactments, casting focuses on actors who look and move like the real-life counterparts they’re portraying.

Competition shows focus on casting people who are creative with a relentless drive to succeed. In dating shows, people who wear their heart on their sleeve are preferred over those who keep their feelings close to the vest. Emotional availability and authenticity are the most important factors when it comes down to potential cast members.

Other subgenres that aren’t formats have more leeway because there’s less of a rigid story structure that needs to repeat itself every week. Shows like the “Housewives” franchise can have a litany of personality types, because what’s most fun is observing how these different people interact. 

Take Sasha Velour, for example. Although the season 9 winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race had less wins than the other finalists, her rose-filled final lip sync to Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional” guaranteed her the crown as that year’s next drag superstar.

Creating a Casting Strategy

Before casting, get very familiar with the show’s concept and identify the demographics of people you would like to watch this show. 

For example, if you’re pitching a show about the backstage and interpersonal antics of a group of competitive Broadway performers, you’ll want to target the arts, fashion and the LGBTQ+ communities. Don’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to pairing concepts with potential demographics. See where the world of your show and your target demographic naturally converge and go from there.

Once you have a firm grasp on the types of stories and personalities you want to see, start the audition process. Cold call places you think have the types of people you’re looking for. 

After obtaining contact information and setting up phone and Zoom calls, talk to your potential cast. Don’t rush the call—be personable and listen with open ears. Within the first ten minutes it will become obvious if they’ll be a good fit for your project. Have a top-three criteria that you’ll be evaluating cast members on, so it’s easier to understand who’s a good fit and who isn’t.

Finding the Perfect Characters

Nearly everyone carries a tiny computer in their pocket—a phone. Apps like TikTok, LinkedIn, X, formerly known as Twitter or Instagram are great resources to spread the word and find cast members. Use hashtags that are connected to the main premise of your show’s idea to attract people to your page. 

It’s not necessary to create a page specifically for your show until it’s produced. I prefer sending casting notices through my professional social media pages. Everybody is different, but I find that using a spreadsheet to track my outreach efforts keeps me organized. 

Leverage relationships with people you know in real life. Ideally, you have relationships with people from previous projects that can connect you to people they know. Developing relationships takes time, so put in the groundwork early and as often as your schedule allows. 

Once you have your cast set, have a meeting with them over coffee or Zoom to observe how they interact. Pay attention to any red, green or yellow flags you see and act proactively on them. Don’t ignore a lack of chemistry now because you’ll be paying for it in production or in post. 

Building Strong Collaborations

Once budgets have been solidified, the cast is confirmed and creative is finalized, it’s time to produce your project. Start with your network to find crew for the project. Hiring a solid shooter, sound person, a resourceful PA and a strong editor is a good start, especially for a development project that doesn’t need much crew. Although these people weren’t a part of the casting process, the crew may have good insight about what’s happening with the cast and developing stories. Listen to the best ideas and make the most informed decision from there. 

Organization and clear communication manage expectations and timelines. Before each shoot day, production sends call sheets that break down the schedule. Assuming this is a development project and not a series, there may not be an AD, or assistant director, on-set to keep the production on time, so producers must be mindful that they’re getting the shots and interviews needed. Knowing what’s happening hour by hour allows the cast and crew to stay ahead of the day’s events. 

Since casting is at the development stage, most negotiations will happen between the independent producer, cast and their representatives. If a production company is involved, the production company negotiates with the producer, who already has their own deal with the cast.

If this is a series, producers will have their representatives (agent or lawyer) negotiate their deals with the network. 

The network negotiates talent deals with talent representatives. No matter what happens with negotiations, maintain a level head, communicate early and often and keep it professional. You have a creative and financial legacy to build, so keep the end goal in mind. Today’s struggle is simply laying the groundwork for tomorrow’s victory.  

Looking for more ways to cast your unscripted show? Join Casting Networks to find your perfect cast for your next project!

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