Trying to describe what makes someone right for Glee might just be impossible. Just ask series casting director Robert Ulrich, who, on Oxygen's The Glee Project (premiering June 12 at 9/8c), is tasked with recruiting a shiny new star for the high school musical from a pool of tens of thousands of rabid Gleeks.
Turns out the 12 finalists aren't necessarily the best singers, dancers or actors — though, certainly, having those skills helped. Rather, Ulrich says they all possess that difficult-to-pinpoint Glee spirit. Or, more to the point, they all have the potential to inspire Glee's writing staff. "Ryan Murphy is really good at spotting that certain something," Ulrich tells TVGuide.com. "Kurt Hummel didn't exist until Chris Colfer walked in the room." Colfer initially auditioned to play wheelchair-bound Artie, but Murphy was so taken by the then-18-year-old that he created McKinley High's fashionable soprano just for him.
And Murphy will do the same thing for The Glee Project's winner, who will land a seven-episode arc next season on Glee. The diverse group of hopefuls include Hannah, who raps under the alias Rogue; Lindsay, who was deaf for the first six months of her life; and Matheus, a Brazilian who moved to the United States eight years ago to consult doctors about his 4-foot-9 height and was told that he is "just short." Ulrich explains how he tried to cast a role that hadn't been written, why the contenders were reasonably frustrated and what working for Murphy is like.
I imagine one of the challenges was trying to fill a role that hadn't yet been written. Did Ryan set up any guidelines to help you find whatever it is you needed to find?
Robert Ulrich: Well, that was the thing that we reminded the 12 contenders about over and over: Your job is not only to sing well and dance well, but also to show Ryan enough about yourself so that he can look at you and say, "I want to write a character for you." That was their main job.
When Chord Overstreet, who plays Sam, auditioned the first time, he did one of his impressions for me, and I remember it was so surprising and hysterical. So when he went into the network test, I said, "When you get in there, throw in an impression." They loved it! Now he does them on the show. Ryan totally writes to an actor's real strengths and insecurities and quirks and flaws and everything.
Contestants vying for guest role will go through Glee bootcamp
Still, that sounds pretty... intangible. How many of the kids went nuts trying to figure what you needed from them? And how did you explain to them that what they needed to do was "be themselves" while singing, dancing and acting well?
Ulrich: I know! It's hard. And at 18 or 19, you don't even know yourself! But that was part of their journey on this show — to figure out what it was about themselves that would make it interesting for Ryan to write for. Some of the kids we chose were more specific than others — you could look at them and say, "OK, I know what you are." I just had to keep telling them that, even though this is a competition, you're really competing against yourself. You have to find out what is most unique about you and make it really clear — and then on top of that, do everything else that we're asking of you... There are so many tears on the show, from everyone — from the contenders to the mentors. It's the most emotional show I've ever worked on!
I will say this: The Glee Project is such a glimpse into the world of Glee and what our cast goes through — only accelerated. It's kind of a bootcamp, so intense!
You saw nearly 5,000 kids when you cast the pilot for Glee. For this one guest spot, you saw 40,000. How did you narrow it down to 12?
Ulrich: It was daunting. We had no idea the amount of people who would respond. But the truth is, it gave me an incredible opportunity to cast a wide net. It gave kids from all over the world, who wouldn't normally be able to audition, an opportunity. [One of the final 12 contenders hails from Northern Ireland.] As long as you were 18 or older and could conceivably play a high schooler, you could be any size, shape, ethnicity... any type of person, really. That made it hard! We tried to find kids that were specific, and also a mix of people and vocal styles. Vocally, we ended up with a good mix of Broadway, pop, jazz and rock.
Initially, we had to narrow by the singing, and also by the kids who embodied Glee and could fit into that world. It's something that, it's true, is hard to put into words, but it's someone who would be appropriate on the show. We're also always looking for that star quality, that thing that pops, while also being accessible. Because on Glee, what makes the characters fun and real is that in this heightened, comedic world, you still have a center of truth. None of these kids are black and white.
Can you explain Ryan's taste and what kinds of things caught your attention?
Ulrich: As a casting director, your job is to make the producers, network and studio happy. You want to pick the best people, but... you also want to stay within the parameters of what your bosses want. In this case, luckily, I happen to share Ryan's tastes, and that makes it nice. What's wonderful about him is that he likes the unusual. It's like, I can never bring him someone and have him go, "Oh no, that's too weird." It's never too weird or too strange for him. It makes casting so much easier and so much creative... You can bring him everything because he's so open, and open to changing his mind.
In every episode, the bottom three contenders have a "last-chance performance" to save themselves from elimination. I didn't realize that Ryan would be the final decision every week.
Ulrich: Neither did I! (laughs) That made it so great because he is there and he's clearly so invested. I couldn't believe that he would show up in the middle of the night, perky, when we shot those things, and always looking so stylish! But he was there every week, and you won't always see it on the show, but he gave people chances to do it over again and again. Also, he's just great on camera! I'm kind of obsessed with him. He's just so neat and unique.
Check out the contestants sing "Firework" on the season premiere of The Glee Project: