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Steering a course for LA

An impressive number of Aussie actors are flying high after this year’s US pilot season. Lizzie Franks reports on who they are and how they got there

Most Australian actors are familiar with the craziness that is ‘pilot season’, either through personal experience or the war stories they’ve heard from friends. Sleeping on couches, traffic gridlock, exhaustion, nerves and angst are some of the defining traits of the whole ordeal.

Pilot season is that time of year (usually mid-January to mid-April) when the major US networks – ABC, CBS, NBC, The CW and Fox – ask writers, producers and studios to cast and produce a prototype of the first episode of a television series. Although they can be filmed any time of year, most are produced during pilot season. So it’s no wonder actors from all over the world flock to Los Angeles to try their luck, hoping for their big break.

This article was orginally published in the Winter 2012 issue of The Equity Magazine, out now

“It is a great time to be over here,” says Matt Skrobalak, the LA-based casting director for CBS Paramount Network Television. “The sheer volume of projects being produced – north of 80 among the five networks – means that the most meaty series regular roles are available at the same time and CDs [casting directors] are more open to looking anywhere and everywhere for the best options.”

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During this year’s season, it would appear Australian actors have had a particularly good run. Among the lucky ones cast in pilots were: Clare Bowen in ABC’s Nashville; Meegan Warner and Chris Egan in ABC’s Beauty and the Beast; Jay Ryan in The CW’s Beauty and the Beast (yes, there’s two versions of Beauty and the Beast and both featured Australians in the lead roles!); Rebel Wilson in CBS’s Super Fun Night; Rachael Taylor in ABC’s 666 Park Avenue and Emilie de Ravin, Natalie Mendoza and Anthony LaPaglia in ABC’s Americana.

The casting process during pilot season is notoriously lengthy and competitive. The casting of Friends, which went on to be one of America’s most successful sitcoms, gives a particularly good insight into the competitiveness of the process for a television pilot and just how seriously the bigwigs take it.

For an article in The New York Times titled ‘Finding the absolutely perfect actor: the high stress business of casting’, published in 1994, arts journalist Elizabeth Kolbert sat in on the “casting of a circle of friends in their 20s living in Manhattan” for the pilot of “a sitcom called Friends Like Us”. Kolbert describes the “laborious casting process” she witnessed: “For each of the six regular characters – Joey and five friends – the show's casting director, Ellie Kanner, received more than 1,000 glossy black-and-white photos. From these, she chose about 75 actors for each part and called them in to read a scene from the show. Those who seemed promising were called back again to read in front of Ms Kauffman, Mr Crane [the writers] and their partner, Kevin Bright, a producer. And these were just the preliminaries. At the end of the month, the actors who had made it through the first set of cuts – three or four for each part – were called back yet again to read in front of a group of Warner Brothers executives.”

Jessica McNamee, formerly Sammy in Packed to the Rafters, says of the pilot season: “It truly is like nothing I have ever experienced. It is three months of pure chaos where you can have anywhere from one to four auditions in a day. There were a couple of weeks there were I was averaging 12 auditions a week.”

McNamee moved to Los Angeles in 2011 and has since starred in US feature film The Vow alongside Rachel McAdams, Sam Neill and Jessica Lange. This year, she was cast in ABC pilot Scruples. Natalie Portman was the executive producer.

The casting of Scruples, which is about a rich and powerful clothing designer who is living in a world of sex, revenge and scandal, was an “amazing experience” but far from “smooth sailing”, says McNamee. “I had actually worked with the director, Michael Sucsy, on The Vow. He has always been very supportive of my career and when he signed on as director, he instinctively thought of me for one of the roles. From that point, he had me come in and audition for the producers and then I went on to test for the show about a week later.

“After my initial test, I got put on hold for two weeks while they tested a bunch more girls because the network wanted to be 100 per cent sure about their decision and felt they hadn’t seen enough people to commit to me. Finally, about five weeks after my first Scruples audition, Michael called to tell me the exciting news!”

While many of the actors who were cast in pilots this year already had US credits, like McNamee, “there is plenty of interest in actors who have not worked on US television before”, says Skrobalak, who oversees casting activity on all CBS Television Studios shows and pilots. However, he says, having a US agent is crucial to a positive pilot season experience. “The Australian agents, while talented and fantastic, just don’t have the depth of relationships with US casting directors to assure their actors will get in the room and get the opportunities. I always advise actors without US reps to stay home and self-tape or avail themselves of auditions with Australian CDs hired to work locally on US pilot searches. There are definitely a lot of opportunities for that in Australia, as most of the major studios work with Australian CDs on select pilots.”

Skrobalak, who has been a regular visitor to Australia to scout for talent since 2005, says he is pleased to see the diversity of overseas actors landing roles in US television shows. “We cast Jay Ryan in our Beauty and the Beast pilot at CW and British actress Janet Montgomery as the lead of our CBS pilot Baby Big Shot – both of whom had never worked on US series before – not to mention the countless others who tested but did not land roles. My very first Aussie hire was Rachael Carpani right after she left McLeod’s. To see her starring in her own series over here last year was incredibly exciting.”
 
For many performers, landing work in the US means the opportunity to boost their profile and then come home and support the local industry, which is what actors such as Teresa Palmer, Joel Edgerton, Rachael Taylor, Ryan Kwanten, Sam Neill and Guy Pearce do.

“I like the idea that perhaps by gaining some sort of profile over here I could help to get an amazing story back home off the ground,” says McNamee, who is due home this month to shoot an Australian film. “I think that was always my main drive for following work over here … to be able to then get the ball rolling or be considered for projects that I am passionate about back home that otherwise may not happen or I may not get a look in for.”

Australian actress Anna Lise Phillips says she was “very lucky she didn’t have to go to LA for pilot season. It came to me.”

“I participated in that hilarious wide net of pilot auditions that reach Australia every year, and after taping an audition with Nikki Barrett, I ended up getting flown to LA to test for an NBC pilot called Revolution. In fact, my tests in LA were only with the director, the casting director and her assistant. It was a dream run.”

Phillips landed the role and was flown to Atlanta in April to shoot the pilot. “On hearing the news, I cried and opened a bottle of duty-free scotch I’d bought as a present for a friend … sorry, Graeme. And it’s been amazing, if not crazy, ever since.”

While landing a pilot is a terrific experience – not to mention a nice boost for the CV and the bank balance – every actor, writer and producer’s dream is to have that pilot picked up by a network and developed into a TV series. The statistics are pretty scary. According to an article published last year in The Wall Street Journal and called ‘The math of hit TV shows’, each year the big four networks receive 500 pitches from writers. Of these, a network will commission 70 scripts, from which they will make 20 pilots, which will result in four to eight series, of which there will be multiple seasons for only one or two.

Phillips beat some of those unlikely odds – her pilot was picked up in May. “I came to LA during pilot season 10 years ago and hated it,” she says. “I know people who have come 12 times, only to finally land a dream job on their 13th … things change.”

Lizzie Franks is the editor of The Equity Magazine

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