Going from nameless face in the crowd to bold-faced name in lights is not only a central theme on "Glee" but also at the heart of Oxygen's new show "The Glee Project" -- a reality competition show with the ultimate prize: a multi-episode arc on Fox's hit musical comedy.
But the road to McKinley High won't be easy for the 12 boys and girls plucked from an open casting call according to Robert Ulrich, who not only functions as a mentor on the show, but also is the "Glee" casting director. He called up PopWrap to explain what he's looking for in a Gleek, what it was like casting both shows and who else might be headed to Lima next season!
PopWrap: How did "The Glee Project" come together?
Robert Ulrich: The larger picture was an acquisition deal by Oxygen, but it was Ryan Murphy’s original idea. He wanted to do a competition drama instead of a reality show. I think his desire was to give us a bigger net to cast from. Instead of me having a couple hundred people, he knew that suddenly I’d have thousands to cast from. Plus this gives every kid an opportunity to be on “Glee” – not just ones with agents or managers.
PW: Given how huge the show has become, is casting "Glee" more difficult in season three than it was in season one?
Robert: Not more difficult, but there is an expectation now. So when we entered into "The Glee Project," the idea was that we would cast this show just like we cast “Glee.” People with agents and had been on Broadway were just as eligible as people who’ve had never done anything. I had a lot of people come in that had never sang in front of anyone before. Yes, the volume was overwhelming, but once I was in the process it was just awesome because I was able to expand my talent pool to an extraordinary degree.
PW: When you cast for "Glee," what are you looking for?
Robert: I’m always looking for that person who pops, is unusual and has something unique about them that lets me know Ryan could fall in love with them and want to write for them. When I cast now, even if I’m casting a one line character that doesn’t do much in the episode, I’m always looking beyond that because the way “Glee” works, they could be singing their own song the next week. Kent Avenido [who plays Howard] had two lines in the pilot and the next week, he was singing. Ashley Finke [who plays Lauren Zizes] is the best example of that. Ryan has genius taste. There’s never anyone who is too out of the box for him, ever.
PW: Is there any truth to reports your casting an Adele meets Susan Boyle type for season three?
Robert: There is. But we do a lot of things where we look for one character who then, through the casting process, turns into someone else. The truth is, who knows! [laughs] Sometimes I find out who I’m casting for the day before. Take Sam for example. Chord Overstreet was cast extremely last minute – I had like one day. It was crazy, so I look at him now and think how lucky we were.
PW: Is there any actor your most proud of casting on "Glee?"
Robert: No. They’re all special in their own way. Chris [Colfer] is particularly special because Kurt didn’t exist before I brought him to Ryan. So that would maybe put him towards the top – plus, he thanked me at the Golden Globes [laughs]. It was wonderful with Amber [Riley] and Cory [Monteith], because they were difficult to cast. Dianna [Agron] was literally cast at the last minute, so there’s a pleasure in how lucky we were to find someone like her. Darren Criss is special because I had brought him in for many roles he wasn’t right for, so to have him take off like he has, there’s such joy in that.
PW: Given how many people you had to work with, how do you feel about the 12 competing on "The Glee Project?"
Robert: I’m so excited about them. What I think is so incredible is that they’re not only different from one another – both physically and vocally -- but they’re all so extraordinarily talented and interesting. I think people are going to be blown away by their talent and their personalities. Having to pick one winner – which Ryan ultimately did – was nearly impossible.
PW: The grand prize is a multi-episode arc on season three. Given the wide array of contestants, I guess it's safe to say this isn't a character that has been written already.
Robert: No. But that's also the huge challenge these contestants faced. Because this character could be anyone, they have to be someone Ryan looks at and thinks "I want to write a character for you." Sure they have to sing and dance and act, but they need to be defined as a person and that’s hard for a lot of kids who don’t know who they are yet. The note they got more than any other during the competition was “be yourself so Ryan can see you – don’t try to be what you think he wants you to be.” Because at the end of the day, every character and actor needs to bring their own unique “Glee”ness to the show.
Photo: Fox; Oxygen