As Pilot Season Gets Underway, Casting Directors Tell Us Which Actors Are on Their Wish Lists

Michael Schneider
From Left: Tony DiMaio/Startraksphoto.com; Matt Baron/BEImages (2)

Casting

John Krasinski, TV would like you back. The Office star tops several casting directors’ wish lists as pilot season gets underway.

Should Krasinski desire a return to TV, there are several scripts he could probably choose from. Also lighting up casting directors’ dreams are Jon Hamm, fresh off Mad Men and True Detective’s Michelle Monaghan.

Other talent seen as big “gets” this year include Paula Patton, Jennifer Garner, Demi Moore, Renee Zellweger, John Turturro, John C. Reilly, John Malkovich, John Cusack, Peter Sarsgaard and Billy Bob Thornton.

Of course, it’s called a “wish list” for a reason. Although some of these actors and actresses are testing for roles, most probably aren’t ready to commit to a new full-time TV job just yet. One casting exec says he thinks it’s doubtful Hamm is itching to dive back into a full-time TV job so soon after Mad Men, although he has signed on to appear on Netflix’s upcoming Wet Hot American Summer reboot.

Also, network execs must always balance the old adage, "stars don't make television but television makes stars," with the fact that big names can drive a new show's initial tune-in and sampling. “It’s so dictated by the material,” says one casting executive. “Some roles call for real star talent, while others are perfect [for newcomers].”

One thing has changed: Every A-list actor will now at least entertain the notion of coming to TV. Even a decade ago, broadcast network casting executives knew there were certain movie actors who would never dream of doing TV. That barrier is now gone.

“No one says ‘never’ anymore,” says one exec, who remembers once fruitlessly pursuing John Travolta (now about to appear in FX’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson). “Years ago I tried to get him into a room for a TV show. His people said, ‘look, he's got this new movie in the can. If nothing happens with that, we’ll set a meeting.' That movie was Pulp Fiction.” Another actor’s agent once told this casting exec that he was going to pass on a pilot – and then didn’t get the Oscar nomination he was expecting. He signed on to do the TV show the following Monday.

Many actors are now dipping their toes in the TV waters via limited-run cable and streaming shows, like Thornton on FX’s Fargo and Malkovich on NBC’s Crossbones. The broadcast networks hope that once these stars get bit by the TV bug, they will be willing to commit to more episodes – and more years – in primetime.

Not only are some of the best roles now on TV, but the small screen is attractive for actors looking to settle down in one spot with their family. A hit TV show offers stable work without requiring travel to far-away locations for months on end.

Some compromises can also be negotiated, like when Kevin Bacon and Greg Kinnear extracted shorter episodic orders from Fox. Bacon is heading into his third season on The Following, but Kinnear’s series Rake was canceled after one season. “I think he could be a great TV star,” says a casting executive who hopes Kinnear gives TV another try. “The vehicle he chose [Rake], I understand from an actor’s standpoint, it was a good role. But it’s not what people wanted to see. After Rake I imagine he’s being really cautious.”

On the flip side, the competition to land top actors has become more intense as cable and streaming services all cast marquee projects at the same time. "Sarah Jessica Parker returned to TV on Glee, and is now back full time on HBO [where she's expected to star in the comedy pilot Divorce]," notes a network exec. "She's someone on our list, although I don't know she would ever do 22 episodes with a multi-year contract."

As for the hot projects at the networks as pilot season begins, executives are still looking at familiar titles like Fox’s Minority Report (based on the movie) and CBS’ Supergirl, which just tapped Melissa Benoist as the lead. “It’s a wonderful amalgamation of the mythology of the character with a very modern coming of age story,” said CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler.

At The CW, which just renewed all eight of its fall shows for next season, president Mark Pedowitz says some of those shows will air in midseason or summer in order to launch two new ones next fall. “The right genre show would still fit on us,” he says, “or right family show with an interesting hook we’d look at.”

NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt, whose network is almost devoid of half-hours, says he’ll pick up more comedies than dramas this pilot season, but he’s also on the lookout for procedural dramas and soaps. “I would love to have more comedy,” he says. “It’s the hardest thing. Who wouldn’t want to have that great [Thursday Must-See TV lineup] again? But I don’t think that’s going to happen in the near future.”

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