In an interview with Awards Daily‘s Shadan Larki, veteran casting director Robert Ulrich discusses how the top-notch cast of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist came together— and reflects on the A-List talent he’s discovered during his groundbreaking career.
Robert Ulrich is one of the best-known casting directors in the business, with over 200 casting credits to name. Ulrich has received eight Emmy nominations [and one win in 2011] and was awarded the Hoyt Bowers Lifetime Achievement Award from the Casting Society of America in 2019 in recognition of his 30-year career in television casting.
Robert Ulrich is a casting legend. And he is responsible for discovering some of the biggest stars in Hollywood — amongst them the cast of Glee, who went from unknowns to chart-topping, household names, practically overnight.
For most casting directors, a cast like that only comes together once in a lifetime, but Robert Ulrich isn’t most casting directors. He has, I would say, the Midas touch when it comes to television casting. His latest Extraordinary work is the cast of NBC’s Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist—an exceptional mix of big stars (Peter Gallagher, Mary Steenburgen, Lauren Graham, Skylar Astin), and relative newcomers (Jane Levy, Alex Newell, John Clarence Stewart).
In our interview, Ulrich discusses his casting process for Zoey, his collaboration with showrunner/creator Austin Winsberg, and shares anecdotes from his remarkable career.
Awards Daily: I did get a chance to speak to showrunner Austin Winsberg and we spoke about the fact that he had a list of actors that he had in mind for some of his principle characters. I wanted to start there and ask you how you helped him shape his vision for the show?
Robert Ulrich: The first role was obviously Zoey and my friend had just worked with Jane Levy and could vouch that she could sing. There wasn’t much tape of her singing, but my friend had done karaoke with her. [Laughs]. So, when I was asked, ‘Can she sing?’ I said yes, luckily, everybody believed me, because like I said, there was very little tape of her singing available.
I’m sure everybody has a list. I mean, I know that Austin wanted Peter [Gallagher], he wanted Mary [Steenburgen]. I don’t think he knew John Clarence Stewart [who plays Simon] or Michael Thomas Grant [Leif].
Everybody got along and respected each other’s opinions and tastes— and Austin has incredible taste. And he knows what he wants. He’s very, very much knows what he wants, which makes it easy for a casting director.
AD: Once you’ve shot the pilot and you have the skeleton for the show, what is your responsibility as a casting director, as the show moves forward?
RU: It depends on the nature of guest star roles. In this case, we brought in quite a few people from Los Angeles. Even some small roles we brought to Los Angeles — like the role of the barista who Skylar [Astin] dates [actress Stephanie Styles]. It’s incredible because of the openness to discovery, which Austin has, and they loved her.
You know, we auditioned almost every role, even if the roles ended up being big names—we still auditioned the roles, almost always. And it’s really fun in musical auditions as in Glee. There’s nothing like having people come in and sing for you. It’s just so fun.
AD: I did want to ask you about Glee. I think of the last decade, maybe even longer, Glee is the show that has introduced so many unknowns to us, larger audiences, and made them big stars. It was a cultural moment. Take me back to that experience.
RU: Glee was 100% unknowns. And Ryan Murphy was 100% open to discoveries. There were no names really, in Glee, other than Jane [Lynch]. I’m talking about the kids. Mathew Morrison had been on Broadway but wasn’t a household name. And Lea had obviously been on Broadway, but that was really so fun because it didn’t matter if anybody had done anything, which is very unusual in any casting process because people want people with experience. But, in the Glee situation, it was just about discovering and being open.
The role of Kurt didn’t even exist. Chris Colfer auditioned for another role that eventually got written out of the pilot. And on the spot Ryan created the role of Kurt, which is part of Ryan’s genius, you know?
Amber [Riley] hadn’t really done much. I mean, that really was a cast of unknowns and it was incredible. Zoey was a little different in the fact that the characters in Zoey are older, so the chances of finding somebody in the core cast that hadn’t done anything would be harder. Michael Thomas Grant who plays Leif, I don’t know if he had done any television, but he was somebody who, when I was on a show called The Glee Project, had made it to the top 80 out of 50,000 the second season. And I just remembered him. Through the years, I’ve seen him in a lot of the local musicals in Los Angeles and kind of kept up with him that way. But then remembered him and brought him in for Zoey so that was cool.
But Glee, because the parts were younger, there was more of the opportunity for flat out discovery, you know?
AD: I’m curious when you’re auditioning for a role and you’re meeting and interacting with thousands of people, we hear a lot about this idea of like the ‘It Factor,’ ‘The X Factor.’ What does that mean to you? What jumps out at you? How would you describe it?
RU: I think that’s impossible to answer because people either have it or they don’t. It’s not something that you can learn or that can really be described. It just is something that stars have. And in the case of doing Zoey, when singing is a factor, obviously that taps into a large part of the casting process. It’s unusual for 90% of other shows because you have to have people who can sing. And, and what I love about Zoey, in the same way that I loved Glee, is there are all levels of skill as far as singing. You know, you don’t want everybody to be the most polished singer in the world or it just wouldn’t seem real, but everybody has to be able to sing.
RU: But I will say Jane Levy has that ‘It Factor’ in spades.
AD: I wasn’t familiar with her work before watching the show and immediately I just went, ‘Who is that?’ She just jumps out at you.
RU: She’s really remarkable. I think we are just are so lucky that we got her. I was a fan of hers from Suburgatory. And then I saw her in Castle Rock and I watched every episode of What if—she just is so versatile. I think she is the epitome of somebody who just has that ‘It Factor’— she’s enormously talented, she is just so likable, watchable, and funny, and yet can immediately click into the drama. She’s really a real talent, I think.
AD: Of course, you were the casting director for Glee. You were also a judge on The Glee Project. How did that experience of being a judge on a competition series carry over to your future projects? What lessons came out of that and did that change your perspective in any way?
RU: Well, what was cool about The Glee Project was that it’s the exact same process, just on a bigger scale than I did for Glee. I mean, we had the same type of auditions and singing was very important because every week you were voted off due to your performance —but it was more so about finding somebody who Ryan felt inspired to write a role for. I saw such a magnitude of people. We saw 50,000 people each season. And it was basically worldwide casting. We had live auditions all over the country, which were like American Idol. We had thousands of people spending the night in the snow!
What The Glee Project did in helping me with Zoey is that it gave me a database of people that, that I can still pull from this many years later—Michael Thomas Grant being one of them; Alex Newell, who was on The Glee Project, and then ultimately on Glee. So, in all my casting work, whether it is musical or not, I’m able to pull from that database. The Glee Project allowed me to see more people than normal for a casting situation, you know?
AD: Sure. You’ve done so much outside of Glee and Zoey. I mean, Nip/Tuck, Feud, I could go on and on. Is there somebody that you remember meeting or an audition that just stands out as particularly memorable for you in your career?
RU: Yeah, that’s so hard because I’ve seen so many people through the years that stand out. And I’ve been lucky enough to give a lot of people their SAG cards.
Not just because he’s in Zoey, but one of those additions that stands out to me is Alex Newell’s audition for The Glee Project because he was 17, he was on a stage, and he was just so tiny on the screen. Then he started singing. And that is something I will never forget. He is just one of those singers that’s really a gift from God. I mean, his instrument is beyond almost anyone else’s I can ever think of. I think he’s one of the best singers out there in the world.
And the other one is probably Chris Colfer because there wasn’t a role for him. He opened his mouth and sang and read the scene with me. He was so unique that I knew that I was seeing somebody that wasn’t like anyone else.
AD: You know, it’s interesting, you mentioned that you’ve been able to give so many actors their SAG cards, and then you have people like Chris Colfer who have gone on to win Golden Globes. What is that like, from your perspective, to know that you played such a massive part in shaping careers?
RU: Well, it is the best part of the whole job for me. I mean, the casting director is not a position that gets a lot of accolades. I’ve been lucky, very lucky to get more than the average person in the casting world because of the Emmy and the lifetime achievement award. But, really the best part of the job is when there’s somebody that you’ve really fought for and they get the job, and then they go on to be a success. It’s the best part of it all, you know?
The year Chris Colfer won the Golden Globe, I was starting The Glee Project the very next day and I had to be in Long Beach at 5:30 in the morning. So, I made a decision to not go to any of the Golden Globes parties and just stay home. So, I was watching the awards with my wife, my son, and my daughter. And suddenly, Chris Colfer won the Golden Globe and he only thanked two people— Ryan Murphy and me. And first of all, the casting directors hardly ever get thanked. But when they do, it’s usually in a laundry list, so being singled out… And he said something like, thanks to Robert Ulrich for casting me in a role that didn’t exist, or something. And I burst into tears, my family burst into tears. My phone rang off the wall because of all the casting people in town were so touched that a casting director had been acknowledged. And I ran upstairs, put my tux on, and went across town to go to the Golden Globes party. That was the best.
AD: [Laughs]. That’s Amazing!
RU: I can’t even think of all the people that I’ve given SAG cards to, but a lot of people. I mean, I have either given them their SAG card or one of their first jobs — from Jessica Alba, Ryan Philippe, to everybody on Glee, practically, Toby McGuire, Seth Green, Jack Black. A lot of people when they were very, very young, you know? For one of their very first jobs or their SAG card or their big break. So, that is the rewarding thing.
I am so proud of the cast of Zoey. And, you know, as a casting director, you’re only as good as the material and your showrunner. I mean, that is the truth.
And in the case of Zoey, the material’s amazing. I mean, it just makes me cry every week. It’s so incredible. I’m so fortunate and lucky just to have a job that is so good. And I think I have to give a shout out to Mandy Moore because I think that the choreography on this show is just spectacular. And I think that she elevates every single moment of the show that she has anything to do with. I think she’s just remarkable.
RU: It’s just a fun group of people so no matter how stressful or how much work there is, it never really feels like work because the people just make it wonderful — from the network, the studio, the producers, everyone just makes it a wonderful situation to be involved in. I’m just blessed and so grateful that I’m doing this show.
It’s wonderful to be involved in a show that you’re so proud of and that public has been touched by, it just makes my job so much more rewarding.
AD: Zoey is such a special show. Thank you so much for your time. Truly, I know you hear it all the time, but you’re one of the greats.
RU: Oh, thank you. I cannot say enough good, enough about the cast, because I just think it’s one of the shows where every single cast member is so good. Austin knew Andrew Leeds, he wanted Peter Gallagher from the start. He was a huge advocate of switching the role of Mo, because it was originally written as a female, just to have Alex.
I’m proud of Alex. I’m just so happy that there’s something else that I could be involved with that he’s in because I think his talent and everything about him makes the character of Mo infinitely more interesting. I can’t give Austin enough credit because he is just super talented and the show is so personal to him because of his father [Winsberg’s father’s battle with a rare neurological disorder was partly the inspiration for Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist]. Every moment of that is on the screen. It just feels like reality. A reality among this extraordinary, weird situation where you can hear people sing. But, there’s always a sense of truth and I think that comes from the fact that the show is so personal to Austin.
AD: That’s so beautifully said. And Zoey is just one of those shows where you just feel like these roles were destined for these actors and so much of that is a credit to you and to Austin.
Season one of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is available to watch Hulu and on NBC.com.