Barbara McNamara says that her job as a background casting director is to turn the pages of a script into the real world. She often hires hundreds of actors every day to set the scene in a crowded coffee shop, a convention center, or the bustling New York City streets. Yet casting extras for the NBC comedy “30 Rock,” which she has done since the show’s first season in 2006, presents a fun and unique challenge for the CD because its zany characters so often redefine reality.
“It is way out there sometimes,” she says of the show. “You name it, and I’ve had to cast it, from subway musicians to walking Statues of Liberty.” McNamara will therefore add to her files not only by calling for submissions or holding open calls but also by stepping out her front door and watching the people who walk by.
“I’m a small company,” she says, “so I’m not like Central Casting or Grant Wilfley Casting. I really do try to see everyone that I put on set and meet them and know who they are.”
Knowledge of the applicants becomes especially important when McNamara is filling in a scene around the show’s stars. If an extra finds himself on camera next to Tina Fey or Alec Baldwin, for example, it’s no accident. McNamara will review photo and résumé submissions with the cast and crew in advance, or even bring each extra into her office to be personally interviewed and vetted, before they get more face time on set. If you want to play a waiter, you might be asked to serve her a drink first.
“It’s definitely more of a procedure,” McNamara says, then laughs. “I’m not just going to throw a crazy person next to them, or I’ll lose my job.”
If an extra does end up front and center in one episode, though, he or she won’t have another chance for a while. McNamara makes sure not to repeat recognizable faces for at least a year or two. The exception to that rule has been the very visible behind-the-scenes crew of “TGS With Tracy Jordan,” the sketch show–within–the–show on “30 Rock.”
“We have a core group of crew members,” McNamara says. “So on ‘TGS,’ you’ll have your cameraman and your stage manager and hair, makeup, and wardrobe people buzzing around. They are a constant.”
All of the faces that have become so familiar over the show’s seven seasons will soon be looking for new gigs. The current season of “30 Rock,” which premiered Oct. 4, is its last.
But McNamara and her growing company will be busy this year anyway. She handles New York location and background casting for the USA series “Suits,” occasionally casts scripted sketches for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report,” and is starting to cast extras for “Bronx Warrants,” a new FX series starring comedians Godfrey and Robert Kelly as Bronx detectives. And she just wrapped “Very Good Girls,” a feature film by Naomi Foner, the mother of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
McNamara has also begun casting principals for independent films, including Rob Burnett’s “We Made This Movie” (featuring Arthur Meyer, one of Backstage’s “10 Comics to Watch” this year). She even recently cast principal and background roles for a Spanish-language telenovela. “I was auditioning people in Spanish, and I don’t speak Spanish,” she says, laughing. “That was the most challenging job that I’ve ever had.”