Casting director Jeff Greenberg recently scored his tenth Emmy nomination, this time for his work on the ABC sitcom “Modern Family,” after winning the award in 2010 for the show. But don’t think that means it’s all old hat to the veteran CD, who has worked on such shows as “Cheers,” “Frasier,” and “Ugly Betty.” “It is completely thrilling,” says Greenberg. “It remains a dream come true, every single time. There’s not a blasé moment that happens; it’s really an amazing feeling.”
You’ve been with “Modern Family” since the pilot. The cast is made up of a lot of well-known actors, but Eric Stonestreet was new to audiences. How did you find him?
Jeff Greenberg: Eric has been auditioning for me for 10 years. About 10 years ago, he tested for a pilot for me called “Say Uncle” that, ironically, Steve Levitan produced. Eric didn’t get he part and the pilot didn’t go, but he pre-read for me for this. We really had a hard time finding our Cameron. I ended up bringing him into producers. He wasn’t exactly the physical image we had for the role, but as we like to say, funny is funny. When we tested actors with Jesse Tyler Ferguson, he and Eric had great chemistry together. He was our guy. And Eric likes to say, “Modern Family” is the first job he’s ever had that was more than three days.
Who are some of the people from the last season you particularly enjoyed casting?
Greenberg: Ellen Barkin, Bobby Cannavale, Leslie Mann, Tim Blake Nelson, all those were my ideas, and they happily worked out well for us.
What made you think of Bobby Cannavale to play the former clown partner of Cameron?
Greenberg: I’ve worked with him before, I did a pilot that Paul Reiser wrote. Bobby was the lead, and he was just inspired in it. The show didn’t go, but I got to know him better. I love how expressive he is and his physical comedy is so great. I thought he would be a great counterpoint to Eric Stonestreet, who played his ex-partner.
At the same time, you use a lot of great actors who aren’t necessarily names.
Greenberg: Lots and lots of people are not known actors, per se, that we have on the show. I just always try to get the best actor we can come up with. We try to steer clear of using too many celebrities. It really has to be the person who’s the best casting, as opposed to the most famous person. Sometimes, if that person is a name actor, it’s a happy blend. But we really try to hold back the number of those we have per season. We try to not be that show that relies on stunt casting.
Have any of your casting choices caused the character to change in an unforeseen way?
Greenberg: When Tim Blake Nelson did last year’s season premiere, he played the head honcho on a dude ranch, who was teaching everyone to be cowboys. He brought so much more humor to it than what was just on the page. He’s one of the few actors where they ended up using a lot of his improvised lines. There’s very little improvisation on the show, actually, but his stuff was just killing. The part really evolved from something very different than it originally intended to be. It was originally more of a Marlboro Man.
This year you also provided a challenge in that you had to find a new actor to play Mitchell and Cameron’s adopted daughter, Lily. What was that process like?
Greenberg: I read about 90 young Asian girls that were three or four years old. They wrote audition scenes for her. We ended up testing three girls and Aubrey Anderson-Emmons got the part. There was actually a little girl who was way more adept and slick, but she felt like a Hollywood actress. Aubrey was just very natural. And not only was it her first job; it was her first audition.
What advice would you offer to someone who is auditioning for you?
Greenberg: Just know the material really well and really accurately because the words are so well-crafted. You can certainly hold the sides if you want, but know it really well. And understand the dynamic of the show, how conversational it is. And have fun.
Leading up to the Emmy Awards, Back Stage will be speaking with the Emmy-nominated casting directors about how they put together a top notch TV cast. Check back next week to learn more!