Going to network is no cakewalk, but ABC casting vp Donna Rosenstein
tries to make actors feel at home.Donna Rosenstein refers to herself as a hopeless optimist --an attractive and useful quality for a woman with the daunting job of supervising casting for all of ABC's primetime programs, including NYPD Blue, Home Improvement, Ellen, The Practice, Spin City, and the new hit Dharma and Greg.
Rosenstein was promoted to Senior Vice President, ABC Entertainment in September, 1993. She initially joined ABC in 1984 as Director, Casting, West Coast, and in 1986 was named Director, Casting, Movies and Miniseries. She was promoted to Vice President, Casting, in September 1987. Prior to joining ABC, she worked on such projects as Rambo, Rocky IV, Staying Alive, Mama's Family, and It's a Living. Before that, she worked in Hanna-Barbera's live action division and at ICM in Los Angeles and New York.
She began her industry career as a production assistant at WBNG-TV in Binghamton, New York. A native of New York, Rosenstein holds a B.A. in mass communications from State University of New York at Binghamton.
Back Stage West: How is the new season working out for you?
Rosenstein: It's exciting! We have a hit in Dharma and Greg, and the second season of The Practice looks very promising. We have a lot of new shows this year, which is unusual. ABC is being really aggressive in trying to rejuvenate its schedule and keep people watching network television.
BSW: So you think there are a lot of new shows to compete with cable?
Donna Rosenstein: Yes, and, while I don't really want to give an interview about programming, I think it's relevant to the readers of this particular newspaper insofar as, while the competition from cable and syndication and other venues makes it harder for the networks, that competition breeds opportunities for the actors, because there are just more shows and more places for their work.
That competition has also led to a lot of stunt casting. The networks want to pull out every stop that they can, particularly at the beginning of the season. But I still think that the good actors are going to work and are going to continue to work, and now there are more avenues. With syndication and all of the shows out there, there are tremendous opportunities.
BSW: Can a new face just take off?
Donna Rosenstein: Look at Jenna Elfman (Dharma on Dharma and Greg.). Jenna was a brand new face. She was cast in Townies, and she broke out of that show and now has her own show. She's only been on the scene for, like, a year. We also just cast a role on NYPD Blue with a talented Australian actress, Gabrielle Fitzpatrick, who nobody knows. She's done very little work and she got this role. So I think those possibilities always exist.
I think there's a place for everybody with talent--I really do. I don't want to be a hopeless optimist, because it's tough. There's a lot of money riding on this business and there's less and less audience available. It's taking a chance, and it's really hard to do that when there is so much riding on that chance.
BSW: Comedy seems to be the safer property.
Donna Rosenstein: There was a time when so many standup comedians were getting deals and the networks were developing shows for them, and a lot of them were not successful. So I think producers are being pickier and choosier, and are not doing those shows until the talent is ready. About three years back, I read a profile on Jerry Seinfeld, and he said that up until the time he did his show, he didn't feel that he was ready. If you look at all of the successful shows on the networks driven by comedians--Home Improvement, Roseanne, Seinfeld--these performers had been on the road for years and had really clearly defined their personas.
But then, we have an upcoming show for mid-season with Jerry Red Wilson from New York. He came in to audition for the role and he was hysterically funny. That opportunity always exists.
BSW: Can you talk a little about going to network and how, if it's possible, for actors to diminish some of the pressure?
Donna Rosenstein: I read all of these articles, and people talk about network as "men in suits with cigars." But if we did the audition in a park and we were all dressed in tie-dye, it would be the same, because as soon as you sign that test option deal and you see the potential that would exist if you get this role and the show gets picked up, it's going to be tense. We try to make it as comfortable as possible. We even sit on the floor. We want it to work as much as, or more than, the actors do. We want somebody to walk in the door and blow us away, even if they are brand new. We want to cast those roles!
BSW: What can actors expect when they come in for the network? Can they come in before and check out the space?
Donna Rosenstein: Sure. You come in, and whoever greets you or signs you in can show you the space. You wait in the lobby. The producers will usually be there. Some producers demand that all of their actors be shown the space and work with them in the room, which is a great thing to do. All of that's helpful--anything to dissuade the myth and make things easier. The responsibility lies on everybody--the network, the production company, and the actor--to make it the best experience it can be and the most productive experience it can be.
I've been in situations where an actor will walk in and not give a good audition, and I'll say, "Wait a minute, did you really understand the character?" and I'll bring them back. And some people just don't audition well. That's where an experienced and knowledgeable casting director really makes a difference. They can say, "He auditioned for me three months ago and he didn't give a good audition, but we brought him back and he was great. He comes through." And tape or film can help.
Then there are the actors who don't want to read, or whose agents tell them not to. They're at a place in their lives--they've done a series, they've done a certain amount of work, and they don't feel they should read. I understand that, but they should consider it, particularly if it's a different genre than we've seen them in or if it's a chemistry thing with another actor. Plus, not every producer and director knows everyone's work that well. It's a very difficult process.
BSW: Do you screen test actors?
Donna Rosenstein: Yes, and I think it's great if that happens for an actor. They get to audition without an audience, they get to be in makeup and wardrobe, they get to work with a director, and they get to do a few takes. There are situations where an actor will come in and read, and the producers will want to do a screen test--and the agent says they're not interested. I think it's an opportunity, a great opportunity. If I were in their shoes, I'd be willing to do a screen test.
BSW: What dictates whether or not a screen test is done?
Donna Rosenstein: Well, first of all, screen tests cost a lot of money. I think they're left for those situations where there's a chemistry issue or they want to see how the person looks on film, or the decision is just so hard that they want to take it to another level.
BSW: Would you take a chance on somebody who just got off the bus if they blew you away?
Donna Rosenstein: Absolutely!
BSW: Do you go to theatre?
Donna Rosenstein: Absolutely. There are just so many hours in the day, and in the week, but between all of us in the department, we see a lot of stuff. We have two assistants here who are at comedy clubs and theatre every night.
BSW: What are some of your likes and dislikes in auditions?
Donna Rosenstein: In my position, I'm not reading people very often. When I do a general with someone, I just like them to be themselves. I'm very comfortable talking with people and it helps me to get to know who they are.
BSW: You do make people comfortable--you're so approachable.
Donna Rosenstein: That must be true, because sometimes when actors come in for a general meeting, they end up telling me the weirdest things. The feeling they get is one of comfort--that's the feedback I get.
BSW: Why do you do generals if you don't actually call people in?
Donna Rosenstein: Because what I do has a very broad impact. I can think of somebody for a role in a series, a hosting opportunity, or a guest spot. They become part of my consciousness.
BSW: As Senior VP, Casting, what is your actual job?
Donna Rosenstein: It's difficult. Sometimes I feel that I'm a fireman putting out fires. Sometimes I feel that there's an expectation that I can do what nobody else can, so if a casting director has been working on something for two months and hasn't found what they need, they think I must have some magical powers! I discover new talent. While someone who's just casting one show might meet someone and decide that they aren't right for their show, I can keep actors in my memory bank and recommend them to a wide variety of casting directors or projects. Or, if there's somebody who's extraordinary and there's not a role for them right now but I think that there will be, I can put them under a holding deal where, for a period, ABC will pay them not to take work elsewhere.
BSW: Any final tips or words of advice?
Donna Rosenstein: Relax, be yourself, do your best. We want you to succeed as badly as you do. Hang in there. My self-esteem is not caught up in my job. People are examining my brain all the time, but I think it would be harder if, as is the case with actors, people were examining my nose or the way I speak or my persona all the time. That's harder, but the only way for anyone to survive is a separation of "church and state." Balance is very important. Have other interests. The life experience that you can bring at any age is reflected in your ability.
And I suggest that actors take one action to advance their careers every day. Actors are lucky: The thing they have that the rest of us don't is an emotional outlet when they work. That's the good news. BSW
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