As the creator and producer behind such shows as “Survivor,” “The Voice,” and “The Apprentice,” Mark Burnett is the king of reality television. And with this year’s 10-hour miniseries “The Bible,” which broke viewing records for the History Channel and became the all-time top-selling miniseries on DVD and Blu-ray, he’s on his way to conquering scripted TV as well. As it turns out, Burnett sees similarities between the ancient story and his modern hit. “There’s a real suffering on ‘Survivor.’ And in suffering in the wilds of nature, great knowledge is discovered,” Burnett says. “That’s why in ‘The Bible,’ many times a biblical hero will have been out in the wilderness for a period of time. It’s the same reason. Great knowledge comes to people who authentically want that experience.”
Burnett adds that casting reality television has things in common with casting scripted television. “There’s no difference in terms of authenticity,” he says. “In terms of nonfiction, you want characters who will be authentic on camera. The big difference, of course, is that you want them to be themselves. In scripted, you want an actor who can authentically portray the character.” When it comes to casting his reality shows, Burnett says hundreds of thousands of applications are waded through. “It narrows down at a certain point and comes down to a few hundred finalists, all of whom we meet.” And he doesn’t try to avoid casting actors. “I don’t care if you’re an actor. What I care about is, Are you doing this for the adventure or just to be on TV? When people apply and I see they’ve applied for three other reality shows, we don’t put them in. For ‘Survivor,’ we want people who genuinely want the ‘Robinson Crusoe’–‘Lord of the Flies’ adventure.”
Burnett isn’t surprised by the popularity contestants engender. “I remember being at a number of Emmy events where more people were lining up to take photographs with the ‘Survivor’ cast than with A-list actors,” he notes. “In fact, A-list actors were lining up to take pictures with the ‘Survivor’ cast!” He understands why famous alumni, such as “The View” host Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Colleen Haskell, who starred in the comedy “The Animal,” receive other on-camera opportunities. “When people emerge and connect with a wide audience, maybe sometimes other doors open up. There’s obviously something going right in terms of casting. It’s not a big stretch that you’ll be discovering people who really connect emotionally with the viewers.”
Would he ever cast one of his reality alumni in a scripted show? “If they could act, I guess,” he says. “They’re of no use whatsoever if they can’t act. I want great actors; ‘The Bible’ cast is populated with some of the finest stage actors in Britain. This is a really high-quality cast.” The only actor who didn’t have to audition was Burnett’s wife, Roma Downey, with whom he co-produced the series. She hadn’t originally intended on appearing in “The Bible,” but Burnett suggested it after realizing she was perfect for the part and even bore a resemblance to the actor cast as a young Mary.
Those who did audition faced a similar whittling-down process as occurs for his reality shows. Most of the casting was done out of the U.K., so Burnett viewed taped auditions from Los Angeles. “Every day I’d see hundreds of videos, organized by character, and we narrowed it down,” he says. Once in the audition room, Burnett says he doesn’t have any pet peeves—he just wants to get to know the actor. “I like people, and I try to live in the correct way of my faith, which is that you love your neighbor as you love yourself,” he says. “That’s how I approach all my work. Once you’ve seen the audition and see that they can actually transform themselves into making you believe they are the character they’re portraying—from there it’s just a matter of getting to know them.”
Burnett has more scripted television in the works and is editing a portion of “The Bible” for a theatrical release. Whatever he does next, he reiterates that it all comes back to authenticity. “In the end it shouldn’t matter whether something is scripted or not; you have to emotionally connect with an audience,” he says. “An inauthentic comment on a nonfiction show is as bad as a bad acting job. And the camera catches everything.”