How Netflix’s ‘Queer Eye’ Finds its Heroes

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Photo Source: Raquel Aparicio

By now, each member of the “Queer Eye” Fab Five has become a household name, and each season of the Netflix series gets devoured as soon as it hits the streamer. While Antoni Porowski, Tan France, Karamo Brown, Bobby Berk, and Jonathan Van Ness anchor the show, much of its warmth comes from what the producers call its heroes—the everyday people who are undergoing a life change and are helped along in their transformation by the resident experts. Across the series’ five seasons, it has found heroes that touch viewers’ hearts through their unique but relatable stories. Casting directors Ally Capriotti Grant and Pamela Vallarelli share how they find these heroes and what they do to keep each new season fresh.

Now that we’re several seasons in, what does the casting process for heroes look like?
Ally Capriotti Grant: We have a team of casting producers and casting associates that help us out. We’ve got the team in the office, and we’ve got the team who are boots on the ground, in person in the city that we’re casting in. We work together, we hand out flyers when we’re out there in the city, we hit up all the neighborhoods, we go to events, all the good stuff, and then people in the office are also going through that email and looking for the nominations and people writing in and we talk to each other the whole time to find who we want to feature that season.

Once you have some candidates, and you’ve been collecting emails, how does the process work to get to the final people that we end up seeing on this series?
Pamela Vallerelli: Say we get a great email, someone nominating somebody else, our casting producer will say, “Hey, we got this great email, I had a great phone call with that person, can you go meet them in person and check out their house and meet their family?” 
ACG: The show is really deeper than just the hero themselves. It’s about where do they live? Who do they live with? What’s their backstory? Getting to know those external people in their lives can really help you picture who the hero is. So once we meet them and we fall in love with them, we then put them on camera. That footage then goes back to the office to be edited. And then you go to the network for approval.
PV: It kind of ends up being 50–50. We do have a lot of submissions where people nominate someone that they feel is super deserving. But then we find people on the ground, as well.

What makes someone a great candidate for being a potential hero?
PV: I think the ideal hero is the person who would never see this coming, or a person who would never nominate or submit themselves. That’s the beauty of finding someone on the ground because they or their family probably would never think, Let me write in and nominate them. It’s just not on their radar. They’ve never even heard of the show. That’s kind of the ideal person.
ACG: And we always say it’s somebody that we want to be around and spend time with and root for. That type of person that everybody loves to be around is always the best hero. They put themselves last on their to-do list. 
PV: We take a good look at the city that we’re going to research. We want to represent people from different neighborhoods. We research the sports team, we figure out what the city is known for, and then it’s kind of fun to find people who represent certain parts of that city. 
ACG: There’s also that element of relatability. We want viewers to look at that hero, and say, “That person might be totally different, we might have a completely different backstory, but I get what they’re going through, I get their struggle, and I resonate with their journey.” It’s finding different stories, but also that element of relatability. In Season 6, we definitely looked back at the stories that we’ve told and ask what are the stories that we had yet to tell? That really impacts who will be cast.

What has changed in casting heroes from earlier seasons to now?
ACG: The show has become hugely popular. It’s definitely on people’s radars a bit more. We want to make sure people are nominating their loved ones for the right reason, people who genuinely truly need the help, not just people who want to meet the guys, who are super cool. 
PV: It’s always really challenging for the first season of any show because no one has anything to compare it to. Even though our show is a sort of spin-off of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” that was ages ago. A lot of people didn’t know that first season, when we were out there meeting people, what show we were casting for. You just have to present the opportunity in a good way. A lot of people took a chance in casting with us, which was awesome. It is nice to have a bigger pool of people and the hype around it and all of that. But then you do get people who kind of just want the free clout.

What kind of chemistry do you have to consider when choosing heroes knowing they will have to work with each member of the Fab Five?
ACG: I think that sometimes we want the Fab Five to sort of be the fish out of water with a hero that is the type of person that they’ve never been around. That always makes for good television and a good learning opportunity for the viewers. That likeability needs to be there, but we love to put the Fab Five in a place or location or environment that is unfamiliar to them.

What’s unique about “Queer Eye” compared to your other casting projects?
PV: We love our heroes so much. We become so close to them during the casting process. We really get to know them on such an intimate level. We always keep in touch with these people because their lives have been completely transformed. It’s so special to have been there from day one with them along on this journey. 
ACG: The thing that’s really special about “Queer Eye” is that it celebrates people’s differences. You’re meeting people who are in a transition period of life. Our heroes are at a crossroads, usually. To have a little hand in saying, “Hey, it’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to have this crazy experience, and learn and talk about why you’re different.” It’s just a feel good show. It feels like you’re a big part of a great thing for these heroes.

What are some of the challenges that come with the casting process?
ACG: Because we want to tell different stories every time, it does get trickier. First season we’re like, Who feels super deserving? Who’d be good if we fall in love with and we were able to put them on the show? Now it’s like, Okay, what story haven’t we told? Let’s find that person who we haven’t seen yet. With time, the challenge is in just making it feel fresh, making it feel different. We don’t want to ever tell the same story twice. 
PV: We want to shine a light on the pocket of a town that doesn’t easily get the spotlight. Certain cities and towns are known for iconic things. But what has an underground culture that isn’t talked about on television as much? We’d love to explore that.

When searching for talent for “Queer Eye” and other unscripted projects, where have you looked and where have you found candidates?
ACG: It can be intimidating. Where do you start? But you just start and you follow your nose and you follow your instincts. We come in with a game plan to hit up these seven neighborhoods on a certain day. But it always gets flipped on its head.

What advice do you have for people who might be interested in appearing on a show like “Queer Eye” but don’t have any experience on TV?
PV: The number one thing for us when it comes to applying for the show is we need people who are completely honest with who they are and what they’re about. There does need to be a certain degree of vulnerability because the Fab Five only has to spend a couple of days. For people to have that transformation happen in such a short period of time, you need someone who’s ready to do the work. If somebody has walls up, they’re not really going to transform in just those couple of days. You really need to be ready, willing, and hungry to make a big change in your life.

What can someone expect from the audition process?
ACG: I tell people when we start an interview to pretend they’re at brunch with one of their girlfriends and just talk to me. There are no right or wrong answers. You can say anything you want to, just be yourself. We love when people have never been on TV before. You can tell when someone’s kind of putting up a front and that’s okay, too. We can unpack that. But when someone is just completely, authentically, unapologetically themselves, we’re like, Okay we can work with someone who’s open to this and is being themselves. 
PV: There are no rules in this interview. We’ll talk for way longer than what we put together in a casting session. That just makes people feel like, okay, I don’t have to be on time. It’s just a conversation. We’re able to have conversations with people. Of course, we need those good sound bites. But for the most part, it’s a conversation back and forth like you’d have with someone sitting at a bar. I think that that takes people’s guard down a bit. We would never call it an audition. I think that’s an important factor to mention. They’re not applying for a part, it’s truly an interview. 

What’s something that will make you immediately not want to consider someone for a project?
ACG: If someone does have their walls up and isn’t able to laugh and go there with you and answer the questions if they’re too in their head. It’s really beautiful when you find someone who expresses themselves and isn’t thinking too far ahead and is in the moment. So if you’re too in your head, that is tough for a reality TV at least.

What are misconceptions people have had about what you do?
PV: I think some people think we pluck people out of obscurity, and then we’re done with our jobs, like, Okay, I found them and that’s it. But there’s so much more that goes into it creatively and logistically. We have a schedule, we have to look at these people, we have to put together beautifully written bios and edit beautiful casting videos for the network. There’s a lot of pitching internally. It’s really not just about finding the person, that’s 3% of what we do on a daily basis.
ACG: I also think people think we sit behind a desk and have one by one the next candidate comes in. It’s so much more personal. We’re out there, boots on the ground. Just like Pam said, we’re finding these people, seeing where there’s a spark, where there’s that little bit of magic, and not only trying to say, “Hey, you might be great for this,” but then doing all of that other 95% of the work in terms of interviewing them putting together their casting cuts with our editors, and pitching them properly. There’s a lot of stuff, but it makes it fun. There are a lot of different phases of the casting process.

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 19 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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