Ask a Casting Director: Jeff Greenberg of ‘Modern Family’ on Making Ensemble Comedy

And we finally find out why the Pritchetts constantly talking to the camera!

The cast of ABC's Modern Family.

The cast of ABC’s Modern Family. ABC

Welcome back to tvDownload’s “Ask a Casting Director:” a series in which we talk to the men and women responsible for populating the worlds of our favorite shows. We interviewed Jeff Greenberg, the casting director of ABC’s Modern Family. My. Greenberg is currently nominated for an Emmy for his work on the show.

Observer: You’ve been doing this for a while, so can you give me a little bit about your history?

Jeff Greenberg: SI started out in the business as an actor and I segued into casting—just helping out friends—and then I got this huge break as the casting director of Cheers, of all things. You know, one of the clichés in business is waiting for the “big break.” I actually got one. And it was big because—this is a brilliance of Glen Charles and Jim Burrows—they wanted a casting director who didn’t come from television. I’d been working with other casting directors in film and stage. I had done lots of movies as a casting associate and they wanted someone that was gonna bring non-cheesy faces to their show.

Observer: Was this for the first season of Cheers, or did it already exist?

JG: The show existed. They were replacing the casting director because they were seeing too many TV faces, and I joined the show in the fifth season, which was Shelley Long’s last year. I found them Kirstie [Alley].

Observer: Wow, you’re responsible for Kirstie!

JG: Yes I am. And the show exploded to a whole new level because of it. And it re-energized the show in such a big way. And everything that has come to me since then came from that job. And their faith in taking a chance on someone outside the box.

Observer: Back then, when someone said “We don’t want a face from TV,” did that mean specifically movies? Or unknown?

JG: They thought that the casting director at the time was bringing them too many actors that they were seeing on other television shows, or as spokespeople in commercials. They just wanted fresher. And I was very—my taste was a lot of theater actors, especially from New York, which was Glen Charles’ and Jim Burrow’s taste as well. We would hire actors out of New York who weren’t on any TV shows and fly them in.

The first person I had to cast was Cliff Clavin’s mother, and we hired a great actor named Frances Sternhagen, who not everybody in America knows, but (the creators) certainly knew because they were big Broadway aficionados. That’s the style that they liked, and I fit right in there. So it was just the right place at the right time at the right job for me.

Observer: Do you think that since then, have you seen the role of what it means to be a casting director change? Or what your job entails since that first season at Cheers?

JG: Well I think the role is still helping the creators realize their vision. Taking what they’re giving you and helping bring that to life. Enhancing what’s on the page and even elevating it to something that’s more interesting and funnier. You work together with the writers and the production team to just create something that just serves the material. Serves the show.

Observer: So, do you work for a network, or for an agency? Or is being a casting director a freelance gig?

JG: Casting directors get type-cast to what they’re most successful at, and my first big hit was this urban comedy, Cheers. That led to Wings and Frasier and Ugly Betty and Modern Family certainly. Over the years I’ve been lucky to have these long run. I will often have multiple series, or sometimes just one. I do theater out here too: I just did a production of Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina. It was great. I do a play every couple of years. And sometimes I’m working on a couple of series at once. Sometimes it’s just Modern Family. As long as I keep working I’m happy.

Observer: But you’re employed by the specific show?

JG: Exactly. Yeah, I’m freelance and I’m non-exclusive to all the studios and networks. There are certain studios and networks that have casting staff to just work on their shows. But most of the casting directors, I think, are independent.

Observer: You mentioned casting directors being type-cast: I think it’s interesting you got to be known for this multi-person comedy and Modern Family is the ultimate ensemble cast. I’m sure a lot goes into finding actors who fit not just how a character is written, but the larger dynamic of how they all play off each other.

Can you tell me a little bit about what that looks like? Is it a lot of watching individual tapes, and then getting everyone in the same room to read together?

JG: Well it’s a combination. When we were casting the pilot of Modern Family, you try to have “chemistry readings” between characters that are gonna work together; especially husband and wife, or siblings, whenever you can. Still, we offered Jay and Gloria to Ed O’Neill and Sofía Vergara, and they didn’t didn’t meet till the first table reading of the show. Because they didn’t audition: we made (both actors) offers. So we could never see any chemistry beforehand.

But for Jesse Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet— we had lots of different options for Mitchell and Cameron. During the audition process we had different Camerons read with different Mitchells.

Observer: You must be doing your job right: they’re the perfect couple!

JG: Jesse was hired first and then kept looking for Cameron, so we would have (Tyler Ferguson) read with all the Cameron choices. He really really clicked with Eric.

It was something you just sort of cross your fingers about; that there will be a palpable chemistry there. And they absolutely had it: the first time they read together was the first time they met. They didn’t know each other at all, they just read and they just looked like a couple. That’s something you hope for.

Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen didn’t read together. They both auditioned, but got hired at the last minute, so we didn’t have a chance. We were just happy to get two actors. They were hired days before we began. It took eleven weeks to cast the pilot, and Ty Burrell we brought into the studio network the very first session and they didn’t approve him for two months. They just didn’t see it. We just kept trying and trying until it clicked.

Observer: This is a side-point, but I always think it’s funny on Modern Family…who are they talking to? Is it a mockumentary? Why are they constantly talking to the camera?

The concept of the show, originally, was called My American Family. There was a Norwegian documentarian who was a foreign exchange student and stayed with the Pritchett family in high school. Claire had a crush on him, as did Mitchell, and then he went away and he came back as a documentarian who was gonna do this documentary about his American family. In the development of the show, they realized they did not need that character, but they still just sort of had these confessionals, as if the characters were talking to somebody.

JG: The concept of the show, originally, was called My American Family. There was a Norwegian documentarian who was a foreign exchange student and stayed with the Pritchett family in high school. Claire had a crush on him, as did Mitchell, and then he went away and he came back as a documentarian who was gonna do this documentary about his American family. In the development of the show, they realized they did not need that character, but they still just sort of had these confessionals, as if the characters were talking to somebody.

There were so many places where the stars aligned for our show in terms of casting and all that. That became—because the show was shot like a mockumentary—it’s the first family comedy to have ever done that. The Office did it but it was a workplace comedy. There has never been a family comedy that did it. So that gave the picture of the tired old family comedy a fresh way to tell these stories. And that’s one of the reasons it clicked big. Because it feels like just a new way to tell old stories.

Observer: Is there a certain kind of actor or face that kind of does better with that style of comedy, as opposed to people who do it more like a traditional theater or set kind of thing?

JG: No. A good actor is a good actor and they can cross over to different mediums easily, I don’t know that a certain kind of face…

Observer: I think one of the best castings from Modern Family and maybe from comedies in general is when you guys had Lin-Manuel Miranda show up before Hamilton was out.

JG: And thank God we did because now he gets me Hamilton tickets. Lin remembered! With him, I got a call from his agent saying “He’s out in LA, he’s the biggest fan of Modern Family ever. Would you like to meet with him?”

So I set up a meeting and he came in and quoted episode after episode, line after line, joke after joke, and we loved him. And not long after that a part came up and so we offered it to him. He remembers that I sort of opened the door for him to come in and do his thing. So he’s graciously been able to return the favor by letting me get tickets to his incredible show.

Observer: When you’re casting for children, and the idea is that they’re gonna sort of grow up on camera, does that play any sort of part in your decision process? Do you have to think about what they’re gonna look like as teenagers?

JG: I don’t think we really think what they’re gonna look like as teenagers…when you’re casting the pilot you just try to make the best show possible so that it gets on the air. Nobody foresaw that the show would be this kind of hit. We didn’t even know if it was gonna get a series order.

But you do make a lot of effort to create a family—you find kids that look like they’re from those parents, and siblings that look like they are related. So we were reading kids before we had Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell. I was looking at all sort of types, waiting to see whose parents were gonna be so we could match up the right kid to make it look like a family.

Observer: Who, in your opinion, was sort of the most surprising breakout of the series?

JG: One of the most challenging roles to cast was probably Manny. It was a 40-year-old persona inside in an 11-year old body. It was a really challenging part. I auditioned 198 boys between the ages of 8 and 13. Only eight of them were good enough to bring to the producers. Only eight of 198. It was real slim pickings.

Rico, who’s great in the part, he was still a raw talent. We had to work with him a bit because at 11, you don’t have the kind of experience. The other kid that was down to the wire with him was more experienced, sort of slick—he seemed like a hollywood kid, you know? And Rico just seemed so real. He made you laugh and cry at the same time. He’s so dear, and old soul. And it was such an original character so it got a lot of attention.

Observer: Do you see networks as being more open or–even maybe pushing–toward the idea of diversity in casting?

JG: Definitely pushing. It’s more of a mandate now: I’ve literally had network’s top executives tell me “Your show will not be picked up unless there’s significant diversity in it.”

Observer: That’s really great.

JG: You do the best you can. Hopefully it’s a part that organically is that. Sometimes it’s the perfect fit—diversity in a certain character, and sometimes it’s a little forced. It just sort of depends what the show is. I think it’s wise these days for writers to think about diversity when they’re creating all the characters, so that it’s not something that’s tacked on later.

Observer: Is there any other talen- spotting that you’re particularly proud of?

JG: Eric Stonestreet. He had been auditioning for me for ten years. I had never hired him for anything. But he said before Modern Family the longest he ever worked in anything was eight days, which is what they usually hire you for for an hour show. I just always believed in his talent: he’s awesome and it was so exciting to see him connect with this character in such a way that it just felt so original. The clown stuff was just brilliant, and he won two Emmys.

When they win the Emmys it makes me feel very proud that I have a small part in that.

Observer: You’re nominated for an Emmy for casting, but there’s no equivalent for casting in the Oscars.

JG: It’s shameful that there’s no casting oscar. It’s no different than getting actors for a television show. It’s part of a collaborative and creative team that puts together the projects. The casting director makes such a huge contribution. There should be also a Tony award for casting. I’m thrilled that there is one for Emmys. It took a long long time to make that happen but it’s really—it’s insulting that it’s not looked at as a part of the whole system.

Observer: Did you ever make a specific decision, you know, I’m gonna stick on TV and not do films as much?

JG: My first break was on Cheers so, and you tend to be typecast. I’ve done a few movies over the years–I did Look Who’s Talking and Night at the Roxbury and Father of the Bride 2 and Die, Mommy, Die–and every two years I’ve gotten to do one. But it just seems that there’s less and less movies being made and they’re many other casting directors whose names are much higher on those lists as to who to go to than me. For the movies, at least. But I love doing television. I love my job more than I have words to tell you so I’m really happy right now.

Observer: It’s good to hear that and you’ve done a really fantastic job. If people are interested in casting, what would you suggest for them?

JG: It’s very interesting. There’s no program or courses anywhere to learn where to be a casting director. There’s no college degree so I think a lot of casting directors come from being actors. I think a lot of people get their first jobs by being interns and you have to be incredibly organizational.

You have to have an extremely intense knowledge of film, television and theater and I think a lot of being a casting director comes from being actors because you learn how to analyze the text, the material, how to work with directors, how to work with other actors—you have to speak that language.

Ask a Casting Director: Jeff Greenberg of ‘Modern Family’ on Making Ensemble Comedy