Disney TV Casting Guru & Hoyt Bowers Award Honoree Sharon Klein Addresses Trends, Hollywood Contraction: “I Don’t Think Panic Needs To Ensue”

At tonight’s Artios Awards, Disney Entertainment TV’s Head of Casting Sharon Klein will receive The Hoyt Bowers Award for excellence in casting and outstanding contribution to the casting profession.

In her Disney Entertainment Television role, Klein leads the casting teams of 20th Television, 20th Television Animation, ABC Entertainment, ABC Signature, Disney Branded Television, Hulu Originals, Freeform, Onyx Collective and Walt Disney Television Alternative. She is responsible for the casting of all series and pilots, identifying talent for holding deals, and spearheading casting and talent strategy for the numerous entities now under her purview.

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“Sharon has assembled some of the most recognizable and memorable casts in the history of television and helped to launch the careers of many of the biggest stars today,” Dana Walden, Co-Chairman of Disney Entertainment, tells Deadline. “I’ve had the privilege of watching her apply her expertise and casting acumen to hundreds of our culture-defining shows for over two decades. There’s simply no one like her in this business – she is truly the talent behind the talent – and I am lucky and grateful to call her my colleague and one of my dearest friends.”

Here, Klein talks about how she got her start, contraction in Hollywood, and the trends in the casting business that may (or may not) be here to stay.

DEADLINE: When did you first catch the casting bug?

SHARON KLEIN: In the late eighties in New York. I was working as Gail Berman’s assistant, and Marcia Shulman, who was a friend of hers, asked to share office space while she was casting Pee-wee’s Playhouse. And then the third day she was looking around and said, ‘Sharon doesn’t seem to be doing much. Could I use her? ‘ I was a child. I was like, ‘sure.’ So that was my first assistant job. Flash forward 10 years. I was working on Love Letters, which was a live show in Beverly Hills. I was the producer’s assistant, and I shared an office with the casting director, Steven Fertig, and every week we would change cast members because they would come in on Sunday, rehearse Monday and Tuesday, and go up on Wednesday, Thursday through the weekend. We would sort of spitball pairings and ideas. When Love Letters ended and Steven got a sitcom to cast, he asked me to be his assistant.

Then I worked with Meg Liberman and Marc Hirschfeld, which was the place in those days to get trained. Then I went out on my own with Patrick Rush. We had our own company for two or three years, and Dana Walden called me and was like, ‘can we meet?’ That was 24 years ago. It was 20th Century Fox Television and she had just been made president with Gary Newman. Coming back to my origin story, Marcia Shulman was the head of casting at 20th, and she was leaving to go to the network to join Gail Berman who was becoming the president of the network.

DEADLINE: What was it like when you worked for Meg?

KLEIN: It was fantastic. There were 15 associates working on 30 projects, and the greatest part about it was I actually got to do it. I got to run a session, I got to pull the pictures, I got to be in the room with the actors. I got to do all those things. It was really a training ground, it gave me my voice, it gave me opportunity. I worked on From the Earth to the Moon, which was fantastic because not only was it Tom Hanks and Tony To, who were beyond professional geniuses that I learned so much from. Every week, every episode was a different director. So I would be able to sit in the session with Tom or with David Frankel or with Sally Field. So I got the opportunity to get into a director’s space too, and really learned a lot from them, which also informed my being an executive.

DEADLINE: How was the transition to a studio? Did it feel that much different from what you were doing as a casting director?

KLEIN First of all, I didn’t have to do guest stars and one-liners, so that was great. It gave me more time to concentrate on what I wanted, which were series regulars and recurring actors and special guest stars, et cetera. But the first couple of seasons of pilot seasons — when we had pilot seasons — we did between 30 and 35 pilots. The thing I didn’t anticipate as an executive was how our casting department was tied to every other department. We were much better when we knew what development was doing. We were much better when we were involved in the series. We became so tied to business affairs that I ended up marrying the head of business affairs. We would help get the whole budget together. We’d be involved with publicity. When I was a casting director, we would cast the show, we would have our relationship with our producers and directors and our studio person, but we didn’t get to have this full picture of what it takes to make a show. So I loved that. I was like, ‘okay, I’m set. I’ll stay here forever.’

DEADLINE: So about those pilot seasons, or the lack thereof. What’s it like not having those big ones anymore?

KLEIN: It’s kind of eased up as the years go on. Each year there have been less and less, and we’re more focused on the best projects. It’s given me the opportunity to focus on them and curate them as opposed to doing 30 pilots and you’re feeling like, ‘I got to get these deals done.’ You’re really able to create a cast like Modern Family or This is Us.

DEADLINE: Obviously, there’s been a lot of talk now about contraction in Hollywood. And that includes budgets. How is that impacting your work?

KLEIN: It’s interesting because even though we are producing more responsibly with an overall budget, we’re still competitive. We’re going to get the best actors for each role. So even though the budgets overall have to be more responsible, we’re not saying, ‘you’re going to come in for a role and you’re going to get half the amount you got last year.’ We do a budget that’s fair and equitable, then we have to go through the process and try to stick to that budget.

DEADLINE: Do fewer acting jobs exist because of the contraction going on? 

KLEIN: Do I have fewer roles? I’ll say this. There are the same number of roles per episode of television. There are the same number of roles per movie. It’s not like you’re going to see fewer roles per show. We’re going through a natural correction of the business. And will the number of series being produced go up? I don’t know. But I don’t think panic needs to ensue.

DEADLINE: Have you put the talent agencies on notice that they shouldn’t come to Disney TV expecting rich, per episode salaries for their top clients?

KLEIN: We don’t need to say that. We work closely with them all the time. They know what’s happening. They get it. If you’re on a very successful show for a number of years, everybody is going to reap the benefits of that.

DEADLINE: You saw what happened with shows like Bob ❤ Abishola — only the leads remained as series regulars while the rest were offered to continue as recurring with a five-episode guarantee. Is this a trend that will continue?

KLEIN: No. I worked on 24. We had two series regulars, maybe three after some seasons, and we did 24 episodes. Every single character was recurring. I would be the one who would have to call Howard Gordon to say, ‘oh, so-and-so’s not available for your next episode,’ and he’d have to tweak it. But that was rare because there was a quarter of the amount of projects out there that there are today. In this day and age, you can’t rely on being able to get a recurring character back. I always ask my producers when we’re going over [the budget] who should be a series regular if you need them in the second season? That’s really the distinguishing factor. And if you’re going to need them in your storytelling for more than one season, they have to be a series regular.

DEADLINE: Are the days of exclusivity over?

KLEIN: Well, there is exclusivity. I feel like there always will be. I think position is much more important. I think if you’re going to hire a series regular, you need to be in first position for actual shooting and for a lot of the marketing things that have to go on. But if someone wants to do a passion project in the off-season, I will rarely if ever say no. But will I let someone be the lead in an ABC broadcast show and an NBC broadcast show? No.

DEADLINE: One thing we’ve heard from some casting directors are complaints about some of their peers hoarding shows. In other words, one casting director may have seven or eight shows while others will have way less. Is this something you are seeing?

KLEIN: I wouldn’t call it hoarding. My producers have relationships with certain casting directors that I need to respect. So if there is an incredibly prolific producer in our midst who wants to hire the same person who they trust, I’m not going to get in the way of that. I want my producer to feel like their day-to-day is being taken care of with a trusted person at the helm. Do I encourage new faces and new people? Yes. And I think I’ve done a great job of introducing a lot of my producers to new casting directors over the years, and I continue to do that. But if someone chooses to do three projects for the producer they’ve worked with for 20 years, I’m not going to argue with that.

DEADLINE: What are your thoughts about the self-tape phenomenon and the concern by actors that so many of them are not actually being seen by casting directors?

KLEIN: First and foremost, your clients weren’t being seen when the casting directors could only see 10 people, because that’s all the time they had. When I was a casting director and they had to come to my office, the cameras didn’t exist. They came to the office and read with me. I only had so much time in my day. Self-tapes have opened up incredible amounts of opportunity for actors who would otherwise not be seen. And it helps casting directors diversify their talent pool. Maybe I’m a little like Sarah Sunshine, but I was a casting director. My job was to watch everything. I’m going to look at everything that is submitted. I am going to open every envelope. My job was to find a new face. Why wouldn’t I watch a self tape? That’s our job. And if you have to have all the assistants watching them, that’s a great way to train assistants.

DEADLINE: Looking forward, what worries you the most about where things are headed?

KLEIN: Nothing really worries me. I’m totally optimistic. It’s my nature. I love this job, so I find the fun and creative energy in it, and I work with the best people, so I don’t fear anything.

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