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The Glee Project Interviewby Pattye Grippo    

This is an interview with casting director Robert Ulrich, choreographer Zach Woodlee, and mentor Nikki Anders on May 26, 2011 about the show The Glee Project.

Nikki Anders

Question:
Robert, what were you looking for specifically when you were casting for this show?

Robert Ulrich:
As in Glee what makes the casting process fun and unique, but also difficult, is that basically anyone is right for Glee and The Glee Project. I mean you can be any size, shape, ethnicity and the only thing, the only qualifications they had to have where they had to be over 18 and conceivably play high school.

Initially through the whole beginning of the process until the callback it was solely singing so we were obviously looking for people who could sing. But Glee is always more than just singing. It's looking for somebody who fits into The Glee world and is accessible and has that special something that you can't describe. So we knew we were looking for incredible people.

Question:
What was the most stressful point for you as mentors and at this point is there a particular person that stands out with The Glee factor?

Zach Woodlee:
I'm sure Nikki is in the same boat. I feel like the most stressful moment as far as my part of the job was trying to get these kids up to speed that fast because I don't think any of them realized how much they would be doing. They came to these auditions with sort of fragmented moments of they would sing a little bit and they'd dance a little bit but what it all boiled to, we were up against such a small clock to get these kids ready to shoot their performances. I think getting them all to be sort of immediate professionals was very, mostly yeah, it's how are we going to do this in such a small amount of time.

Nikki Anders:
I think that and kind of figuring out in such a short amount of time their strengths and weaknesses and how to make them shine the most. We had just on the first day it's like oh, we got to find out exactly what they're good at on the first day and that's really stressful because you want them to be doing their best and part of our job is getting to the heart of what they're best at and where they shine the most. And I think that was probably the most stressful part.

Zach Woodlee:
I agree. I think most of these kids either they're theater kids or performers of course in their own right but to make them all work together as a group on the TV show we've had the privilege of having a bit more time for everyone to solidify as a group but this was literally 12 strangers that you throw together and I'm like, okay, I don't know who can move, Nikki doesn't know who can sing.

We're just sort of piecemealing it all and we do want to give them the best opportunity to shine but I think our own personal attachments to these kids of like oh, no, you have to do better, you have to do better and just crossing your fingers at the end and hoping they can pull it out. And I think they did a great job.

Robert Ulrich:
And I want to add that I do think that what Zach just said, that was also one of the most stressful things I think for the three of us is that we did become so attached. And the fact that we would have to determine as the show went along who was going to be basically potentially eliminated was really tough because that became very stressful week after week when we had to deal with them on a personal level.

Nikki Anders:
True, that's very true.

Question:
Could tell me about some of the assignments that the finalists have to perform while they're on the show?

Robert Ulrich:
I think we shouldn't give details to the assignments because then people wouldn't want to watch the show. I think that we can't really give that away but basically they were challenged every week with singing and dancing and then acting in their singing and dancing.

Zach Woodlee:
A lot of the challenges they do parallel on what you have to do on our show in the scripted version. So everything's really relevant to what they would be doing on the scripted show when they get on. We make jokes at times that we were sort of fast-tracking them to a Season 3 so they were put up against pretty hefty challenges and we asked them I think to pull from places that they didn't know they had inside of themselves yet. I know that Nikki broke through quite a few barriers as far as what they could do vocally.

Nikki Anders:
Every week they had more challenge on their live singing and their studio singing. And because really when you're doing Glee you do have to also be a studio singer which is very different from live singing so that's one thing that they do every week. And then there's the choreography and they all kind of culminate at the end with the acting and putting all three together. So every week there's something new and different that they have to do because every song is different of course and every song requires a different amount of dancing skill. And so everybody was pushed out of their comfort zone at some point.

Zach Woodlee:
Completely and I think that was always fun, the surprise of we're doing what?

Question:
Robert, can you talk about how a show like this streamlines the casting process for Glee as a whole and how it will help in the long run?

Robert Ulrich:
I keep referring it to it's just an extended casting process because, and I can't think of the exact word but it was a wonderful casting process because normally we're dealing with week-to-week of a few hundred people or in the pilot, a few thousand people. This was 40,000 people so the talent pool was so large and that was great. And plus we were pulling from kids, pulling kids from areas who would never have had the opportunity to audition for Glee. So it just opened us up to a whole different arena, a whole different kind of talent that we normally wouldn't have had.

Because one of these contenders will end up on Glee and if the show continues it's a wonderful way to broaden the casting process is really what it is. As a casting director it was so much fun to be seeing people again from little towns, people that some of them had never sung except inside their shower and to give those people an opportunity was wonderful. So ultimately it will help Glee because the person will be on Glee.

Question:
When you started out did you have a few characters in mind or will you write it completely for the person that wins?

Robert Ulrich:
They're completely writing it for the person who wins. That was what made this a different process, that they weren't auditioning for a specific role which again made it even harder because you were dealing with 12 individuals who could all be on Glee, who are all wonderful and made it over 40,000 people. So their job was to actually inspire Ryan to create a character for them.

Zach Woodlee:
And I think part of the fun process is you see as the series goes on is as Ryan Murphy gets more time to see the kids that are actually in the elimination and you really start to sense a character in who he could write for and he really does help to steer these kids in a direction of defining who they can be in the show.

So it's a bit of a fun process. I know towards the end Robert and Nikki and myself would all sit there wondering like who would this person be in the show. And as Ryan starts to reveal it this person would be a great boyfriend character or a new transfer student or anything. It's really nice to see how these kids really in their own right created their own characters for the show and that was part of the challenge was who can you be on Glee that's someone different that we don't have.

Nikki Anders:
Right and just to add to that, I mean that's really the essence of Glee is all about being true to yourself and living that way. And this is really the first time on TV that the prize has been getting a role in a scripted show and yet the scripted part is something that you're going to create yourself.

And you have to, through this process of The Glee Project, you really have to hone in on what it is that makes you unique and an individual and find that and show that and be able to show that through the music, through the dance and through your acting. And that in the end is what would inspire Ryan Murphy to write a character for you. So it's a really unique show and a really unique way of getting a character on the show.

Question:
Will we get to see tryouts from before you pick the 12 contestants or are you going to start with the 12?

Robert Ulrich:
I think you are going to be able to see some of the tryouts of not only the 12 contestants but all the other many of the other contestants as well. I do think there will be a bit of journey along the way to get to the 12 but no, you won't see all 40,000. The highlights of which there were many.

Question:
How does the show stand apart from any of the other competition reality shows out there?

Zach Woodlee:
I think the biggest challenge of this particular show like most reality shows and Robert and me sit and talk about most reality shows everyone is competing against the same sort of genre and in the Top Chef everyone's making it's like this is the dish I made or in the Top Model, this is the picture I took or it's like everyone's sort of, they're all models or they're all chefs or they're all everyone has one product that they end up tearing out.

But this is so individualized as far as we're searching for a person and their genuine self. And it becomes so subjective as to what they bring each week because in one week they can be flying high and maybe that challenge is particularly suited for them. But then as the show progresses you see that some of our loves at the top, they quickly fall to the bottom. It's really a rollercoaster each week of who can really bring a consistent television-worth performance each week.

Robert Ulrich:
I also think that what makes us different too is that most shows people are judges or most shows, people are hosts. They have these specific roles and I think what makes this really different is that the show, The Glee Project is so authentic to Glee in the fact that Zach is the choreographer on Glee and Nikki does the music, works on the music on Glee and I am the casting directing on Glee so we're all being who we are on Glee and doing the same things we do on Glee on this show. So I think that is a big difference.

Nikki Anders:
This show is the first time that a reality show has been spun off from a scripted show. And it's also the first time that someone on a reality show can win a guest-starring role on a scripted show. So just what the prize is, is pretty unique in itself. Not only do they get a role on Glee, they also get to make music and release records and possibly tour. I mean it's a pretty big prize for the winner. And it is probably the only show that does combine acting, singing, dancing and personality.

Zach Woodlee:
It is unique, you're right, Nikki. It's not like at the end of it you say yea, you win $500,000.

Robert Ulrich:
It's much more the longevity. I think that.

Zach Woodlee:
You will see these people much after this show ends. Like they will become a character on a lot of people's favorite TV shows so it's not a lot of competition shows they win and then they sort of fall of the next season but these will be, the winner of this will be someone that stays in sort of American television.

Robert Ulrich:
I think Ryan keeps saying that this isn't just a prize of getting on the show; it's a career.

Question:
How is the mentoring process going to work?

Nikki Anders:
The mentoring process is also another unique aspect in my opinion to this show. We've got a mentor for the dancing and choreography. We've got a mentor on a personal level on the acting and that's Robert. And I am mentoring them on the music side. And I think it's more of just sitting behind a table and saying yes, no, try this. We're actively involved in these kids' lives and working with them, talking with them about what makes them tick and trying to get to the heart of why they want to do it and what makes them special and I wouldn't say there was therapy involved but I would say that we do get really involved and deep inside these kids' lives.

And we, like Robert said before, we started to really grow fond and become attached to these kids and that made it an incredibly special and inspiring experience for all of us. Not just your typical sit behind a desk and point and click at the contestants or the contenders. This is active involvement in their lives.

Zach Woodlee:
I think because of the mentoring process I know all of us, it became more, I feel like this job became more stressful for me at time because you'd see people that you worked with for multiple weeks and you're like I know you can do more. Like I've seen you do it. It's not like each week they just perform one thing for you and you say yea, good or no, bad. And so you know when they've got more they can give and you do become emotionally attached and you want all of them to win in a sad way.

Because they're all such good, good kids and you're really just trying to hone in what they've got and give them all the ammunition they need because in the end it's all Ryan's decision. And we just want all of them to have their best foot forward so when it is time for them to meet Ryan, they're prepared and they can handle it.

Nikki Anders:
Exactly.

Robert Ulrich:
I think it was truly mentoring. I mean I think that's the thing a lot of these shows even though we were all involved in decision-making and it was still totally 100% beamed after them and trying to help them.

Question:
Zach and Nikki what are some of the specific challenges in getting the talent to fit into The Glee world as compared to other shows that focus on live performance?

Zach Woodlee:And on Glee no one is safe. I mean you could show up on the show and then all of a sudden you open the script and you're on point and singing while juggling. Like you don't know what is going to be asked for you so I know that on my end part of the challenge was getting everyone just sort of comfortable in their skin.

I mean Glee doesn't have the best dancers in the world but there's a joy in dancing that everyone has. And whether you can be technically trained or not, it's just being able to be comfortable and finding sort of the love of dancing and what fits on your body and how you can make it work for you. Does that make any sense?

Nikki Anders:
On the music side the reality is that when you're on Glee you're part of The Glee Club so you're not just singing solos, you have to learn how to sing as part of a group. You're harmonizing, you're blending and then besides that you're also recording these songs so you have to learn how to record in the studio as opposed to live singing and that's a very, very different skill that a lot of people have a problem with. So that, just getting them over the hump of transitioning from live singing to recording.

And then there's also lip synching because when they do get on screen they have to then remember lip synchs to what they sing and that is another skill that surprisingly is hard for some people. And then even beyond that, like Zach said, no one is safe. There are so many styles of music that are thrown at you. If you're on Glee you don't just sing what you're best at. You sing Broadway, you sing pop, you sing rock, you sing country, you sing whatever the song requires.

And so I think that's also unique and a challenge to this show and that was a challenge for me is just getting people out of their comfort zones and letting them explore different sides of their voices. So it was a very big challenge on a lot of levels that was actually quite fun and I think these kids are surprised at what they had inside of them.

Zach Woodlee:
Yeah and to add to that, I mean it's like you have The Glee cast on the scripted show all of these musical performances and everything, it is like rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time because not only are you remembering what you sang and remembering their movements but you're also remembering that you're being filmed for millions of people who wanted to watch you.

So you're in this constant state of refreshing your mistakes and making it feel fresh and clean and new and then in turn this sort of loops Robert into it as well. You know, Nikki and I, our specialties we do what we can and then Robert has to step in at the end and also make sure that it's something that you would want to see on television and it's not a wash.

Question:Robert Ulrich:
No, they have not.

Question:
But it has been chosen, right? There's no live element?

Robert Ulrich:
There's no live elements. This is in the vein of Project Runway or Top Chef where Ryan makes the decision.

Question:
Did the Glee cast have any thoughts about bringing someone new on?

Zach Woodlee:
I'm with the cast every day and I do know that they had a lot of positive buzz about it. You know, of course everything had to be kept under wraps but I know that they were very, very curious and they wanted to know what kind of singers, what kind of dancers, what kind of look. I think they're excited because in its own right, Glee from itself has grown from six kids on a Glee Club to know we're pushing 13 so I think they're - every time there's someone new that's added it's a bit of a whoo, how are they going to fit in here and it also keeps the club alive in itself. And I do think they're going to be very welcoming but I know they're extremely curious.

Question:
At this point is there a particular person that is outstanding who has the Glee factor?

Robert Ulrich:
I think that they're all outstanding and they all have The Glee factor. Again they were chosen out of 40,000 people and so the final 12, each and every one of them could have been the winner. They all have something special and they're all really different. They're really different from each other and they're unique in every way; looks, vocally, everything except maybe dancing, Zach. They may not be different from each other in dancing.

Zach Woodlee:
That is the great thing and they're all such extremely different personalities. And I think as well with this show I don't know and stop me if I'm wrong but some reality shows have the contestants all live together but in this case because they're all so different and they all have something different that they bring it's really a wonderful experience to sort of watch how their lives meld together. And it's true I don't know if you'll ever see it on the show but so many times when you're working with these kids in a one-on-one when we were down to the 80 and we were whittling down to the top 12 it was someone came in, it was like I've never been around this many people that loved to do what I love to do.

And there's many a times on the show that the kids have created their own sort of anthems that they sing for each other and they always huddle around. It's a beautiful experience to see like it is about the arts and it is about a common love of singing and performing and they all want to be on this show that really rings true to who they are as a person.

Robert Ulrich:
I think because so many of them are so young and for many of them it was their first time away from home. So I think that, even though they were in a competition I think they quickly became like a family because for many reasons they liked each other but also because they all felt part of they were all away from home and together and so it made them feel very, very close to each other.

Nikki Anders:
I do feel like Zach and Robert have said, from 40,000 down to 12, each of the 12 did have a Glee factor and do have a Glee factor but it's really the competition is about what contestant can show their Glee factor because when you're involved in a competition so many things get in the way. Your nerves happen, you might have a bad day or you self-destruct in some way. I just think that getting to the heart of The Glee factor and letting it shine in front of Ryan Murphy and that was really the key to this whole competition.

Question:
Once the competition is done and the contender has been picked, is the role conceived as a permanent addition or is it kind of a guest shot and see how everything goes situation?

Robert Ulrich:
They're winning a seven-episode guest-starring arc, which is more than most of the kids on the show even have. So it is not ???a series regular??? but seven episodes is a lot and it's obviously with the hope that it will continue on to be much more.

Zach Woodlee:
Agreed and if you look at sort of the history of Glee and you watch through our Glee Club, I mean we truly are sitting in that choir room hours and hours a day and our writers are there and we're all interacting with each other. And if you look at certain characters, I mean now we have Lauren Zizes that's on the club and she's had a huge impact this year with Puck and their love affair and Heather Morris you see the writers definitely see sparks that happen within the group and it's very apparent to be like oh, that would be interesting and then they start to write. So the seven-episode win is wonderful however that's what also was a challenge with these kids is that they're so individually creative and interesting that there's a great possibility that this will go much, much further.

Question:
Are there certain sort of broad parameters for potential roles that the producers have given you or are you really going to have it tailored specifically for the winner?

Robert Ulrich:
I think it's totally tailored for the winner. There was no rules that we were just supposed to find the best kids that could then inspire Ryan to write for them.

Nikki Anders:
I agree.

Robert Ulrich:
And the other writers to write for them. So they did not have to fit in any mold. That's probably the note that I think that they were given more than any other note through the entire season was just be yourself. Let us see who you really are. And then obviously hopefully a character can come out of that but it was to show us who you are.

Zach Woodlee:
It will be tailored to them but as we said before, no one is safe. I mean they will have a character tailored to them but I'm sure they'll still be thrown into the madness of new directions and they'll have to be doing things that I'm sure they still can't quite comprehend that they would need to be doing.

Question:
You mentioned that you found it difficult to eliminate people and they all could have been on Glee. Is there any chance we could see some of the runners-up in cameos or just sort of one-off episode?

Zach Woodlee:
I don't know; I wish.

Robert Ulrich:
That would be wonderful but we have no way of knowing that.

Nikki Anders:
We all grew very close.

Robert Ulrich:
It was really fun.

Zach Woodlee:
I feel like the three of us when we started this each of us had our own favorites and darlings and whatever but by the end it was so crazy how we melded together. Our hearts were so attached it was just insane. And any time it was like well, they didn't do well for me. It was like oh, but they did so well. Everything was so - we rooted for these kids so much and I do know that regardless of whether they win or not they will be stars in their own right.

Nikki Anders:
Agreed and I would say from my point, I started this show on a negative note I'll just say. There were long hours, it was exhausting and by week two I was hooked. I was hooked on the kids, I was hooked on their stories and figuring out what makes them tick and trying to get them to be the best that they could be. And so by the end I was in love with the kids and I was inspired and it turned out to be the best thing that I never wanted to do.

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