If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be in charge of casting for a major network TV show, The Glee Project will give you a pretty accurate idea, says head mentor/judge Robert Ulrich. “The mechanics of casting are exactly the same, just extended over an entire season,” says the man who also serves as casting director for the Glee mothership.
The one main difference, though, is that the Glee Project kids are enrolled in “a wonderful master class combined with the most excruciating torture chamber,” and the inevitable lack of privacy and 24/7 pressure means not everyone is always on his or her best behavior. “That’s an advantage to us,” he says with a laugh, “and a disadvantage to the contestants.”
TVLine caught up with Ulrich for a little post-mortem on The Glee Project‘s recently concluded second season, dishing everything from the controversial eliminations of Nellie and Shanna, to some of the show’s more physically grueling challenges, to Ulrich’s own prior history with eventual winner Blake Jenner.
TVLINE | After the Season 2 finale, there was a segment of fans who were saying things like, “We’ve had two seasons and three male winners. Why can’t a girl win on The Glee Project?” How would you respond to that?
It’s funny because heading into this season, I thought for sure a girl would win. Halfway through the season, I thought for sure a girl would win. But ultimately, any competition should be fair. And I know that [choreographer] Zach [Woodlee], [vocal coach] Nikki [Anders], and I had a conversation going into the final episode where we said, “This would not be fair if Blake doesn’t win. Somebody who not only will be a star, but who excelled in every single thing he did.” Okay, he didn’t do harmonies well, but that’s exactly what made him special is that he was a singing-in-the-shower kind of guy. I loved his voice, but he was not a signer or dancer; he was an actor. Blake convinced us that he was a singer.
TVLINE | So at the end of the day, it seems like it was really the acting part of the equation that pushed Blake over the top.
The main thing we learned doing Glee Project, and it was really evident this year, is that [we're casting for] a television show, which makes the acting so important. And Blake is a really, really good actor. I knew it from the start. Actually, I didn’t know Blake, but because Blake was a working actor in Los Angeles, we had had him in him a couple of times [prior to The Glee Project] to audition for Glee. It’s so funny to go back now and look at an audition tape that I just found [recently]. I was [the casting director for] his first audition in Los Angeles when he just turned 18 and moved here.
TVLINE | Really? Do you remember what role Blake came in to audition for back in the day?
Let me think. The very, very, very first… I think it was [the role of] Blaine that he read for initially. And he sang three songs, and like I said, he was right from Florida, just turned 18. And then he came back after that for a role called Strando, who was a football player who danced, and for one of the bad-guy jocks, and then for Amber [Riley]’s boyfriend, where we ended up casting someone very different from Blake. It was so funny because we didn’t really realize [how many times we'd seen him], and suddenly we went to the computer and typed in Blake’s name and he came up like 10 times. We were like, “What?” Because you see so many thousands of people [in the overall casting process]. So I remember his first audition, but I didn’t remember all of those other ones.
TVLINE | Are you feeling good going into Season 4 that you’ve picked the right Glee Project contestant to join the Glee cast?
Since the competition ended, I have learned so much more about Blake’s talent. He is an extraordinary comedian, which you saw very little of on The Glee Project. He zoomed through the first and the second level of the Groundlings, and is waiting for the third. He teaches improv class. One of his idols is Jim Carrey. He has literally a rubber face and rubber body. It’s so funny because on The Glee Project, what came up was this leading man, but I think what makes Blake so special is that he is so much more than that. He’s one of the funniest comedians I’ve ever seen. I would say that he could be on Saturday Night Live. It puts him into that Ryan Reynolds category, the good-looking guy who can be funny, which there aren’t a lot of.
TVLINE | I wanted to ask you some questions about specific contestants through the season. More people seemed to be upset by Nellie’s elimination than any other contestant. Vocally, she was mind-blowing. I want to buy her album tomorrow wherever it may be or whatever genre it’s in.
Oh my God, my favorite voice ever on The Glee Project. One of my favorite voices ever, period. Vocally she is just extraordinary. I just love, love, love the tone of her voice, but there were areas where she needed work. If the camera was in a closeup of her face, oh my God, she was mesmerizing. But if it was ever a situation where she was joining in [with a larger group], that’s what she had to work at. Maybe if she had had a few more weeks, who knows? But I was devastated when Nellie went.
TVLINE | Shanna was the other elimination that was really painful. All season long, she was considered a front runner, she had never been in the Bottom 3, and then — bam! — she went home. How did that happen? And do you feel like she is somebody who might potentially make her way on to Glee if there’s a role that’s right for her?
When we brought these 14 contenders here, any one of them could have been on Glee, and that’s the honest-to-God truth. So, yeah, I think that Shanna could absolutely be on Glee, as could any of them. But her elimination was really hard — for her and for us — we’d kept her every week and she was so flipping good. But this is really how the business works. [When she got eliminated], it was the first week she had done anything remotely wrong, several slight things in the recording booth, the homework assignment…so she was justifiably in the Bottom 3. Meanwhile, we had Michael and Lily, who both typically struggled in everything. But how could we put them in the bottom when they both had their best weeks ever? And so, you know, it’s almost the flaw in the system — this thing that makes the show exciting and really like real life — and makes us different from all of the other reality-competition shows.
TVLINE | Casting has got to be a cruel business in and of itself, no?
Casting is a very cruel business, really. There’s nothing fair about it. It’s not black and white. There’s no right or wrong. It’s completely subjective. The Glee Project was hard for me in that you see the rejection happen in front of you. I came home every night and my wife would say, “Robert, it’s a competition show, somebody has to go.” People think that in the casting business, I tell [actors] “no” every day, but I don’t. In casting, you don’t get to personally know the actors; you deal with their agents, and that’s who you say “no” to.
TVLINE | Let’s talk about the incident where Ali got hit by all those slushies, and her body shut down due to her paralysis making her sensitive to extreme temperatures. What was it like seeing a contestant push herself to a physically scary point in the quest to get a role on Glee?
It was terrifying. It was much worse than it even looked on the show, because the whole process took more time. I can’t wipe it out of my mind. Ali usually wears a brace under her chest because that’s where she’s paralyzed, from the chest down, but [during the shoot] she was holding herself up, she didn’t have the brace on, because she was in a bathing suit. They began throwing the slushies, and we were like, “Oh this is fun. She’s laughing.” But she couldn’t express what was happening, that her body was having this reaction, because she was being slushied and she couldn’t [physically] react. What was crazy and amazing about Ali is that, you know, she asked to come back and finish the video, and she got slushied again.
TVLINE | Similarly, during Tenacity Week, contestants got pushed to the physical and mental breaking point — when they had to complete an obstacle course all in one take — but I wonder how realistic a test was that.
Will the Glee cast ever have to do anything as physically demanding as that obstacle course? No. But as mentally demanding? Yes. Being able to show the tenacity? Absolutely, 100 percent, all the time. Plus, I swear they had rehearsed about 45 times before they did those 34 takes. Shanna had a broken knee cap, which they never brought up [on air]. Abraham sprained his ankle really, really bad.
TVLINE | So you get down to the final episode and you’ve got three contenders — Ali, Aylin, and Blake. How much did you weigh what “types” you might need during the season? Was there any consideration of existing roles on Glee that you had yet to cast? Was Blake’s versatility a plus because he might have the ability to fit into more than one potential future role?
Ryan was always very interested in Aylin’s story, right from the beginning. And Ali is just so good. But first of all, you have to keep in mind we had Finn leaving [McKinley High]. One thing that didn’t end up on air was how Ryan said many times, “Robert, the most difficult person to cast for Glee is the jock. Because to find a masculine, good-looking guy who can sing and act is so tough.” That had made the role of Finn super-difficult to cast [for Glee's first season]. So yeah, it was a plus for Blake, because with Finn leaving, Ryan was like, “We need that anchor in the choir room.” But I think it also was that as the competition went along, as you said, it was his versatility that pushed him over the top. The fact that they know that he can do anything that they give him, and is willing to do anything. He’s very much an actor without shame. That’s what ultimately helped him win.
TVLINE | Blake didn’t seem as much of an underdog, though, as some of the other contenders — which is a consideration that comes up a lot in judging.
I don’t know if it came across as much on TV, but Blake is not this cookie-cutter good-looking guy. He’s the guy who is very close to his family, but in many ways raised himself. At 16, he decided that he would come to Los Angeles, graduated from high school early, moved here on his own, and has, with no help, worked three jobs. He’s really an extraordinary young man who I have so much admiration and respect for, and with all that, he was also a little nerdy. If you go online and pull up any of his pictures of when he was a kid, he had big thick glasses, and big teeth, and was just this little teeny-tiny skinny guy. That little nerd is just underneath Blake’s surface at all times. He is super vulnerable.