‘Big Brother’ comes to D.C.: Talking to the casting director behind the polarizing show


Host Julie Chen on the “Big Brother” season finale. (Sonja Flemming/CBS)

The curious case of “Big Brother”: A solid performer for CBS, yet the show has always existed in this outer periphery of the reality TV world – probably because it airs over the summer, has a weird three-day-a-week schedule, etc.

However, the show sure made a big jump back into the headlines last year when several cast members made racist, homophobic and other offensive remarks captured on the 24-hour live feeds shown online.  At first, CBS didn’t incorporate such comments into the edited versions that aired on TV, and viewers cried foul that the TV-only audience was getting a skewed version of events. Eventually, the network released a statement saying yes, the comments were indeed offensive and no, they didn’t represent the views of CBS.  The show even aired some of the footage, though that didn’t stop the uproar.

Like all reality show controversies, the outcry gradually died down. Now, the show is in the process of casting for its 16th season (including a stop in Washington on Sunday), premiering on June 25.

For those unfamiliar, the long-running show locks about a dozen contestants in a house for the summer as contestants vote each other out one by one; the last person standing wins $500,000. They have no communication with the outside world and everything is captured on camera: That atmosphere, along with the gradual psychological effects of being trapped in a house for weeks, might help explain some of the insanity that happens. Add in that it’s a game of intense strategy where allies and backstabbing enemies change daily, and the whole thing is a simmering pot of crazy that frequently boils over.

Needless to say – it can be really hard not to turn away. But seriously, how do you come back from a controversial season like last year — does the casting process change? Do producers ask about people’s religious or political views ahead of time? What do they really look for in a contestant? We asked Robyn Kass, the “Big Brother” casting director since Season 2 back in 2001, her thoughts on all these questions and more.

(“Big Brother’s” D.C. open casting call will take place at Midtown, 1219 Connecticut Ave. NW, on March 23 from noon to 3 p.m.)

The toughest thing about casting the show:

Kass has worked on casting for “The Bachelor,” “Survivor,” “Ready for Love,” so she has really seen it all. Back when she first started, it was much easier because no one really know what the whole “reality television” trend meant. “Reality TV was still fairly new and people who auditioned for the show didn’t know what they were getting themselves into,” she said. Now? “They’re savvy to the process.” People study up on what they think producers want to hear, which never turns out being what producers actually want to hear. There are definite “tell-tale” signs if someone isn’t being authentic.

Such as?

There are so many: Kass was so frustrated by clichés she kept seeing in every audition that she created a video to help people out. For example, never say you can boost the ratings or that America will “love me or hate me.” Don’t give unwanted advice to producers about “fixes” to the show. Be natural and enthusiastic, because producers are more likely to pick people they think are genuine fans.

People really say they could get the show better ratings?

Kass says if she had a nickel for every time someone guaranteed to increase ratings for the show, “I would be a rich woman.” She always tells potential contestants to let producers worry about the ratings. That still doesn’t stop them.

Is there an idea of what kind of cast there will be each season?

It changes every year, Kass says. As they narrow the list down, she and the producers think of it as a big puzzle. Sometimes, people she loves don’t make the cut simply because they don’t fit the diverse range of contestants. Rejected contestants often think, “Oh, I didn’t make it on the show, they hated me” – that’s often not the case, and they may fit in the following season. In fact, some of the most famous players have auditioned multiple years in a row.

On whether contestants truly understand that it’s a game of strategy:

During the audition process, producers emphasize that this isn’t just a fun few weeks on TV with free rent. “We ask, ‘Do you understand that this is a game, and there are consequences to everything you do?’” Kass explains. As a result, sometimes the winner isn’t always the most popular person in the game: Often, they are the most strategic.

Do people regret being on the show?

Never, says Kass. Seriously. While they may be upset when they get eliminated, she usually always hears from them a few months later, asking if they can be on an all-star season or come back to host a competition in the house.

What’s the casting director’s role once the show starts?

Kass is on set every Thursday for the live eviction episode when someone is voted out of the house. After the eliminated contestant sits down with host Julie Chen for an exit interview, Kass is the first person they see. “I’m the only face they know,” she says; during filming, contestants only hear producer voices over the intercom. In those emotional moments after an elimination, Kass has seen everything from tears to lots of rage.

On coming to D.C. for casting for the first time in years:

They’re trying to go to new areas and get “fresh new people” for Season 16. Kass is realistic about expectations for the D.C. area, though. “I think we’re going to get some great characters in D.C,” she says, “But they probably won’t be able to leave their lives for three months” for filming. (Well, Congress is pretty quiet over the summer…)

How extensive is the background check process?

The producers narrow down a list of contestants to anywhere between 60 and 100, and fly them out to Los Angeles for more interviews, in addition to extensive medical and psychological testing.

Do producers ask what contestants’ religious and political views are ahead of time?

“We want people who have opinions,” Kass says. She asks about all kinds of things in the interview process – sometimes she’ll bring up a topic and take the opposite side, just to see how the contestant reacts. If they’re easily swayed, they’re probably not all that passionate.

On whether the casting process has changed since last year’s controversy:

“Not really – so many people want to put the blame here and there, but there’s absolutely no way for us to tell what would happen in that house,” Kass says. After all, potential contestants are on their best behavior during the casting process: Kass compares it to a job interview or meeting the in-laws for the first time. There’s no 100 percent way of definitely finding out what people are going to say once they’re on a live video feed 24 hours a day.

Producers are as cautious as possible, but that’s the beauty and the risk of a 24-7 show like “Big Brother”: It’s a completely unedited, unfiltered look at humanity.

Emily Yahr covers pop culture and entertainment for the Post. Follow her on Twitter @EmilyYahr.
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