Accent on talent
Since moving here from Miami 18 months ago, Barbie Perez has suffered the indignities that befall many a struggling actor. She’s gone out on auditions for leg cream commercials and worked without pay in an off-Broadway show.
But as she waited inside a crowded dressing room of a midtown theater on a recent Saturday morning, Perez had a reason to be hopeful: She had made it through the first screening of a television network casting call.
For once, the audition seemed tailor-made for the chestnut-haired 25-year-old: an open call for Spanish-speaking and bilingual actors with casting directors from NBC and Telemundo.
“I’ve been needing this,” said Perez, whose biggest TV role so far has been a bit part on the soap opera “As the World Turns.” “The fact that I have an accent when I speak English wouldn’t be that big of a deal if I get to play a bilingual character.”
In fact, her Cuban heritage was a bonus on this day.
Cognizant of the swelling Latino population, NBC has been scrambling to populate its prime-time shows with more Latino faces, hoping to win over more viewers from that demographic. “Heroes,” one of the network’s tent-pole series, added two new Spanish-speaking characters this fall. For next season, NBC is developing an English-language version of the popular Colombian telenovela “Sin Tetas No Hay Paraiso.”
“We want the largest tent possible, so we’re looking to draw in people that might not be normally watching English-language prime time,” said Marc Hirschfeld, executive vice president of casting for NBC Universal Television.
NBC’s efforts to court Latinos are similar to the attempts being made by other networks, with one exception: It has been able to turn to its sister Spanish-language network for help.
In the last year, Telemundo has emerged as a valuable farm team for parent company NBC Universal, supplying Latino talent to a variety of programs across its networks. Anchor Maria Celeste substituted on the “Today” show this summer, and half a dozen Telemundo personalities served as guest judges on an episode of Bravo’s “Top Chef” in July. Telenovela star Miguel Varoni did a guest turn on “My Name Is Earl” last week, and next month, Telemundo’s new late-night host, Alex Cambert, will appear on “The Tonight Show.”
Captivating more Latino viewers “has got to be a huge priority for all of our networks, and the answer is right in our own back yard,” said NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker. “One of the benefits of Telemundo that’s not readily apparent is the ability to provide great actors and actresses to all our networks, and you’re certainly beginning to see that cross-pollination at work.”
The partnership has helped boost Telemundo’s stock inside NBC Universal, which has long been frustrated by the network’s failure to gain ground on Univision, the top-rated Spanish-language network.
Since NBC purchased Telemundo for $2.7 billion in 2002, it has been widely viewed as falling short of its promise. In recent years, the network has spent $100 million a season to produce original telenovelas without increasing its share of the Spanish-speaking market.
But the growing interest in harnessing Telemundo’s Latino talent throughout the company is now spotlighting its value, said network President Don Browne.
“I think we’re reaching a convergence that we all hoped we would five years ago,” Browne said. “As we open up opportunities for Hispanics in Spanish-language television, the natural progression for NBC is to take advantage of this talent pool. I think they’re finally seeing this asset for what it is.”
The idea to do a joint NBC-Telemundo casting call occurred to network executives earlier this year, when they realized they could draw a broader group of Latino actors together. The first open auditions, held in June at a Miami mall, attracted more than 400 Spanish-speaking actors. Telemundo left with a ream of fresh faces for its telenovelas, while NBC netted a dozen bilingual actors for its talent pool.
“It gave us both a great opportunity to find talent we didn’t know existed,” said Raul Xumalin, Telemundo’s vice president of talent development.
The networks decided to follow up with a second open call in New York on Oct. 13, held in conjunction with Actorfest, a daylong convention. Casting directors for “Law & Order” and the NBC pilot “Blue Blood” attended, along with casting executives from both networks.
For Latino actors, the NBC-Telemundo partnership is a refreshing approach in an industry that has often regarded their ethnicity as a disadvantage.
“Thank God -- it’s about time,” said Jose Mercado, one of hundreds who turned out for the New York audition.
In the past, said the boyish 25-year-old, casting directors have ruled him out simply because of his background.
“They’ll get my head shot and they’ll see my name, and that right there does it,” said Mercado, who grew up in a small Alabama town. “Although I can speak perfect English, they see that and immediately may associate it with an accent.”
The open call for Latino talent drew so many hopefuls to the Manhattan Center Studios that the line snaked down the stage, winding across the theater floor. By midday, the crowd was so big the staff had to send away those who were still waiting to be seen, triggering pleas and protests.
The more fortunate who made it past the initial screening filed upstairs into a small dressing room, where they were handed short scenes to learn. The room buzzed with tension as the actors hunched over the scripts, nervously murmuring to themselves in Spanish and English.
Perez, who did extra work for Telemundo in Miami, hoped she would now get a chance with its sister network. She squeezed in a corner under a poster for the telenovela “La Esclava Isaura,” mouthing the words under her breath as she rehearsed. After several minutes, a harried staffer called her name. The young actress took a deep breath as she descended a dank staircase and walked down the hall to a sparsely furnished room where NBC was holding auditions.
Hirschfeld scanned her resume as she perched on a chair.
“How do you like New York?” he asked.
“It’s been a hell of year, crazy,” she replied. “Worth it, though.”
“All right, great,” he replied. “Let’s hear you do this.”
The scene was short. Perez read the part of Theresa, a woman confronted by her employee about her flirtation with a married man. “Where do you get off sticking your nose into my business!” she demanded angrily.
“Good, nice job,” Hirschfeld said amiably when she was done. “Thanks for coming by.”
She didn’t get a callback, but Perez tried to be optimistic. “No big deal, it opens doors,” she said. “Maybe my paper will be on someone’s desk later on.”
Abdel Gonzalez was luckier.
“Yes!” he crowed, leaping down the stairs in excitement after getting callbacks from both NBC and Telemundo. The lanky 24-year-old who grew up in Puerto Rico was exultant that network executives were hunting for actors with his background.
“We’re taking over, baby!” Gonzalez said with a grin. “It’s inevitable. Latinos are going to be the biggest minority in the country, so why not tap into that market? It only benefits NBC.”
By the end of the day, casting directors had winnowed the pool down to 10 actors who could get another audition with Telemundo in Miami and 30 actors who will be considered for guest roles and other parts on NBC shows.
“Ethnic is what is in right now,” said Lisa Abreu, a 23-year-old Miami native, who got a callback to read for the part of a Dominican American police officer in “Blue Blood.” “It really works on my behalf nowadays. They’re now including us as part of the regular American look.”
Still, Lakshmi Picazo, 24, said she remains frustrated that Latinos often still get typecast as “the tough cop or the sexy Latin femme fatale.”
“Even though there are more openings for Latinos, there’s not enough,” said Picazo, a Mexican native who studied the Suzuki acting method and Shakespeare at a New York conservatory. “There are a lot of people like me that are trained to do anything. We’re looking for that opportunity to just be whoever.”