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Interview: ‘Family Guy’ Casting Directors Christine Terry & Jackie Sollitto Discuss Their Long-Running Animated Series

Christine Terry and Jackie Sollitto have each spent nearly twenty years working in casting in Hollywood, with television series like Arrested Development, Bones, Arrow, Flash, Supergirl, Melissa & Joey and The X-Files between them. We spoke with them about their work on the long-running animated series, Family Guy.

Prior to both Family Guy and American Dad, you both were casting in live action I’m curious as to what the transition was like moving from casting live action to casting voice actors.

Christine Terry: With live action, normally, we would have things like pre-reads, producer sessions, and we get to work with the actors one on one. But for this, even pre COVID, the biggest transition for us was realizing, ‘Oh, we don’t really need a session.’ It depends on the show and what we’re looking for. But for Family Guy, there are a lot of cutaways and usually it’s based on a person who actually exists. So, we either need to find someone who does a spot-on impersonation, or the actual person, and depending on their sense of humor, and their willingness to participate in the show, sometimes we can do that. Sometimes it requires going to find very talented voice actors.

One thing we did notice was that we don’t have to audition as much, and when we do, because we don’t have booths in our homes, it’s a lot of clicking and listening to people’s performances via links and then giving feedback online or via the agent instead of that one on one. The other thing that we have discovered is that it’s really freeing. Before we were limited to how a character looks. But for this, it does not matter what anybody looks like, we just want them to be able to convey the character. That’s what’s been really fun and fascinating for me and Jackie. It’s just opened up this whole new world of people that maybe we wouldn’t have ordinarily gotten the opportunity to work with on our other shows for one reason or another. Here, there’s no limit.

Jackie Sollitto: It’s varied because we don’t have as much back and forth as we would normally do with reps or even the talent itself, there’s more of a discussion with the creatives, which is actually really nice. We’re able to talk to them about what kind of sound they want to hear. We’re more likely to present lists of ideas to the creatives that we’ve cultivated say, ‘Okay, what do you think about Joe’s new best friend? What kind of sound do you want to hear?’ It’s cool to actually have more working time with the creatives about what they’re thinking for that instead of sort of discovering it in a in the room in an audition scenario. So, it’s, it’s more of a discussion,

There are quite a number of celebrity characters on the show. Do you automatically reach out to the celebrity’s representative to see if they’d be willing to do the voice?

Jackie Sollitto: You’d be surprised how many people are dying to do fun stuff like this.

Nine out of 10 times, it’s not in a positive light.

Jackie Sollitto: Yeah, but they usually have great senses of humor. I think a lot of times we assume that people are going to be very sensitive about things, but it’s a comedy show. It’s satire.

Christine Terry: It has to be parody enough because otherwise legal would never let us do it in the first place. I think most people have a good enough sense of humor where they’ll do it. A lot of times if you don’t hear the actual person, it’s because they might not have been available, or they might not have had enough confidence in themselves. We’ve also discovered that they’re concerned that they’re going to mess it up. We like to have their blessing, so if they’re passing on this, are they OK with it to begin with. And many times, they will.

If they say no, do you reach out look for sound alike or are you going to your talent pool that exists within the show first?

Christine Terry: There are certain characters that Seth won’t touch. He’ll say, ‘No, these are the ones that I do. Go find someone else. I want to offer up the opportunity for other actors to step in here and do this.’  Some of our writers actually the voices for some characters. Were shocked when we first came on board. We had no idea that some of the writers were that talented. Especially one of our show runners, Alec Sulkin. He’ll be at the table, and he’ll step in for somebody and we’re like, ‘How do you sound just like Sam Elliott? Where is this coming from?

We’re also really fortunate and that we happen know a lot of great impressionists who are hilarious, like the Josh Robert Thompson’s of the world and Kevin, Michael Richardson and Phil LaMarr. It’s a pool we can reach out to. Sometimes there are some very specific things we’re looking for. We’ve had to find Italian actors who actually speak Italian. They didn’t want the stereotypical Brooklyn sounding Italian. Jackie and I are both Italian, so we get it They don’t want our American Italian families. They want legit Sicilian Italian.

Jackie Sollitto: If it’s so unique that we don’t know someone that can do it, then we’ll reach out to the agents that we know.  

Because of the backlash against cultural appropriation, there have been some changes to the show in regard to who voices what characters. I would imagine that affects your job more than anyone else’s.

Christine Terry: Jackie and I have believed that the show that is in front of you should represent the world that you actually live in, so we’ve always made it our primary focus to make sure that we have people of color and different abilities represented on the show. Sometimes the story isn’t written that way. But we’ve been really fortunate in that as we get to know our teams a little bit better, they’ve opened things up for us. Sometimes we’ll read the script and it will just say ‘store manager,’ and because there are more men in the writer’s room, they will write what they know and every character as a guy. So, Jackie and I will step in and say, “Just so you know, this is going to be a woman and she’s going to be Asian,” and they’ll change it.

Jackie Sollitto: I feel like we’ve been fortunate in that it honestly hasn’t affected Christina myself too aggressively, because this is the way that we’ve always worked and approached casting before we came into animation. I think we were pleasantly surprised that it’s come to light in relation to the industry itself, and that it’s more of a focus for creatives and productions are making it more of a priority, as it should be. We were thrilled that everybody was in agreement on that, and we have continued to move forward in that direction.

I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a number of voice actors, including Phil LaMarr and Billy West and a few others who, and I always pose this question to them, but I haven’t asked any casting directors. I’m curious as to your opinion on stunt casting. Now, I know that it’s not really all that relevant to Family Guy or American Dad, because most celebrities you cast are playing themselves or are transparently being used to boost ratings for the week, but in most feature films, and even some recent television series, traditional voice acting roles are being given to celebrities who may or may not offer anything unique to the role outside of their notoriety.

Christine Terry: We’ve never had that mandate. In fact, it’s gone the other way. I know even with [President of Entertainment for FOX Entertainment] Michael Thorn taking over, he has always said. “I don’t think celebrities are important.” People are watching these shows because they love the comedy. They love the writing. You get used to the voices. Most people didn’t know who Dan Mintz was when Bob’s Burgers came on but didn’t stop people from loving the show. They don’t need a celebrity voice to fill in for these roles. I don’t think it’s as important. Is it attractive to people? Sure. But I think our shows are different, because they already have an established audience. It’s not like we’re like we’re going to put Justin Bieber on a show and now we’re going to get a million more viewers.  I don’t think it adds anything.

I think as far as pilots are concerned, the main concern is writing. Is it really funny? Is it going to sell? Would it be amazing to have someone like Al Pacino voicing some character? Sure, but Al Pacino is only going to do Al Pacino. Whereas if you get some talented actor who could impersonate Al Pacino, then you’ve also got thirty other voices that person can cover. I think there’s also something really attractive about finding these other actors who have so many different voices under their belt. Now you only need to hire five actors for a cast of thirty. No one on our end has ever said, “You have to go get Ryan Reynolds.”

Jackie Sollitto: Well, Ryan Reynolds is very funny. I feel like a lot of the time these kinds of questions come up just in the conversation of the casting process. It’s not only a conversation between us and the creatives, but also maybe the studio and the network, and then we need to talk with them to understand what the nature of that request is. Is it in relation to selling the product?  Or do they know that Chris Pine can do a bunch of voice roles as an unknown factor in his career and he’s fantastic, so it’s a win-win?  Or is it Christine said, like, do we need celebrity in order to assist the progression of this project?

Prior to Family Guy, nobody knew who Seth was or Mike Henry, and they’re amazingly talented people. Alex, Borstein was not as well-known as she is now, and she’s an Emmy winner. It’s the progression of not only the industry, but of business. Sometimes we find that we have those conversations with creatives and studio network. We have to ask, “What is the the focus for this request so that we can understand how to utilize it in the way that we do casting?” That way we can present options that will ideally give more than just a star power to the project.

I know a lot of times in the audition process a voice actor like Rob Paulson will throw out a handful of different voices to try to find the character and see what sticks. Family Guy is a little more grounded in that sense, but you find yourself having to do any direction with the actors that you’re casting?

Christine Terry:  I think it’s just what you said in that we make sure that the actors understand that it’s not a Disney animated series or a classic Warner Brothers cartoon. They might have a slight strange voice to them. But really, we just want people to populate Quahog. Maybe we’ll be looking for a slight Rhode Island accent, but they don’t often want charactery voices. So, the biggest direction for us is “Keep this really grounded. I know we don’t want some big overwhelming character voice.”

Jackie Sollitto: Unless it’s unless it’s specifically asked for and they want this person to come in and feel charactery or unique, or it’s an animal. We obviously have lots of talking animals and creatures and things on the shows.

Christine Terry:  Stewie’s nemesis is Doug, who is voiced by Chris Parnell, and its literally just Chris Parnell’s voice. Chris Parnell isn’t putting anything on to sound like a child.

Jackie Sollitto: And it’s hilarious.

Christine Terry:   I think the fortunate part with Family Guy is that it is very grounded.

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Written by Jeff Heller

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