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Spiel or No Deal

Valley TV hopefuls learn the best route to the small screen is a big personality

BY JIMMY MAGAHERN

Published by: Scottsdale Times, June 2007


Craig Davis has only 20 seconds to convince a Hollywood casting director he has enough mega-watt charm and charisma to warrant a shot on the NBC game show phenomenon Deal or No Deal.

But first, he’s got to shake off the searing pain he’s experiencing from accidentally slamming shut his wife’s folding lawn chair on, as he calls it, “the jewels.”

Or – better yet – capitalize on it. Resourcefully, as Davis waddles the last 300 yards to the casting directors’ tables in the giant tent that he and his wife have been camping out in since late yesterday afternoon – the Davis’ 13th wedding anniversary, as it turns out – he begins to consider his injury the comic edge that will set him apart from the 12,000 other high-energy extroverts crowding the Fort McDowell Casino parking lot.

After all, plenty of game show hopefuls have come wearing silly outfits and hoisting witty signs to attract the attention of the eight casting directors visiting Phoenix on the second stop of their nine-city “Deal on Wheels” casting tour. One woman has fashioned a stovepipe hat that blows lucky-numbered ping-pong balls out of the top. A man with a glue-on goatee reports he shaved his head in an attempt to look like Deal host Howie Mandell (absent from the try-outs today). But only Davis has gone so far as to whack his whirligigs in a rush to take his place in line.

It pays off. When Davis’ group finally gets its chance to charge up to the tables and each contestant takes his turn wowing their assigned director, Davis wastes no time in explaining why he’s walking bowlegged and speaking in the cracked falsetto of a Jersey Boys reject.

“Just my luck,” he says, sounding more like a stand-up comic than a door installer for Home Depot, the job he’s held since moving to Phoenix from Salt Lake City a few months ago. “I convince my wife to spend our anniversary sleeping in a casino parking lot, dining on nothing but Mini Wheats and a gallon of water. Then when the line finally starts moving, I go to collapse my wife’s chair and end up slamming the jewels!

“But as bad as I’m hurting,” Davis adds, gyrating like a car lot air dancer in a wind storm, “my dance is this much better!”

It’s the lemonade-out-of-lemons turn that wins the judge over. After two seasons of the hit show, where contestants face 26 beautiful models holding briefcases containing anywhere between $1 million and a penny and gamble that the one they selected is worth more than the guaranteed cash payouts the show's “banker” offers at various points during the case-openings, fans have learned it’s the contestant who can laugh at his own fanatical drive to win on the show that strikes the biggest chord in the heartland.

And Davis, smiling and dancing after a dismal anniversary celebration, no sleep, pinched cojones and – oh, did he mention he and the missus are back living with his parents after 13 years of wedded bliss? – is tailor-made for Deal or No Deal. Of the ten in his group, only Davis and his wife are held back for more conversation and called back later that night to return the next day for a follow-up interview.

Emerging from the elevator of the Radisson Resort at Fort McDowell the day after the casting call with his wife, younger brother and stepsister tagging along for support, Davis is already beaming like a superstar.

“This kind of thing doesn’t happen,” he says, clearly enthused over how things went in the call-back session. “It’s surreal. I mean, I stepped off the edge leaving Salt Lake to start things over in Phoenix. But that’s what I do. I’m out there! I do stupid stuff! I’m party boy! Woo-hoo!”

“A lot of crazies”

The Deal or No Deal casting call – the biggest, producers say, in the show’s two-and-a-half year history – was undoubtedly the Woodstock of TV-star wannabees in the Valley. But Faith Hibbs-Clark, a leading casting director in Phoenix, says the city has been quickly growing in popularity as a talent pool for the television and film industries.

“What really helped this year was the passing of the incentives to production companies to film in Arizona,” she says, referring to the state commerce department’s Motion Picture Production Tax Incentives Program, which provides sizeable tax exemptions and credits to companies who, among other things, employ Arizona residents in their productions. Companies also get around union restrictions here, as Arizona is a right-to-work state.

Hibbs-Clark’s company, Good Faith Casting, has already helped cast Valley actors and extras in a new CW network series called Hidden Palms, a prime-time soap from the creator of Dawson's Creek set in Palm Springs but actually filmed in Avondale. Recently, Hibbs-Clark also cast locals in the upcoming Topher Grace comedy Kids in America and the family drama The Savages, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Mostly, Hibbs-Clark works with professional actors, whom she finds on Screen Actors Guild lists and in college and community theater productions.

But lately, with the surge of reality, make-over and game shows seeking outgoing “regular people” from across the country [see sidebar on two Tempe furniture repairmen waxing for stardom], she’s also been tapped to find ordinary folk with that certain “X-factor,” as she calls it, of “genuineness and charisma.”

“I don’t think it’s rocket science,” she says. “We look for a good personality. Somebody who’s friendly and genuine. Normal people who have a good sense of self.”

The success of Deal or No Deal has convinced many aspiring TV stars that only wild, over-the-top behavior catches the networks’ eyes. But Hibbs-Clark cautions that what works on that show may get you locked out of her offices.

“We run into a lot of crazies – trust me, we’ve had all types show up – and it’s very difficult when we have to deal with really strange people,” she says. “You want them to be assertive, but at the same time not so pushy that they’re annoying. So there’s a balance. You don’t want somebody who’s so ‘out there’ that they can’t follow simple rules and instructions.”

Life of the party

There’s a peculiar biology in extraverted people that makes them conveniently suited to the long and sometimes tortuous process of the TV casting call. That friend we consider the “life of the party” actually has some chemical combination in her brain that makes her feel more intensely the excitement of a possible prize. Scientists call it “a high sensitivity to potentially rewarding stimuli.”

One of the women in line at the Deal or No Deal casting call explains it better. “I was made for this kind of thing,” she says with a huge grin, sporting a hand-painted t-shirt wrapping the NBC peacock over her chest and the command “Pick Me!” across her stomach. “I’m like a barrel of monkeys on Red Bull!”

That level of energy, echoed in nearly all of the thousands waiting tirelessly throughout the day-long casting call in Fort McDowell’s parking lot, explains why virtually no one in line wears a frown, or complains about enduring 20 hours of cattle-herding for 20 seconds of attention.

“We’re looking for that person who says, ‘Hi! I’m Carol! I’ve been standing in line for 19 hours but I don’t care!’” says Mary-Rachel Foot, the show’s head casting director who’s been doing these tours since last season and says she can tell in five seconds if one of the thousands who approach her table on any given day “has it” or not.

“What we look for is energy, liability and charisma,” she says. “Somebody who can captivate the American audience.”

Certainly, Deal or No Deal has been groundbreaking in rewarding the average American live-wire. Promos for the show center not on host Mandell or the 26 gorgeous “case models” – two of whom are in Phoenix to sign autographs – but on the crazy emotional eruptions of this week’s contestant. This season, NBC has made stars out of everyone from an Italian immigrant who couldn’t stop cursing in his native language to a bungee-jumping blonde who couldn’t stop slapping Mandell’s butt.

“They do have so much freedom to really show their character,” Foot says. “It’s not a restrictive format, where they just stand behind a podium with a buzzer. We tailor each show around the contestant.”

For the bungee jumper, producers rigged some gear to the studio rafters, so she could make her grand entrance bouncing off the stage floor. Another came out clog-dancing, and a Tucson zookeeper was aided in his decision-making by an anteater, a snake and a baby vulture.

“We’re making dreams come true,” Foot rhapsodizes – although she’s quick to note the show doesn’t cave in to every contestant’s ego. “The contestants don’t run the show,” she says. “The producers decide what will work.”

Still, the opportunity to get down with one’s bad self on prime-time TV holds undeniable appeal for the Valley’s most gregarious. Even in the age of YouTube, where anyone with a video-equipped cell phone can score their own fifteen minutes of fame, it seems nothing can draw more high-energy Type B personalities than a busload of network casting directors dangling a vague reward of fortune and fame.

“I had to wait maybe eight or nine hours,” says Jennifer Willow, a teaching aid at a Valley school who got pegged for a call-back and believes it was simply her smile, undiminished after all that time, that most impressed the judges. “But it was a great crowd to wait in.”

As the Phoenix finalists stand in the narrow hallway of the Radisson’s fifth floor, awaiting their turns to enter one of the hotel rooms where the TV crew has set up mock Deal or No Deal games for them and their supporters to participate in, a hotel employee begs them to keep the hootin’ and hollerin’ down, so as not to disturb the guests on the floors below.

It’s a losing battle. Charisma runs rampant on the hotel’s top floor, and finally the administrator just slinks back to the elevators.

“What can you say?” shrugs Willow. “Happy people!”

”–

Photos by Heather Riley

Trina Walker (right) of Phoenix celebrates with friends after making it past the first round of Deal or No Deal auditions. Walker waited 14 hours in a line of about 12,000 for her chance to audition.

Dressed to impress, Sophia "Makara" Peterson tries to impress a casting director with her belly dancing.

Contestants finally make it to the front of the Deal or No Deal audition line. This group has been waiting since midnight.

Get on the bus: the Deal Mobile rolls into town.

Friends cowgirl up to the auditions at Fort McDowell Casino.

Casting directors interview contestants at eight tables. Each contestant gets about 20 minutes to wow the directors.

"Case Girls" Anya Monzikova (left) and Hayley Marie Norman meet fans and sign autographs at the Phoenix auditions.