Interview: ‘Family Guy’ casting directors Christine Terry and Jackie Sollitto on voiceover acting, celebrity guests and more
Only four primetime scripted series have ever made it to twenty seasons and this Fall, Family Guy will join that rarefied air. The animated comedy joins The Simpsons (32 seasons) and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (22 seasons) as the longest-running series still on the air, a testament to the lasting and enduring genius that is show creator and star Seth MacFarlane.
But it takes more than a village to put a show like Family Guy together and to make it consistently fresh, smart and original, year after year. While MacFarlane is certifiably the center of the Family Guy universe, there are many in orbit around him who make the show tick, and possibly nobody has a bigger job than Christine Terry and her partner, Jackie Sollitto, casting directors for Family Guy since 2017. Known for its many cameo and celebrity appearances, as well as an army of some of the most talented voiceover artists in the industry, Family Guy offers a constant challenge for Terry and Sollitto, whose previous credits include Bones, Melissa & Joey and American Dad!
I had a chance to ask Terry and Sollitto about what it’s like working on Family Guy, who the best voiceover actors are, who the most surprising celebrity guest was, where they find new talent, and what may be in store for the new season.
Catherine Springer for Awards Watch: Have you been working through the pandemic? I’ve heard about all these actors doing Zoom auditions.
Jackie Sollitto: We don’t really have to worry about that as much because we’re doing VO, so we can just use the MP3s. It’s actually been very fortunate that we haven’t stopped working. There was maybe a week when the production was dark for a second so everybody could get home and get set up. But once we were set up, everybody was like, alright, let’s rock and roll. So people have been recording from home since the very beginning, especially our series regulars. Then, once people started figuring out the CDC guidelines and how we could make sure everything was safe, Disney put together a very comprehensive process to make sure that studios would abide by things if we were going to send any talent there. We had a bunch of studios approved for sound for our show and so people have had the option, depending on their comfortability and where their location is. Honestly, it’s been kind of amazing.
Have you missed a beat at all?
Wow, so you guys are going to be the only ones with new content out in about six months!
JS: Yeah! I feel like our new season is slated for the Fall and it’s on track like normal.
I think everyone else who was supposed to start in the Fall have just recently started filming, so it’s pretty much just going to be reality shows and animation that’s back on time. Thank goodness for animation!
JS: I even noticed some of the stuff that usually shoots in Vancouver, they were down for a minute, and then they went back and then they hit stop and it was like a lot of back and forth. So it’ll be really interesting to see, in the Fall, where the industry is, as a whole, as well as what we’re able to do.
So tell me a little bit about working with Christine, how you got involved with her and what you do with her?
JS: Well, Christine and I are a partnership, so we are two casting directors. We have known each other for—we were just talking about this the other day, we were like, “have we known each other for 10 years?” Which is kind of crazy. At least 10 years, I think. And we started working together when I came in as an assistant on Bones. And I had been doing feature work prior to that, and I didn’t have TV experience. So I was looking to get TV experience in casting. And we met and I worked with her and Rick Millikan for about a season or so and then left, and then was able to come back for the Backstrom pilot and a few other pilots. I was on Bones, The Finder, which had a really fun season one, and Melissa and Joey with them, so it was cool to get the exposure of the different types of productions. And I mean, when I first started in college, I did my first internship at ER in one of their final seasons. And that was so cool. It was one of those things where it’s like, getting a chance to see a well-oiled machine like that, while I was still in my final year, was great.
Speaking of well-oiled machines, what was it like coming into Family Guy?
JS: It is a well-oiled machine! [laughs] It’s been kind of lovely, because with the transition when we came in, things were being handled differently. When we came in, we sat down with the creatives and said, ok, what do you need from this department, what can we do to make things more smooth for the production? Because it was our first foray into VO, so we knew what we would normally do for theatrical work, but tell us what might be different here. And they were so cool about not only being understanding, but being helpful and allowing us to adapt. Ever since then, we’ve been able to improve systems and communications, because as you know, you do something for a little bit longer, you say, yeah, we can skip this step, or we actually should know that data, so we can kind of keep track of that all year. Because of the fact that the show has been running for so long, it has been so established, it really allowed for a positive experience for coming in. Versus, how come you don’t know how to do all this? Instead, they were like, no, we want to kind of re reset this position, reset this department. And we’re still there, so, knock on wood, it’s going well! [laughs]
So how is it different, than say Bones?
JS: Well, we don’t have the in-person work with the actors. It’s not really as necessary. The way that we work with our creatives is, instead of doing audition sessions and then producer sessions, we basically come to them with lists of ideas and sit down in a casting meeting and discuss the characters, finding out if they have a specific sound they’re looking for. And then we pitch people, we think this person could do it, or do you want to try somebody new? Or do you want to get some auditions for this? And we go from there. And so sometimes we do ask for auditions, but like I said, because we don’t need to be in person, we reach out to either specific people or specific reps and receive stuff, review it, and send it off. And we proceed that way. We’re doing scheduling, like we would have done, but scheduling for the record. So we kind of become like the UPM [Unit Production Manager] as well, by scheduling records, gathering paperwork, and maintaining that communication between casting, payroll, production, the studio, the network, so it’s a little bit more full production based, then I would say live-action casting is. Once you get them approved and you send that deal memo, you’re like, good luck! Let us know if they get sick or something! [laughs]
Is it a different kind of skill set you’re looking for in VO than in live-action?
Christine Terry: It is and it isn’t. I think the one thing that Jackie and I have really learned is that actors don’t have the use of their regular tool bag that they’re used to using. It is strictly your voice. That is the only muscle that you have for all this. And I think a lot of actors kind of take that for granted. And our producers do as well sometimes, and the people that they pitch who they think might be right for something, sometimes they realize, whoa, this doesn’t translate. Jackie and I have found that sketch comedy actors work really well in this environment. Standup comics are great, musicians are great, Broadway actors are fabulous, because they’re used to projection, they’re used to flexing that muscle all the time, they’ve worked their voice, they’ve had vocal training. Whereas you know, I’m not saying that actors haven’t necessarily had that training, maybe some have, maybe some have a musical background or musical theater background, but it’s a different animal. And I think it’s also different not acting opposite anyone. Our shows don’t record in the booth with multiple actors at a time. It’s one actor in the booth, there are some shows I know that have costars in there, but ours don’t. So you have only yourself to act off of, which can be really challenging, I think, for actors who are used to feeding off of someone else’s performance.
Family Guy is such a big celebrity cameo type show. Has there ever been a celebrity or famous actor who has wanted to be on the show, and it just didn’t work?
CT: Yes. We’ve had to replace people. I’ll never say who! [laughs] But we learned our lesson. We’ve gotten excited and hired people and then found out, this really did not work.
Who’s an example of a famous person, an actor, a celebrity, who really wanted to be on the show, and they came in and just killed it?
CT: Well, maybe he didn’t want to be on the show, necessarily, but Jackie and I use this example all the time, because we were floored at how much fun he was willing to have and how many voices he had inside of him that we really didn’t know was possible. But Chris Pine, we hired him for one reason, and then ended up with a totally different character and we were so pleasantly surprised.
He can do anything!
CT: He really can. I think we knew how talented he was, but I don’t think we realized he had a bag full of voices, and was just so willing to play. And that was just such a pleasant surprise. And there’s someone now that we’re working on that, hopefully, we’ll hear about soon. That was a really, really, really pleasant and shocking surprise that he’s a fan of Family Guy. You’ll know it when it comes out. So I’m really keeping our fingers crossed.
There’s the great Sam Elliott episode last season, which was fantastic. Was that written for him?
CT: He’d been on the show before, performing as himself, and he never really played a bigger character, it was just funny little one-offs, where you don’t even see him. They never animated him or anything, it was him voicing over a commercial or something silly, when he was available. He was always game. But for this one, they wanted to find someone who is as special as Adam West, but, really, how do you replace Adam West? It’s such a hard task to do. And they wanted to find someone who was iconic and incredible. And because they had a relationship with him, they thought this could really work. This can be genius. Let’s see if Sam wants to do it. And you know, the rest is history.
This show is very much Seth MacFarlane’s baby. Is there anything he can’t do?
JS: No, there really isn’t. It’s kind of insane. One of the first times when we started on the show, we sat in on one of his records, which he usually does in his home studio, depending on where he physically is. And he was going to sit down the scene that had Stewie, Brian, Peter, and Quagmire. We were thinking he’d do all the Stewie lines at once, etc. But no. He just sits there and does the entire scene jumping from every single character. And I remember we looked at each other, and we looked at our audio guy, and we were like, this is normal?
CT: Like Jackie said, it was phenomenal. It was just such a joy to listen to. I’ve never heard anything like that in my entire life, because we were just on the phone kind of listening at the time. Because again, he was at his home studio. It was our first season and we just listened and were like, you’ve got to be kidding me. And it was like, 200 lines, and he knocked them out.
JS: It was like four or five episodes! He’s so fast.
Is Seth involved in everything? How much autonomy do you have?
JS: In my opinion, one of the best types of creatives is somebody who hires people who he knows, or she knows, who are better, if not the same, as they are at something, somebody that they trust. Seth, along with Kara Vallow [Executive Producer] and the studios and the networks, we have these amazing show runners on our shows, and they know what Seth likes, they know how he likes to work, they know the sound that he wants, and so does the rest of the creative team, especially after all these years, if you can imagine. He said it in our 300th episode celebration, I think, and he was just like, you guys are killing it, you don’t need me!
CT: It was at the mural unveiling!
JS: Yes, the mural unveiling at the Fox lot, that’s right.
CT: Rich Appel and Alec Sulkin, who are geniuses, they’re our show runners, they’re hilarious. And they direct, too. One takes all the even episodes and the other takes all the odd episodes. So they alternate, and then you know, because of COVID and everything, now they’re both kind of covering evens and odds. It’s whoever we can get whenever, because the writer’s rooms are so crazy right now. But like Jackie said, they really know what Seth wants. They know his voice for the show so well. In the end, Seth really does see everything. I mean, he’s still very involved. It’s just on a different timeframe than I think it used to be prior to us joining. I think he trusts them implicitly.
I wanted to talk about the incredible stable of performers you have. For example, I’m a huge fan of Ralph Garman, who is so talented. Talk a little about all the Ralph Garmans you have on this show and how valuable it is to have performers who you can ask to do anything like that.
CT: There are so many!
JS: Ralph is, in our opinion, one of the most talented actors and he is so funny because he’s like, I don’t know why you guys keep hiring me because I just sound like myself. But he’s so funny and the voice is so good. And, actually, now, because they love him so much, he’s now a recurring character of Doug, who’s Stewie’s rival, the little kid. They are so funny together. I’ve been a fan of Ralph since [Los Angeles radio station] KROQ, and knew him prior to this job, and then when I came onto the job, he was like, “Oh my God! Hi!” It was so cool. He can do so many different things. He has so much fun. We love to use him. We have great women as well that we use, like Charlet Chung, who we bring in all the time and she’s fantastic. And she works on Carmen Sandiego too, she’s all over the place.
CT: Josh Robert Thompson does a million of the voices that you wouldn’t even realize. He’s been around for ages. Kevin Michael Richardson, obviously. Phil LaMarr, Rachel MacFarlane, there are just so many– Gary Anthony Williams. Who am I forgetting…
JS: There’s so many people.
How far in advance do you get scripts? Do you get a whole bunch at once?
JS: One at a time. We get them weekly or bi-weekly, depending on the nature of the schedule, we get it when we have the table read, which is great. It’s so cool to be able to have table reads for animation because it’s so great to hear it out loud. And I personally love them just as a creative. And we never get to do that anymore in live action. So it’s been really cool to have that consistency of hearing the show and hearing the process. And once we get that, then we break it down and we have a casting meeting.
CT: And they rewrite a lot. We usually get a record draft immediately. Family Guy is really fast. It’s usually the day of the table read we’ll get it, or the next day at the latest. And then we do what Jackie is saying, we break it down and look and see how many roles there are.
So, for table reads, does the whole cast get together? In normal times, pre-COVID, would they?
CT: Pre-COVID, we have a conference room. If we can get in there, we get in there. But a lot of times, you know we have a lot of talented series regulars. Trying to get all of these people in the same room is impossible. So a lot of times, we can’t, they’re off doing something else. For example, Seth runs his own Empire–Seth Green–so he’s off ruling that, so it’s hard. A lot of our writers will step in and help out or we get we get our actors when we can. It’s been great during COVID because all of them join now.
JS: Even Alex [Borstein], who is in Spain for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, she’s like, I’m here, let’s do it!
Do you have a team out there, looking for new talent?
JS: We are the team!
CT: We’re the team that goes finding people! [laughs]
JS: We do everything we can, to be honest. We’re on Tik Tok, we’re on YouTube, we’re talking to agents, we’re watching television, we’re watching movies. We’re getting exposure any way that we can in the same way that we would have if we’re doing live action, but we’re just tuning into it in a slightly different way, because we’re focusing on the vocals versus the full performance. But yeah, we, I mean, we were just talking about this the other day, how I never expected to have a Tik Tok account. But I did it so I could find standup people. Now I find I’ve been finding a bunch of different standup people or people to do impressions. Christine and I will share them and she’ll find stuff on YouTube. And so yeah, I mean, Instagram, like whatever we can get our hands on. We would normally be going to theatre and stand up shows and improv shows. But you know, we couldn’t for a long time.
What’s the most difficult part about working on Family Guy?
JS: What is the most difficult part…
CT: I don’t know. I’ll say the good thing is they make it so fun. Let’s see if I can find anything difficult. Okay, what’s difficult is all the paperwork, all the paperwork is a pain in the ass. I’m not gonna lie.
JS: And scheduling.
CT: Yeah, paperwork and the scheduling.
JS: But it really is so fun. People are so excited to be on the show, which is such a great experience to have people come in and feel like I’m jazzed to do this and not like, Okay, I’m here. Everybody seems so excited. Animation is such a different world in that respect, which has been really fun for us.
Have you ever had a celebrity come on, that wanted to be really low key, like Daniel Craig, who just wanted to be a stormtrooper in Star Wars?
CT: They all do! That’s what they all say. They never need to be written into a huge character. Family Guy has a lot of cutaways, so you’re getting one or two lines anyway, everybody knows that that’s what this show is. They’re not coming on and they’re going to get some huge character. Unless it’s someone like Mandy Moore, when she was Quagmire’s daughter or something, but a lot of times, it’s just not written that way. That’s not what the show is. And I think everybody really fully understands that. When celebrities want to be on the show, it’s because they want to be on the show. They love what it is. Either their kids love it or something. I mean, it’s been around a long time, so some of these people were in school watching it. Arif Zahir, who we now have playing Cleveland, grew up watching us as a kid. When we found him, one of our first conversations with him was he was kind of pinching himself, saying, “When we had substitute teachers in school, I would entertain the class doing a whole episode of Family Guy.” And we were like, what? And then we realized he can do all of the character voices, not just Cleveland, and he does them extremely well. These people have grown up watching this, so when we find out someone wants to be on the show, it’s just because they’re a fan, and they don’t care what capacity we put them in.
Do they come to you, or are scripts written with someone in mind?
CT: A lot of times it’s written, but there’s other times where, you know, we’ll pitch people and just say, let’s take a stab, why not!
Has anyone ever said no, when it’s been written for them?
CT: Oh, yeah, a lot of it depends on what the content is. Some people don’t get the joke. Other people, they’ll say no, because they’re crazy busy. And they know how hard it would be to get to a studio somewhere. And you know, our guys are awesome. It never takes more than 10 minutes, a lot of times, to do this stuff. And it’s hard for some people to just find that 10 minutes when it takes you longer to get to a studio. Some people have a really hard time justifying that and are like, I live in New York, I’m not going to take 45 minutes to get there, 45 minutes to get back to record one line, and we totally understand. They never hold it against anybody and we get it.
Any fun casting surprises this season?
JS: Not anybody that we can surprise you with.
CT: Nobody we’re allowed to say.
JS: There’s a lot of cool stuff coming down the pipeline. We just started season 20. And it’s already gonna be a doozy.
CT: There’s one person in particular who, if it happens, you’re going to be like, wow. You’ll know when you see it.
My favorite thing about Family Guy all these years is the running gag about Meg and how they abuse her so much. They make her out to be this ugly loser and it’s Mila Kunis.
CT: She’s the nicest person on the planet. Crazy intelligent. Being able to go to the office and talk to Mila is like getting there and sitting and talking to a professor. She’s just wickedly smart.
JS: And someone you want to have a beer with.
CT: Yeah, you really do. You want to be her best friend. And she’s so chill when she comes in. She knows everybody’s name. She’s so friendly. She’s like, I know what this is. I’m so lucky to be here.
JS: Like Christine said, she 110% understands what this is. And she’s like, look, I get to come in here, I get to play for however long and go home and see my kids and do my thing. This is so fun.
And she’s a movie star! She doesn’t need it.
CT: You would never know. You would never look at her and be like, oh my God, we have to treat her like royalty. She would never ever, ever, ever expect that or act that way.
JS: She’s very funny.
CT: She’s just a normal, wonderful person.
JS: I mean, everybody on our cast and crew are.
JS: Everybody’s lovely. And without being like, totally cliché, it is the family environment. And it has been so welcoming for Christine and I when we came on board and continues to be that way. And it’s been such a joy to be a part of this production and so much fun.
Is this going to ruin you for any other job?
CT: Yeah! It does because we’re really spoiled! But I feel Jackie and I have really earned this because we’ve had some bad experiences. This was just, I mean, I don’t ever want this to end. I mean Seth MacFarlane has to at least get Stewie through college!
Christine Terry and Jackie Sollitto are Emmy eligible for Outstanding Casting for a Comedy Series.
Interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Photo courtesy of 20th Television