From ISU’s theater program to casting Arrested Development
This is the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together—and the Illinois State alumna whose keen eye for casting made it all possible.
Deborah Barylski, M.S. ’73, was the casting director on the first season (including the pilot episode) of Arrested Development, a TV comedy that aired for three low-rated seasons on Fox from 2003-06 only to develop a cult following on DVD and online. Now, that second life has actually led to a full-blown resuscitation, with Season 4 premiering Sunday on Netflix.
Barylski’s casting of the dysfunctional Bluth family on Arrested Development earned her an Emmy in 2004, a high water mark for an accomplished casting career that included multiyear stints on hit shows such as Home Improvement and Just Shoot Me. Arrested Development was Barylski’s casting masterpiece, though the theater directing alumna heaps praise on creator Mitchell Hurwitz’s writing.
“The characters were all on the page,” Barylski told STATEside. “It is so rare to get characters who are so well-defined, so delineated, and irreverent. They were all so specific, so different from one another.”
Before she was an Emmy winner, Barylski saw herself becoming a lifelong academic, like her two mentors—Calvin Lee Pritner, professor emeritus from the School of Theatre and Dance, and Stephen M. Archer, who taught at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in theater.
Barylski began her master’s at ISU in 1971, supported by a graduate assistantship in theater management she’s still grateful for today. Barylski had acted as a kid, but switched her concentration from acting to directing soon after arriving in Normal. The 1970s were something of a “golden age” for the ISU theater program, said Barylski, who relished working alongside students who would go on to do big things, including actors Judith Ivey ’73, Rondi Reed ’77, and Terry Kinney ’76, among others.
“You had to raise your game to compete, to stay afloat,” Barylski said.
After finishing her master’s, Barylski ran the Braden Auditorium box office for a year before a theater stint in Michigan. She then traveled west for a three-year stretch at California State University-Long Beach teaching acting, directing, and theater, before finding that academia wasn’t where she wanted to be forever.
Her break into casting came after getting an entry-level job in the Mary Tyler Moore production company.
“Casting was the best fit for me,” she said. “I knew actors. I knew how to talk to actors. I had acted, I had directed actors. And I have a really great memory, which helps, and a good business sense.”
Major career Development
The Los Angeles-based Barylski, like many casting directors, mostly works as a freelance contractor after being hired onto a specific TV show in development. Sometimes she’s building a cast around a star already attached to the show, like she did with Tim Allen on Home Improvement.
But Barylski built the Arrested Development cast from scratch. When she first got her hands on the pilot script, which sets the stage for the wealthy Bluth family’s unraveling, she was captivated—and a little confused.
“You have to be very attentive, because the writing was so complex and the script so densely plotted,” Barylski said. “But then I read it out loud, and that’s when it started clicking for me.”
Here’s how she describes the casting of three of the series regulars:
Tony Hale as Buster Bluth: She’d seen him on tape before his in-person audition and knew he was the right guy. “He was so authentically different, in that he had taken on the character that was so out there but made him so grounded in his own reality.”
Jessica Walter as Lucille Bluth: Barylski cast Walter in a previous show and knew she could pull off the caustic Bluth matriarch while still making it funny. “Some of the things she says are so horrible and off-putting, but Jessica has this way of saying those things, and you might say, ‘Why is she saying that crap?’ But you don’t hate her for it.”
Will Arnett as Gob Bluth: One of the tougher roles to cast, as Barylski struggled to find an actor with both the flamboyance of a magician and the gravitas to play the intense Gob. When Arnett’s schedule opened up miraculously, Barylski pounced. He flew to LA for his first meeting with producers just one day before the show’s first cast script “table reading.”
The best part: Barylski cast the entire show in only three weeks.
“I couldn’t have cast it better if I had had a year,” she said. “I knew I was going to win the Emmy. It was my best work.”
Barylski also tries to stay involved with theater whenever possible. She’s directed in theaters in Michigan, Illinois, California, and Alaska, but these days sticks to mostly one-acts because of her schedule.
Barylski remains an active Illinois State alumna. The College of Fine Arts Hall of Famer delivered a Commencement address to CFA graduates in 2009, and she serves on the CFA advisory board. And last year, Barylski returned to the Illinois State campus to teach “cold reading” (no preparation) acting classes and a seminar about preparing for a professional acting career.
Next up for Barylski is a sketch show she cast for Nickelodeon called Back of the Class, and a half-hour comedy series starring George Lopez on FX, both expected to premiere in the fall.
And does she plan to watch Season 4 of Arrested Development?
“Of course,” she said. “That’s my family.”
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.