In the 1990s, many teenagers on TV shows –Beverly Hills 90210, for example -were played by actors in their twenties or even thirties. Since they were placing a premium on authenticity, the producers looked for actual teenagers. Just two actresses read for the role of Angela: Alicia Silverstone, 16, and Claire Danes, 13.
Winnie Holzman: No offense to Alicia, but Claire was the person the second we saw her. Our only doubts were about how young she was, the fact she lived in New York and needed to move to LA…will her parents say yes? Will she be ok taking this on? We always wanted her.
Most of the show’s young actors were 18 or 19 when they were cast. The exceptions were Danes, who turned 14 after the pilot; 15-year-old Devon Gummersall, who played Angela’s neighbor Brian Krakow; and the oldest of the “teenagers,” Jared Leto, 21, who was cast as Angela’s crush Jordan Catalano.
Winnie Holzman: I remember so few auditions. The person would walk in and we would go, that’s the person. Everyone I wanted got cast. We just fell in love with them.
Wilson Cruz (Ricky Vasquez): It was the first pilot I’d ever auditioned for. My agent said, “You should read this, there’s a part in it that you might relate to,” which I guess was code for “Hey homosexual, you should play this!” So I read it, and of course I felt like somebody had followed me around in my high school years and put it all in a script.
Devon Odessa (Sharon Cherski): I always played the naughty girl. So I went in for Rayanne… and then they handed me the sides for Sharon.
Winnie Holzman: Jared Leto I remember as being very reluctant. I was told he wasn’t sure he wanted to act, but he came in and we auditioned him; we asked him to lean against a wall and close his eyes. He wasn’t initially a series regular, but as soon as we cast him and watched him, we immediately said, “We have to have him every week.” I remember wondering if he would even do it.
In the pilot, Angela dyes her hair as a symbol of her growing independence from her parents (played by Bess Armstrong and Tom Irwin) and childhood best friend Sharon (Devon Odessa). Her new crowd includes wild child Rayanne (AJ Langer) and androgynous sidekick Ricky (Wilson Cruz). The episode was shot in March 1993, with the expectation that if the network liked it, the show would go to series in the spring.
Candy Walken (hair stylist): [When I interviewed for the show], Ed Zwick said, “Our lead actress, who’s 13 and will turn 14 during the pilot, will bleach her hair platinum blonde in the first episode. How are you going to deal with that?” And I said, “I wouldn’t. That color is going to age her, it’s going to harden her. And it’s not believable. Bleaching your hair platinum blonde is not something you can do in your bathroom. You’re going to get all kinds of weird colors if you try to do it yourself. It will [also] destroy this poor child’s hair and change the texture, and it will not be an easy thing to remedy if the pilot doesn’t go.” So Winnie says, “What would you do then?” And I said, “I would do bright red.”