“I was looking for kids who seemed authentic,” says Judd Apatow about the casting process for his and Paul Feig’s cult hit late 90s high school series Freaks and Geeks. Apatow and Feig certainly found an eclectic bunch of real teen actresses and actors, all of whom seemed like actual high school students and not just performers trying to fit into the usual stock teen movie clichés. Feig recalls in a recent A.V. Club interview, “We can’t just cast this with a bunch of beautiful kids and put glasses on them and mess up their hair and say, ‘Oh, they’re nerds.’ We’ve got to have real casting.’ So I started to make that speech, and NBC was like, ‘Oh, no. We agree.’ It was the least resistance I had ever met on anything I’ve ever done in my career.”
Freaks and Geeks proved to be a launching pad for several actors who are now big names, and thanks to the magic of YouTube, the original audition tapes for all of the teens except James Franco have surfaced online. Check out all the audition footage from folks like Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini, and Martin Starr below:
Before Freaks and Geeks: A high school basketball player with small parts in movies like Can’t Hardly Wait, SLC Punk!, and Dead Man on Campus.
“[Jason] Segel came in, and I honestly didn’t know what to make of him when he first came in, because he was this big, giant guy. I remember he was wearing hipster plaid pants. My first thing was like, ‘He’s not Nick at all,’ because he was cool and he was a basketball star. But then his audition was so good, and I think Judd was the one to say, ‘That’s a great thing, to know that he’s a guy who was a basketball star and now he’s smoking pot, he’s fucking that up.’ That’s where that came from; we started writing that into the script for him.” – Paul Feig
Before Freaks and Geeks: His only credit was a guest spot on the soap opera One Life to Live.
“Judd… comes running in and says, ‘Okay, don’t watch the audition, but watch at the end of the audition.’ Because Levine was reading for the character of Sam. So he does it, and he’s fine, but then he stops, and he looks off-camera and goes, ‘Can I do it now?’ And the casting director goes, “Yes.” And he starts doing this William Shatner impression, and we go, ‘Oh my God, that’s it. That is all of our comedy nerd friends doing all of these dopey voices.’ So he really got the part by doing that. That was the minute we were like, ‘He’s totally Neal.’” – Paul Feig
Before Freaks and Geeks: A Canadian high schooler who had been performing stand-up since age 12 and had just won the Vancouver Amateur Comedy Contest. He’d also been writing the script for what would become Superbad with high school buddy Evan Goldberg.
“We wrote this scene where a kid is explaining how he’s going to grow pot underground and then if the cops come, he’s going to blow the entrance and then they’ll just see the corn at ground level and he’ll just say he’s a corn farmer. But Seth [deep voice] talked like this and he was really deep [resumes normal voice] and he did the whole scene really pissed off and it made me laugh so hard and there was no part for him and we just created a part in the show.” – Judd Apatow
“I just remember Judd and I looking at each other after the first sentence out of his mouth, like, ‘Oh shit, this guy’s amazing.’ Because he was just so pre-packaged great. That voice and that weird attitude. ” – Paul Feig
Before Freaks and Geeks: An actress with big roles in the quickly-cancelled Chris Hardwick UPN sitcom Guys Like Us and the ABC Saturday morning series Bone Chillers. Also, supporting roles in Good Burger and Dead Man on Campus and guest spots on 3rd Rock from the Sun and Boy Meets World.
“Linda [Cardellini] was the first person to come in where I was like, “That’s her! That’s her!” … When I write, I have to have the image of somebody in my head. Since all the other people were real people, I had them in my head. I was writing to their voices and their faces and stuff. But she was the one I had to make up in my head. It was really a weird moment, because she was exactly like the girl I made up in my head, and acted just like her. It was really this moment of “Holy shit.” It really blew me away. I mean, everyone really liked her, but I was like, “No, you don’t understand. That’s the girl, that’s the girl, that’s the girl.” I was obsessed.” – Paul Feig
John Francis Daley
Before Freaks and Geeks: Played young Tommy at age 3 in a national and international tour of The Who’s Tommy. Starred as Danny in his middle school’s production of Grease.
“So then the final kid we had to cast was Sam. And we couldn’t find anybody. We were on the rocks… And it was really the last casting session that we were watching out of New York, and John Daley came on the screen. My first thought was, ‘Oh my God, he’s so young. He’s way too young. They brought a kid who’s too young.’ Then he starts reading, and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, he’s so good.’ His eyes were so amazing. You could just read every thought in his head, because he looked so scared.
And then I started going, ‘You know what? Wait a minute. This is great.’ Because in school, it’s this melting pot. Some kids looked like they were so young, and some kids looked like they were way too old to be there. I just loved that dynamic, that he’s so young and so innocent. It made the show better, because we were really throwing this innocent kid into this melting pot that is a high school. So that’s how we got him. We took him to the network. The network just approved every one of our choices that we wanted.” – Paul Feig
Before Freaks and Geeks: Freaks and Geeks was her acting debut.
“Busy [Philipps] came in, too, reading for Lindsay. She was great, but she just wasn’t a Lindsay type, because she just wasn’t vulnerable enough. But I remember thinking she’d be a good Kim Kelly, so we had her come back for that.” – Paul Feig
Before Freaks and Geeks: A student at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts with just a couple of minor TV and movie credits.
“When Martin Starr came in, I knew it was him. That was another epiphany moment. And he was so funny, with that weird energy. That’s not who he really is, but he puts it on so well. Normally I don’t like people playing characters, but when they do it and they make it so real, you’re just like, ‘Cool.’ I had no idea if that was what he was like or not. And then you get to know him later and you go, ‘Oh, that’s not exactly who he is. He’s much more together than that.’ He was a homerun… This sounds terrible, but you always have to bring in a couple candidates for a role, so the network doesn’t feel like you’re just forcing people down their throat, so we paired him up with the person we didn’t think was going to be right. There’s a lot of Machiavellian politics that goes on behind the scenes sometimes.”