‘90 Day Fiancé’ Casting Director on the Vetting Process, Hopes for a Transgender Story and the Franchise’s Future

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Since 2014, millions of viewers — including self-professed superfans Lady Gaga, Chrissy Teigen and Pete Davidson — have tuned in to TLC’s “90 Day Fiancé” to watch Americans go through the arduous process of bringing partners over from other countries through the (previously) esoteric K-1 visa process. Since then, the franchise has exploded into multiple directions of spinoff-hood: In 2017, we got the self-explanatory “Before the 90 Days”; two years later it was “90 Day: The Other Way” with Americans traveling abroad and the meta “90 Day: Pillow Talk,” during which alums watch others’ “90 Day” episodes.

In 2020, the self-taped “90 Day Diaries” was born, and 2021 brought “90 Day: The Single Life,” following former cast members still looking for love. The one-off special 2022 spinoff “90 Day Diaries: Ukraine,” spotlighted series regulars who were either still living in Ukraine during Russia’s invasion or were stateside and trying to help from here.

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So just how far can a docuseries about couples from different cultures go? For senior director of casting at Sharp Entertainment, Brooklyn Bagwell — who started her career on “Doomsday Preppers” and has cast “90 Day” since Season 3 — the globe’s the limit.

How does casting work?

When I first started casting the show, we would work with immigration lawyers and scour social media. It was mostly on Facebook, visa forums and cold calling every day. We would get in the couples that we really loved, along with these ancillary characters, which is super important to the casting process. They have to open up their world to us, and that includes having their family and friends speak to us about their concerns.

When you first evaluate possible cast members, what are you looking for?

I think it’s important that we speak to the fish-out-of-water moments. We want to find a foreigner who has never been to America before. It’s a red flag if they’ve been to America, because we want to focus on those first times. Then we also look for how much physical time the couple has spent together since they’ve met. I think the smaller amount of time is better because it means all those firsts are going to be amplified throughout the 90 days. This season, for example, Bilal [Hazziez] and Shaeeda [Sween] only spent six days together physically. On top of all that, we obviously want those loud, captivating, relatable characters.

I read that the “90 Day” marriage success rate is better than the national average, which was fascinating. As a viewer, I like having some couples to root for and others to hate-watch. Is that the strategy?

We want everyone to be successful. Obviously, we want the show to be as entertaining as possible, but we do want to root for them. But yeah, we do love to follow those arguments and those tension points. There have been breakups after the marriage, but the success rate is pretty high, because I think they’ve just gone through so much to get to where they are.

Caleb Greenwood and Alina Kozhevnikova were cut from the already-airing “Before the 90 Days” Season 5 after racist social-media posts of Alina’s were discovered. Has your vetting process had to evolve?

Oh, my gosh, yes. Our internal searches before they even get on a Zoom or Skype interview with me are so intense. We have LexisNexis on all couples, plus the supporting characters. If they are chosen for the show, there is an extensive background check that they go through to check for any past media or criminal history, and that’s super important. Obviously, we can’t get it all. Sometimes things pop up once they’ve been on the show, and it’s super unfortunate, but we do our due diligence as much as possible to try to make that not happen.

If somebody does have a criminal record, is it an immediate no?

It’s dependent on what the record is. Obviously, we don’t want domestic violence or child pornography or anything like that. Those are all no. But if they have other criminal records, like maybe a history of drugs, maybe it could be part of their story.

Who do you consider your greatest casting success story?

Darcey [Silva] and Jesse [Meester]. I remember my first interview with them, and I wasn’t sure really where it was going to go, but seeing where they’ve come and the amount of story they had was incredible. And then Colt [Johnson] and Larissa [Lima], I reached out to them for over a year and finally their visa was approved. It felt like that was a home run story to me.

Representation is an important part of casting and seems to be getting more important — is that fair to say?

100%. It’s so important that each season has a very eclectic, diverse cast. And that is No. 1 when we’re casting this show. These last couple of years, we really homed in on that.

Do you see that growing even more? Could we see a trans person or non-binary person on the show?

Stay tuned! A transgender story is high on the list. We would love to find a Deaf couple or a blind couple; we’d love to find a teenager or an extremely visual couple, like two very tall people, or an octogenarian dating an octogenarian. It’s really, really, really important to us to feature all types of

How can you tell if a couple is worth continuing to document?

You never really know in the casting phase, because it’s right at the beginning, but we’re literally a fly on the wall. The authenticity of these couples is so important. I remember Chantel [Everett’s] interview, and her parents did not know that [Pedro Jimeno] was coming over on a K-1 visa. I think her parents thought it was a travel visa, and the fact that she was so willing to reveal that to her family on camera is super important. I think that amplified her storyline and ultimately got her and her family to a spinoff. Big Ed [Brown] was so open and honest with me about his relationship. He was like, running, and had a box of gifts he was going to bring to Rose [Vega], and he was sharing everything with me. I’m just like, “OK, this guy’s going to be perfect.”

“90 Day” is a guilty pleasure, but it feels educational too. When the conflict in Ukraine started, I realized that all of my knowledge about the country came from “90 Day.”

I feel so much more educated now that I’ve been taping this show. I did not know a lot about different cultures and religions out there, or what those countries look like, honestly. I feel like I was under a rock. And now, since I’ve been casting this show, it’s really opened my mind. I think that’s really important. I’ve actually been to Ukraine, and I love it. I produced Maria [Divine’s] episode, and it’s just so devastating to see what’s going on in Kyiv. Natalie [Mordovtseva] and Maria, they feel like family to me. I’ve been chatting with them for so long and seeing the devastation over there is horrifying.

How will you know when it’s time to end the franchise?

Looking at all of the countries and states we haven’t featured yet, and different types of characters we haven’t featured yet, I feel like this show has the potential to go on for another 10-plus seasons. I’m being honest. I don’t see any ending in sight at this point. I think we’re just getting started.

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