MODESTO — A second Modestan has landed a part on the hit Fox musical comedy series "Glee" thanks to a connection with the show's Modesto-raised, Emmy-winning casting director, Robert Ulrich.
Nelson Vaamanaia Toilolo, 27, was cast in a small part as one of 12 members of a show choir in the New York college that characters Rachel and Kurt attend. The episode airs at 9 p.m. Thursday.
Toilolo follows Lindsay Pearce, who won a two-episode role as ultra-driven child actor Harmony in "Glee" last season as her prize for being a runner-up in the Oxygen reality competition series "The Glee Project." Ulrich appears on "Project" as a judge and mentor.
Ulrich discovered Toilolo and Pearce during visits to Modesto. He and his wife, actress Kim Johnston Ulrich, have helped judge the annual "Valley's Got Talent" competition at the Gallo Center for the Arts (Pearce won the first contest in 2010) every year. They also attend most Modesto Performing Arts and Youth Entertainment Stage Company performances. He said he always scouts for talent no matter what he is doing.
"I make a special effort to try to help all my friends who are talented, and many of them are from Modesto," Ulrich said. "Nothing makes me happier than when it works out, and they are actually from my hometown."
Among the valley talent to whom he's given a break is Hilmar native Dot-Marie Jones, who plays Coach Shannon Beiste on "Glee." In 2011, when she was up for an Emmy for outstanding guest actress in a comedy series for the role, she spoke with The Bee about her friend.
"It's thanks to Robert that I'm where I am today," Jones said, noting that Ulrich took a chance on her and cast her in "Glee" creator Ryan Murphy's earlier FX series "Nip/Tuck."
Before going on to become a two-time Oscar nominee for his roles in "The Hurt Locker" and "The Town," Modesto- born-and-bred actor Jeremy Renner a veteran of the Modesto Junior College stage also was cast in an early role by Ulrich.
YES Company parts
The casting director got to know Toilolo from YES Company performances. Toilolo acted in the productions from sixth grade through his 2002 graduation from Johansen High School and beyond. His roles include performing backup to the Teen Angel in "Grease," playing Baby Boy in "West Side Story" and dancing in "Music Man," "Footloose" and "Seussical the Musical."
"I always thought he was enormously talented," Ulrich said. "He has an extraordinary voice and an open, joyful quality. He simply has a real spark. In looking for this particular role one of a group of talented misfits I remembered Nelson and asked him to go on tape. He possesses just the right unique quality for the role, as well as the necessary talent in singing and dancing. He's wonderful, and I'm so happy I could cast another Modestan on 'Glee!' "
Toilolo auditioned for "The Glee Project" the year Pearce was in the cast after Ulrich spoke to YES Company members and encouraged them to submit videos for the show. He made it to a call-back but was unable to continue auditioning because his mother had just died and he had conflicts.
Taking time off work
He was stunned when Ulrich invited him to resubmit an audition video in November and even more surprised when he was offered the part. Toilolo, who works in the front office of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco, asked his boss for leave to take three days off a week rather than two so he could go down to Los Angeles for the three weeks of filming.
The work was long and hard he had to do 19-hour-day shoots and spend two hours getting his hair and makeup arranged. Adding to the difficulty, he was sworn to secrecy and wasn't able to tell anyone what he was doing.
But all in all, he said, the experience was wonderful and he would love to perform with the show again (there's a possibility the part could recur, though he isn't scheduled for any additional episodes).
"I got the bug," he said. "It bit me really big. I'm so intrigued by the industry. It's amazing. My life has always been on the go. I've never been one to sit down. I grew up singing in church. I was always raised in church. This industry was never a part of my repertoire. I knew I was supposed to do something with my voice and that God had called me do something with my voice, but I didn't know it would be this way."
Melanee Wyatt, the director of YES Company and a childhood friend of Ulrich's, said she's glad to see Toilolo succeed. He was one of a few students she took to visit Ulrich at his Los Angeles home.
"He's a fun-loving young man who has such a talent and I'm so grateful that he's having the opportunity to share it,"she said. "To see his experiences, his hard work he invested with us come to fruition is gratifying."
No formal agreement
Wyatt made clear there's no formal talent pipeline between YES Company and Ulrich's casting agency.
"We have a friendship. It's not a business relationship," she said. Anyone who auditions for his projects is thrown into the pot with everyone else from across the nation. "They don't get an advantage being from Modesto or from my friendship with Robert."
Ulrich has been speaking with YES Company members every summer for years long before "The Glee Project." But since Ulrich has been appearing on the show and become better known, the kids enjoy his appearances even more, Wyatt said.
No kids have approached her asking for an in with Ulrich, she said. Sometimes, though, when young people are moving to Southern California to take a shot at the business, she will ask them to meet with Ulrich so he can be a sounding board and help them avoid being taken advantage of. For example, the kids can ask him if opportunities are legitimate or not.
"It's his way of giving back," Wyatt said.
Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan Renner can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2313. Follow her on Twitter, @MilleganRenner.