Superman Enters Phone Booth, Exits a Producer
By MEGAN ANGELO
Published: August 20, 2010
THERE is one superpower the actor Tom Welling, who plays a young Clark Kent in “Smallville,” would love to have in real life.
“I wish I could split into two people,” he said on the phone recently, running late after wrapping a scene. “I desperately want to be in two places at once.”
Mr. Welling, 33, was referring to two specific places, both of them in Vancouver, British Columbia: the set of the show he stars on, “Smallville,” now entering its 10th and final season, and the set of “Hellcats,” a new CW drama beginning Sept. 8 on which he is an executive producer.
“Smallville” — and Mr. Welling — started on WB, a now-defunct network that became a teenage-programming destination with shows like “Seventh Heaven,” “Gilmore Girls” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” When CW absorbed WB, “Smallville” stayed on the air, its wholesome earnestness somewhat out of place among the new network’s stable of scandalous, sex-obsessed hormonal dramas. So network executives didn’t expect a pitch for “Hellcats,” a cheerleading story with the tag line “Hell hath no fury like a cheerleader scorned,” to come from Mr. Welling.
“I was surprised that this was something he was interested in,” said Dawn Ostroff, the president of CW. “But whether or not it’s his personal taste or instinct, he knew it would fill a niche.” “Hellcats” joins a CW lineup that includes “Gossip Girl” and “90210” — and like those shows, it features a gorgeous ensemble cast, sharp-tongued writing and a carefully tailored cool-kids soundtrack.
It also has something those shows lacked when they made their debuts: stars. Whereas CW dramas tend to make celebrities out of their casts, “Hellcats” has two leads who are already well known to the young audience the network covets: Aly Michalka (“Disney 365,” “Bandslam”), who is best known as half of the pop sister act Aly and AJ, and Ashley Tisdale of “High School Musical” fame.
If Mr. Welling has been watching his network of nine years evolve into a teenage-soap stronghold, he doesn’t let on. “In some ways, I don’t have the best perspective on that, because I’m always on set,” he said. “I’m kind of in the eye of the storm.”
But the amount of time it took him to get “Hellcats” from idea to completed pilot — less than seven months — speaks to his understanding of CW’s programming appetites and his standing with the network’s brass. (He has directed one “Smallville” a year since 2006 and added an executive producer title this season.) “He grew up with the WB, has been with the CW from the beginning, and just has a great sense of what we want,” Ms. Ostroff said.
Of course, many actors on long-running series garner producing credits, some more or less symbolic. “There’s a huge difference between being the lead of a show and being its leadership,” said Kelly Souders, an executive producer on “Smallville.” “But Tom’s an extremely hard worker, and as he took on more responsibility and grew this understanding of what it is to get a show off the ground, he still wanted to be more and more involved.”
Ms. Souders, who works from Los Angeles, said she knew Mr. Welling was serious about directing and producing when she began to notice him in the background of her video-conferencing screen. “I’d be in a production meeting with people in Vancouver, talking about an episode he wasn’t directing,” she said, “and I’d look up and he’d be sitting on the end, just listening in.”
Crammed as his agenda already was, Mr. Welling could not resist a book that landed on his desk several months back from his agent. It was “Cheer!,” an exploration of college cheerleading by the journalist Kate Torgovnick. Mr. Welling found himself captivated by the athleticism and competitive subculture. “There are people who stay in school just to cheer,” he said, “and I didn’t know that existed.”
With Warner Brothers on board, Mr. Welling and his production company assembled a team: Kevin Murphy (“Caprica,” “Desperate Housewives”) would write and produce the pilot; a crew stocked with “Smallville” veterans would help shoot it; and Allan Arkush (“Heroes,” “Crossing Jordan”) would direct. “Tom is very detail-oriented,” said Mr. Arkush. “When you shoot a pilot, you’re working so fast, it’s easy to not see that person in the corner of the frame doing something wrong. Tom’s not afraid to point it out.”
Mr. Arkush added that since Mr. Welling himself is the lead on a series, his input in casting Marti, the reluctant cheerleader at the center of the series, was invaluable. “It’s not just about the right actor,” Mr. Arkush said. “The lead has to be the type of person you’d want in your home.”
The role ultimately went to Ms. Michalka — but not before she completed a second, more physical round of auditions. “Every time you watch ‘Hellcats,’ you’re going to see a performance,” Mr. Welling said, adding that the response to shows like “Glee” inspired him and the show’s other principals to make explosive cheer-routine scenes a centerpiece of the show. He wanted to be sure each actor could “dance, sing and act — like in classic films, where the spotlight was on performance.”
If Ms. Michalka’s audition was grueling, it was nothing compared with her workload for the pilot, which called for running, biking, jumping and flipping more typical of an action movie than a teenage drama. “We just put her through hell,” said Mr. Murphy, also an executive producer. “She had bruises head to toe. Having Tom there to say to her and to all of the cast, ‘I’ve been there, it’s going to get better,’ was of incredible value. As far as reassuring presences on your set go, you can’t do much better than Superman.”
A version of this article appeared in print on August 22, 2010, on page AR15 of the New York edition.