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Casting directors can make you a star

By CATHERINE SEIPP   |   June 18, 2003 at 10:53 AM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, June 18 (UPI) -- What does it take to be a TV casting director? A mental filing cabinet of about 10,000 actors' names and faces. Polite perserverance to get the showrunner to consider someone he might not have thought of for the role. And an eye that can spot talent even at the grocery store.

"Janet does a lot of casting at Trader Joes," said casting director Janet Gilmore's partner Megan McConnell at a news conference about casting.

Gilmore and McConnell do casting for "Alias," "The Practice" and "Boston Public." It was their persistance, in fact, that got executive producer David E. Kelley to hire actor Chi McBride as the "Boston Public" high-school principal.

"I think we must have sent Chi McBride down to David Kelley's office about 10 times," noted Gilmore.

Oh, and one more thing: If you're a casting director, odds are great that you're either a woman – as all six casting directors were at this conference – or a gay man. Possibly that's because the job of casting director evolved out of the position of producer's assistant.

"I think it used to be the secretaries who took care of it in the old studio system," said casting director Deb Manwiller, who's been in charge of casting for "24," "Picket Fences" and "Chicago Hope."

"The few original trailblazers were women," noted Gilmore. "Maybe because women tend to be better able to do more than one thing at the same time."

Certainly casting requires juggling a lot of information at once without losing patience. Casting directors typically see 100 actors a day when casting various parts for a new show. And their job isn't necessarily done when the showrunner is happy with their choices.

"You might think you've got the perfect group of people," said Eileen Mack Knight, who's been in charge of casting for "Bernie Mac," "Mad About You" and "Martin." "And you take them to the network and they say, no, this is not the perfect group of people."

Networks have their own casting directors as well as shows. One who's particularly known for spotting young talent is Kathleen Letterie, executive vice-president of talent and casting at the WB.

"She really wants to know who you are and how you feel about the material," said Tom Welling, who stars as the young Superman on "Smallville," at the WB news conference. "It's a great process to be a part of."

Michael Rosenbaum, who plays young Lex Luthor on the show, got the part because Letterie pushed him for it.

"We went down the road with some other people," said "Smallville" co-executive producer Al Gough. Two weeks before they began shooting the pilot, he recalled, Letterie suggested they take another look at Rosenbaum, insisting that he hadn't been well the first time he'd auditioned.

"And he was fantastic," said Gough.

"Well, here's the thing," noted Rosenbaum drily. "They said 700 other actors had come in for this role, and I thought to myself, what are 700 other actors doing wrong? And I went in there, and I was having a good day. You know, I had a good night's sleep. I knew my lines."

So what's the casting process actually like? I once got to see a bit of it up close, when I sat through an afternoon of auditions for Showtime's "Beggars and Choosers," a comic soap opera about the TV business.

At the time, the show needed to fill the role of Casey Lennox, a scheming female network executive's equally scheming assistant. The Casey character, who was modeled after the self-invented Eve Harrington in the old movie "All About Eve," was introduced as a young woman who affects an inner-city street cred but really comes from an upper-middle-class black family.

The "Beggars and Choosers" producers had made an attempt to soften the cattle call nature of the situation by posting a small sign in the reception area. "Just because we don't have a receptionist doesn't mean we don't care," read the sign. "Please sign in!"

The waiting area was filled with a dozen or so gorgeous black and Hispanic young women. They looked up briefly from studying their lines when I walked in, but little thought bubbles reading "Not the competition" quickly formed above their heads and they looked back down.

I went into the conference room where showrunner Peter Lefcourt and his casting director Joel Thurm were auditioning the actresses, and spent all afternoon there.

"A bit of a meeskeit," Lefcourt remarked at one point, using the Yiddish term for homely, after a actress wearing glasses left the room.

"She's gorgeous!" Thurm insisted, pointing to the young woman's unbespectacled headshot. Lefcourt shrugged. "You know what they say," he noted, "sometimes these things are shot through cement."

Actually the actress was very pretty. But this is Hollywood, and she had the bad luck to be preceded by an almost supernaturally beautiful contender – whose assets, nevertheless, didn't clinch the deal.

"Nice tushy," Lefcourt said, in something of an understatement, after that reading.

"But a little Aaron Spelling," Thurm points out.

"Could you tell her to tart it DOWN?" Thurm suggested about a similarly sexy actress Lefcourt wanted to see for the callback.

Since the role was supposed to be a young businesswoman, most auditioners wore suits or other office attire. This one came dressed in a tank top and slit skirt.

"You'd kind of think she would have dressed appropriately," Lefcourt agreed.

Thurm, who like the fictional casting director on "Beggars & Choosers" was once confronted by a starlet who stripped in front of him, mused, "maybe she's smart and that's why she DIDN'T dress appropriately."

A tall, confident actress named Aisha came in and immediately made a couple of little jokes about her name. "Put a bunch of black women in a room and you'll get every kind of –isha you can think of," she said.

I thought Aisha was rather winning. Thurm thought she had a nice wholesome quality that would work well for the character's surface innocence. "She's really girlish," he began to say enthusiastically. But Lefcourt cut the casting director off.

"Don't try to sell me on her," he said.

One actress entered the room in a flurry of nervousness, perhaps because she was a few years older than everyone she was up against that day.

"We have a mutual friend!" she announced to Lefcourt, obviously trying to make a connection. "Who?" Lefcout asked pleasantly.

The actress froze up in one of those morifying moments. "I wish I could remember her name," she said, saving the situation slightly with a perky, "I rented 'All About Eve' this weekend!"

But when she read, an amazing thing happened: She becomes 10 years younger, with the old-fashioned freshness of a young Janet Gaynor.

"Interesting," Lefcourt said after she leaves the room. "She understood the character. She'd make my life miserable, though; I just get the feeling she's very high maintenance."

"Hmm," he added, perusing her resume. "She's been on soaps. Soap actors often develop bad habits."

And so it went. "She's a good little actress," Lefcourt said of the bubbly girl. "She understands what she's reading."

After Lefcourt left the room for a minute, I mentioned to Thurm that I thought that actress's cornrowed hair was very pretty.

"Men don't like braids," Thurm said jadedly. "Or that crinkled kind of hair either," he added. "I know YOU like it," he interrupted firmly as I started to say something. "Women always do. But men do not."

So who ended up playing the Casey Lennox role?

Actually, none of the actresses I saw audition that long afternoon got the part. Lefcourt and Thurm decided to cast Sherri Saum, who they'd seen the previous day.

But that was just one afternoon in Hollywood, and at least one of the rejects went on to better things. Aisha Tyler now has a plum guest starring role as Ross's girlfriend on "Friends."

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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