Imagine a movie in which the actors are interchangeable, each the same gleaming-toothed, perfectly coiffed, spray-tanned mannequin. Would you be able to follow the story? Would you even care? That's exactly the problem that casting directors, such as the award-laden Sheila Jaffe, work to circumvent.
"It's a really important job, and I think it gets forgotten because it is the first job [on a production]," Jaffe says of her behind-the-scenes role. "So by the time the movie is out or the TV show's aired, everybody forgot how it started. But there is an art to assembling a cast. It's like painting a canvas."
Jaffe has more than two decades of experience and more than 120 credits to her name, including recent films "MacGruber" and "Rocky Balboa" and a new CBS drama pilot starring Dennis Quaid, Michael Chiklis, and Carrie-Anne Moss. With casting partner Georgianne Walken, she won a primetime Emmy Award in 1999 and received five subsequent nominations for casting "The Sopranos," and she was nominated from 2005 to 2007 for her work on the HBO series "Entourage." Jaffe is also a four-time Artios Award winner, an honor bestowed by her peers in the Casting Society of America.
"Entourage" was part of Jaffe's prolific partnership with show creator Mark Wahlberg, which officially began with the film "The Italian Job." She has since cast the majority of Wahlberg's projects, including "The Fighter," "Invincible," and the upcoming films "Ted" and "Broken City." Jaffe has also maintained long-term relationships with other actor-producers, such as Sylvester Stallone, Ethan Hawke, and Steve Buscemi. (A collaboration with the latter on "Trees Lounge" resulted in David Chase hiring Jaffe and Walken to cast the pilot for "The Sopranos.")
"I think all actors, whether they're directing or producing, really like to be involved and are very helpful in the casting process," Jaffe says. "They know a lot about acting, so they have very good opinions and very good insights, and they're great collaborators."
Jaffe had studied acting, but says she was "too nervous to do that. I was too insecure, I guess. I started working in a restaurant, and then the restaurant took over my life." As the night manager for Manhattan's Café Central in the '80s, she found herself surrounded by regulars such as Sean Penn, Mickey Rourke, and Robert De Niro and even worked with future stars Bruce Willis and Gina Gershon. "It was a very popular neighborhood hangout for actors on the Upper West Side in those days," she says.
Café Central had closed and Jaffe was out of a job when Walken, wife of Christopher and a customer at the restaurant, asked for help casting her first film. "We figured it out," Jaffe says. "And I already knew all the actors because they all came into Café Central."
One job led to another, and after several years immersed in New York's independent film community, Jaffe began traveling to Los Angeles to cast more studio projects while Walken remained in New York. After Jaffe moved to L.A. permanently, their bicoastal partnership continued, but Walken has since taken a hiatus from casting.
"I just feel fortunate to be working, and to have reached this place in my career that I feel really proud of a lot of things I've done," Jaffe says.
Yet she is dismayed that so few actors or directors remember to thank their casting directors come awards season. She points out that those who do -- Buscemi, Martin Scorsese, Michael Imperioli -- tend to be her fellow New Yorkers.
"When you do find somebody, after that you don't get any credit for it," Jaffe says, "because what's the director going to say? 'You were never my choice. The casting director made me hire you.' They're not going to do that! They've now made a movie and bonded together, and neither of them wants to know that somebody else had anything to do with it. So they win best ensemble cast, and they never mention the casting director."
Daniel Lehman is a staff writer for Back Stage. Follow him on Twitter: @byDanLehman