How CD Allison Jones Discovers the Comedy—and Now Drama—Stars of Tomorrow

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Photo Source: Raquel Aparicio

Allison Jones is likely behind your favorite comedy ensemble. As the go-to casting director for creators like Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, and Mike Schur, she’s responsible for assembling “Freaks and Geeks,” “Knocked Up,” “Superbad,” “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation”—essentially an endless list of iconic titles. But Jones went outside of her usual genre to populate the fictionalized Fox News in Lionsgate’s “Bombshell” alongside CD Ben Harris, her collaborator for more than a decade. Also deviating from her tried-and-true expertise: Most of the film’s characters—including Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly and Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson—are based on real people that audiences will surely recognize. Others, like Margot Robbie as Kayla Pospisil, were fictional amalgams of real women and their experiences at the news network. For Jones and Harris, it was all a welcome challenge.

What was the casting process like for “Bombshell”?
Allison Jones: [Director] Jay [Roach] didn’t care if we had “names” or not for the parts once the three main women were in place, because there had to be such a resemblance. Deciding on John Lithgow was a long process. It was just Jay talking, Skyping, or meeting with actors, looking at their demos, and having lots of discussions. We kept going back to John Lithgow because he’s such a good character actor and we knew that he would lose himself in the role, so to speak. He would become Roger Ailes. Ben Harris: Jay was very conscientious of making sure we treated [Ailes] with humanity and [recognized] the fact that he was a human being, not judging him at all. He wanted to make sure we respected all these people, and we did.

READ: How “Bombshell” star Charlize Theron gets into a role

When making lists of well-known actors, how do you decide who to consider?
AJ: Well, I’m not a fan of what they call laundry lists; it’s a huge list of any “name” person in that category. I tend to try never to have to do that, and this wasn’t a big studio movie, so we could pick 15–20 names where we really thought each one would be a good fit for the role. It was who we thought could capture the vibe of this person, knowing that you could make someone’s hair blond or someone could grow a mustache.

How was this job different from other projects you’ve cast?
AJ: It was real personalities that we got to cast. It was real people, and they didn’t have to be funny at all. So, for us, it was different. It was acting chops, and I think 75 percent of the characters in this were based on real people. So that was a whole challenge in itself.
BH: We’re actually having to meet a physical likeness, and they also have to have the acting chops to hold up to it, and have not only just the physical likeness but also the vibe and energy of what we can only presume exists in the Fox News world. It’s just very different casting a physical likeness as well as an actual personality.

What do you want actors to know about what you do?
AJ: When you walk in the room, you’re either right for the role or not. It doesn’t mean you didn’t give a good audition. It’s funny, we’ve worked with some directors who were actors first, and the first thing they always say is, ‘Wow, it really doesn’t matter what your audition is. It’s who you are, if you’re right for the role or wrong for the role.’ That’s why I don’t want people beating themselves up thinking they gave a bad reading, because it’s frequently never that. 

The film depicts such well-documented events. How important was physical likeness in the actors?
BH: The physicality was important, but also the essence of the people. Like Jeanine Pirro: We knew she had to be bigger than life. It was a lot of auditioning, and we were constantly trying to find tape on all these people. There was no tape on a couple of them, believe it or not, just pictures. We were really focusing on the likeness, so we had many auditions for all these small roles that it was almost more about that physical likeness than that they actually have that many lines.
AJ: It was kind of an education, as well, trying to figure out how Rudy Giuliani really spoke or how Jeanine Pirro acted off air. If Sean Hannity always furrowed his brows, we needed to find someone who did that. It was an education and very, very entertaining, mostly because the actors really did their  homework. Jay was very conscientious of not making it a satire and just telling the story with people that you could believe.

READ: Think film actors don’t have self-doubt? Think again. This “Bombshell” star explains how to conquer it

What considerations have to be made when casting supporting roles that will share scenes with more experienced actors?
AJ: It’s always a consideration. In comedy, it’s holding their own opposite Will Ferrell. In this one, it was holding your own opposite these A-plus women and John Lithgow. We did a lot of legwork. We had just finished “Booksmart,” so we were familiar with early-20s women. There are so many good actors in that age group that we just read a whole lot of people. Those were all cast carefully and after a lot of auditions with Jay. Jay had met assistants at the network or read about a lot of them, so he also wanted to capture whatever the essence of being an assistant at Fox News is.

How has casting changed since you started?
AJ: Actors can send you their auditions. That’s the most amazing thing that’s happened in the past 15 years—that actors can self-tape at home and send you their audition. Now, studios and networks are much more willing to hire from a self-tape of somebody in, say, South Africa. It’s much more global. And much more actor-friendly. Now we hire people off a tape without even bringing them in. I think that’s opened it up for actors.

What makes a good self-tape?
AJ: Well, it’s almost the same thing if they’re in the room or not. First of all, if they’re right for the role. It’s important to get pretty good sound. Do a wide shot and then do maybe a shot that’s elbows-up so that you can really see almost how you would see them in real life when you’re focusing on a person. It’s not a severe close-up, just the waist up. But good sound is the best. If they feel like doing two takes, that’s good, too. As long as the takes are sort of different—they can just do one take and then another slightly different take. We do that all the time in person.

READ: If you want to be the next Nicole Kidman, learn how she gets into audition rooms

What advice do you like to give actors?
AJ: Don’t beat yourself up, and move on. After every audition. I’ve never been an actor, so I don’t know it, but if I don’t get a job, I beat myself up. I would say just keep moving forward. Tenacity is everything.
BH: It is tenacity. You must be tenacious.

You’re known for discovering a lot of talent, especially in the comedy world. Where do you look?
AJ: Everywhere. Movies and TV and streaming. When I started out, I used to watch every “Law & Order” show so I could learn New York actors. Now I just watch everything, and you can track them down on the internet. I used to keep notebooks, and I wrote down every standup I saw on Johnny Carson that I liked. I wrote down everything. Now it’s just all the stuff out there: the streaming stuff, the stuff on YouTube, the stuff on Funny or Die. There are millions of places to look. I used to panic if I didn’t know who every single cast member of Second City was in Chicago. Now there’s just too much. I don’t feel guilty if I don’t know every improv group in the world, because there are just millions of them. It has always been, and it always will be, legwork, I think. Just doing your homework and watching as much TV as you can and seeing who was that guy who delivered that line. We do it on commercials, too. We see someone we like on a commercial and have to track them down. When I need to find a certain group of people, we learn a certain group of people.

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 23 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Elyse Roth
Elyse is a senior editor at Backstage, where she oversees all casting news and features content, including her weekly casting director Q&A series, In the Room. She came to New York from Ohio by way of Northwestern University, where she studied journalism, and now lives in Brooklyn. She might see and write about awards-worthy films, but Elyse still thinks “Legally Blonde” is a perfect movie and on any given night is probably taking in some kind of entertainment, whether it’s comedy, theater, ballet, or figuring out what show to binge next.
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