Judy Blye Wilson has no relationship to the sporting goods behemoth with the same name, but it was a set of the company's kneepads that helped her pull off one of her biggest casting coups. Wilson, who has been head casting director for the daytime drama All My Children since 1991, had cast an actor in a small role that was due to be expanded. The producers of the show weren't convinced the actor was contract material, so they screen-tested him for the part—a part he was already playing—along with several other actors. When no one clicked, another round of screen tests was called for. But even though Wilson felt the performer had the goods and wanted him tested again, her bosses refused.
So one Sunday, Wilson went to a sporting goods store and bought a pair of kneepads. Bright and early Monday morning, she put the pads on under her skirt, walked into the executive producer's office, knelt on the floor, and literally begged her to test the actor again. "She laughed so hard," Wilson recalls, "and finally said, 'All right already!'"
Which is how Mark Consuelos was cast as Mateo Santos, won a Soap Opera Digest Award for outstanding newcomer, fell in love with his co-star Kelly Ripa, and, well, the rest is tabloid history. "I love actors," Wilson says. "And I love the whole process of trying to find the right actor for what the role is, to bring it to life with the right actor, the one that fits the part."
A native of Houston, Wilson earned a degree in theatre from the University of Houston. Her elder sister, actor Margaret Blye, was an early influence on her. Wilson was blown away when she saw a stage version of West Side Story as a teen; she went on to act in local community-theatre productions.
She eventually married the character actor Trey Wilson (Bull Durham, Raising Arizona) and moved with him to L.A., where she began working as a script supervisor on independent films and B-movies with titles such as Revenge of the Ninja. When her husband's career took him to New York, where he began appearing in Broadway plays, Wilson got into the casting game, first as an assistant on Ryan's Hope, then with One Life to Live. "I always wanted to work behind the scenes more than I wanted to be an actress," she says. "I had always been interested in casting, and I always played the game of reading the book and casting it in your mind. I had done some casting when I had taken directing courses in college and also for some of the independent films I worked on in L.A. So I think I brought a lot of knowledge from having worked in the film business, having worked in theatre, and still being passionate about theatre."
Wilson feels it is this diverse background, plus her own tastes and instincts, that has given her a leg up in her field. It's also important, she says, that a casting director have a good memory and a love for the process, and it doesn't hurt if you've had exposure to the talent bases in New York and L.A. before you have to make casting decisions. But if there's one thing she's learned over the years, it's one of those seemingly obvious lessons, the acting industry equivalent of the Yogi Berra maxim "It ain't over till it's over": "The cream rises to the top. That's the lesson I learned, and I learned it quickly. A good actor is a good actor, and then there's all the rest. And that's all we're trying to do is find talent."
It is an exhaustive process, she says. Wilson estimates she hires a minimum of 200 day players a year, four to eight contract roles over the same period. She'll audition anywhere from eight to 10 actors for the day parts but will see as many as 300 or 400 performers for the contract roles (her assistants handle the extras and under-fives). Wilson does general auditions frequently and attends as much theatre as she can, looking for potential players—not just on Broadway, but way off Broadway as well. She casts L.A.-based actors off tape. "On a typical day, if I'm looking for a contract role, I'm in auditions all day long, and I'm on the phone a lot and on the computer, because there are a lot of online submissions," she says. "When I am not doing a contract role, I will be doing auditions; there is not at least one day when I'm not doing some."
Here's where what Wilson refers to as the "pop" factor comes in. With so many actors passing through her office, she says, "what you need in daytime, and what we're constantly looking for in contract players, is charisma and presence. Finding someone who 'pops.' That person who has that 'it' factor, something special. It's hard to define. It's not necessarily beauty, not necessarily sexuality. But it does draw your eye, pull you in."
So do other factors. Wilson wants performers she's auditioning to be prepared, pleasant, and on time. In other words, she wants professionalism, even "on the part of an inexperienced actor. You don't walk into a casting director loaded down with a hundred props and stand in a corner and think your part through. That's wasting people's time," she says. An actor's ability to jump right in and do it is one of the key elements in Wilson's decision-making process. Daytime dramas are not like episodic TV or movies, in which you have the luxury of sitting in your trailer and chatting up your agent. Speed is of the essence.
"You have to be very smart and very quick," says Wilson of daytime actors. "It's a muscle you have to train very quickly, because you're on a fast-moving project here. And we segment shows, meaning we do pieces of more than one show a day. And sometimes, for people with heavy story lines, there's a lot of text, so you better be ready for it."
Wilson obviously knows her craft. She has won three Emmys for daytime casting and has been recognized by her peers with eight Artios Awards. Over the years, she has helped boost the careers of Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mischa Barton, Josh Duhamel, Michelle Trachtenberg, and Jonathan Bennett.
But Wilson admits, "This business is a gamble in every way." She's betting that her instincts, combined with a knowledge of the game, will come up with a winner most of the time. So far, she's beaten the house pretty consistently. And it all comes down to a simple formula: "I don't really cast by personality type. I cast by talent."