Tomorrow's Power Casting Directors

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Photo Source: Sean Teegarden & Meron Menghistab

Here’s a secret: Casting directors like you. They want you to succeed. When you walk into an audition room, the CD looks at you and sees a potential answer to all of his or her problems.

“I think people tend to forget we are on the actors’ side,” says casting director J.C. Cantu. “I want them to do really well. I want them to get the part. Then I can go home early and have a glass of champagne and celebrate.”

Cantu, who founded Rising Phoenix Casting last year, is part of a new generation of CDs who are becoming major players in the casting community. Many of them found their career paths through acting, and all of them express affection for actors. After all, why get into a business like casting if not to have a chance to work with people like you?

For actors, these are the names to remember, the people who in years to come will cast the parts that will make careers. They’re rooting for you.

Katja Blichfeld and Jessica Daniels
Blichfeld + Daniels Casting
Projects: “30 Rock”; “The Carrie Diaries”

Katja Blichfeld wanted to become a casting director so she could hang out with Christian Slater. “I read in some teen magazine that his mother [casting director Mary Jo Slater] was responsible for his career, and I was like, ‘You get to hang out with Christian Slater? That sounds good,’ ” Blichfeld (pictured, right) remembers of her 12-year-old self. Blichfeld moved to New York to pursue said career and worked with CD Jennifer McNamara, who mentored her and connected her with her current casting gig on “30 Rock.” Blichfeld met Jessica Daniels (pictured, left)—whose interest in casting was sparked while an intern at Backstage—while working on the NBC comedy.

With “30 Rock” coming to an end, the pair have partnered to form the casting office Blichfeld + Daniels Casting, and their first project as a team is the CW’s “Sex and the City” prequel, “The Carrie Diaries.”

Whether casting veteran comedians or raw talent, Blichfeld and Daniels are looking for “people who can approach dramatic or comedic material with honesty and not condescend to their character,” Blichfeld says.

The duo see countless actors for these high-profile shows and discover them in comedy clubs, Off-Broadway theaters, school showcases, and other venues around New York. But they advise actors not to get discouraged if the first meeting doesn’t lead to a job.

“If we like somebody’s audition, we’re going to bring them back again,” says Daniels. “Don’t expect that this one audition is your one shot. There will be others.”

—Suzy Evans

Kate Boka
Projects: “The Book of Mormon” tour

Kate Boka was practicing to be a casting director before she even knew that it could be a career path. She and her friends would compile hypothetical casts for musicals such as “Into the Woods,” mostly composed of classmates from her college musical theater program. “I used to have a lot of fun doing that,” Boka says. “Even from those early cast lists that I made for myself, I knew that casting was something that I was interested in.”

Not long after the self-proclaimed “musical theater nerd” moved to New York to pursue an acting career, she got a job as an intern for Jim Carnahan Casting at the Roundabout Theatre Company. Over the next eight years, Boka worked her way up to associate at the company, working on Roundabout Broadway and Off-Broadway productions such as “The Paris Letter,” “Waiting for Godot,” “Arcadia,” “A Behanding in Spokane,” and “Boeing-Boeing.”

“It was great to feel like part of the creative process, and I didn’t feel the need or desire to do acting anymore,” Boka says. “But being a casting director probably would make me a much better actor. One of the best classes you can ever take is just to observe the process.”

She says the collaborative and inclusive environment that Carnahan and Gardner created gave her the confidence to strike out on her own as a freelance casting director in 2011. Now she’s the casting associate for “The Book of Mormon,” working with casting director Carrie Gardner to cast the hit show’s Broadway, national tour, and Chicago companies.

—Daniel Lehman

J.C. Cantu
Rising Phoenix Casting
Projects: “Bullet to the Head”; “Gimme Shelter”

Most actors’ first jobs in L.A. come in the service industry—the Cheesecake Factory, Starbucks, etc. But when J.C. Cantu arrived with B.F.A. in hand, he found work in a friend’s casting office, first as an intern, then as an assistant. He never looked back.

“I think it helped me to have a background in acting and see where each actor was coming from,” Cantu says. “I mean, there are no classes on how to become a casting director. It’s all life experience—and watching tons of movies.”

Cantu spent nine years working with casting director Mary Vernieu, whom he calls “one of the greats.” With Vernieu, he helped cast films such as “The Killer Inside Me,” “Machete,” and “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World.” He opened his office, Rising Phoenix Casting, just over a year ago, and recently cast the Sundance crowd-pleaser “Safety Not Guaranteed,” starring Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza.

Like most casting directors, Cantu has likely been asked countless times what common mistakes actors make in the audition room. But he has an uncommon answer.

“Don’t hit the casting director,” he says. “I’ve been slapped, spit on, pushed. I’ve had my baseball hat taken off my head and smacked across my face. We just want to be loved, like everyone else.”

—Daniel Holloway

Joy Dewing
Joy Dewing Casting
Projects: “Catch Me If You Can” national tour

The first check Joy Dewing wrote from her new company’s checkbook was for an H&M suit. Dewing, who formed Joy Dewing Casting in May, asked actor Stephen Anthony to wear a suit for his final callback for the first national tour of “Catch Me If You Can,” and when she found out he bought the suit for the audition, she reimbursed him. “He got the job,” she adds.

Dewing started out as a performer, but she made the transition to casting in 2005. She took an internship with Dave Clemmons Casting and slowly moved up the ranks until she was a partner with Clemmons/Dewing Casting. “It was such a thrill to be doing every aspect of it,” Dewing says of the career transition. “Especially when I got to make the first phone call telling people that they had booked the job. That was sort of the drug that addicted me to casting.”
Dewing uses her experience as an actor to create a warm and inviting audition room.

“I know what it’s like to stand in line at 5 a.m. in the snow,” she says. “Those of us who have been there, we have compassion for what it is…. It’s never going to be a comfortable situation auditioning, but I try to make it as comfortable and inviting as possible and respectful.”

Dewing wants actors to know that she’s rooting for them. “I want every person who walks in the door to be that person that we’re looking for,” she says, “because then I’ve done my job.”


Jeremy Gordon
Jeremy Gordon Casting
Projects: “School and Board”; “Snuff”

Syracuse University graduate Jeremy Gordon moved to L.A. to pursue acting, but along the way he fell into his true calling: casting. “Looking back, I don’t think acting was really ever what I was supposed to be doing. I’m definitely not the in-front-of-the-camera type of guy,” he says. Turning from acting to education, he earned his master’s at Pepperdine and began teaching seventh grade. While teaching, he and Joe Dain formed the production company Shoot Productions. He began casting their projects, fell in love with the process, and turned his attention to casting full-time.

Starting his casting career 10 years later than average didn’t slow Gordon down. After casting indie films on his own for years (“Spork,” “Doll Graveyard”), Gordon has joined forces with Beth Lipari. They met while working as associates for Beach/Katzman Casting on studio films such as “We’re the Millers” and “The Wolverine.” They are already working on several projects, including web series “My Synthesized Life” and feature “Final 3 Pegs.”

Gordon’s favorite part of casting is working with actors in the room and encouraging new talent. “I’ve cast many actors in their first projects ever, and now here they are as leads in television shows; it’s pretty rewarding,” says Gordon. He cast Robert Buckley (“One Tree Hill”), Hannah Marks (“Necessary Roughness”), and Jared Kusnitz (“Underemployed”) in their first projects. He also loves interacting with actors via social media like Facebook and Twitter. “I like being accessible,” he says.

—Melinda Loewenstein

Stephanie Holbrook
Stephanie Holbrook Casting
Projects: Untitled Elmore Leonard film

Stephanie Holbrook says that her first “discerning casting moment” happened when she saw herself on videotape as a college actor. “I got a sense that the actress I was watching just didn’t get it,” she says. Wanting to be a part of the “theatrical process,” she got a job in San Francisco casting background and under-fives. After a stint in Los Angeles, she moved to New York. Mentors there have included Ellen Chenoweth and especially Douglas Aibel, with whom she worked on such films as “The Dying Gaul,” “Margaret,” and “The Squid and the Whale.”

Holbrook’s own projects vary from mainstream films (an upcoming untitled Elmore Leonard movie with Jennifer Aniston, Dennis Quaid, and Mos Def) to indies (“Private Romeo”) to web series. She thinks the last are “a really great way to segue into the business, because you can develop a reel by doing an Internet project.” She also says, “There’s less pressure to get high-profile names” for them.

Holbrook believes in the importance of spontaneity in the audition room. “I resist the overprepared audition,” she says. “Being open is really key, so you are able to take adjustments.” Nevertheless, she wants to see “strong choices. It could be the completely ‘wrong’ choice, but that’s OK.”

Holbrook wants actors to know that she’s in their corner. “I’m not afraid to fight for an actor if I really believe in them,” she says, even if that actor might not be right for a role as written. “I’ll really push if I want my collaborators to take another look.”

—Erik Haagensen

Michelle Lewitt
Projects: “Laboratory Conditions”; “In the Sack”

If you can assemble a winning basketball team, you can cast a successful film. Or so believed high school coach Michelle Lewitt, whose instinct for talent landed her at the storied Casting Company on the strength of a cover letter and no experience. Indeed, instinct has inspired her casting choices—such as plucking from her audition memory an outrageously charismatic dancer named Channing Tatum for a part in 2005’s “Supercross.”

After a decade at the Casting Company, where the native Angeleno was mentored by Jane Jenkins and Janet Hirshenson and worked on “Angels and Demons” and “Transformers,” Lewitt struck out on her own. Since she began in the business, Lewitt says, the CD’s role has changed.

“Everyone wants a name,” she says. “So the pure art of casting—just bringing in great actors, and you and your directors sitting in a room, choosing whoever you want—that is pretty scarce these days.” Now that she works on her own, she says, “I specifically have a commitment to myself that I will only take on projects that I genuinely have some kind of passion for and with filmmakers that I genuinely believe in.”

The proof is in the projects on Lewitt’s front burner: the short film “Laboratory Conditions,” by screenwriting heavyweight Terry Rossio and co-directed by Jocelyn Stamat and Rossio; indie comedy-drama “In the Sack,” to be directed by “Girlfriend” producer Shaun O’Banion and starring Ross Marquand, who caught Lewitt’s eye via a YouTube screen test; indie dramedy “The Irresistible Vincent Chang”; and the sci fi–drama directorial debut of Bryan Edward Hill (“7 Days From Hell”).

“I want to align myself with [inspiring filmmakers] because it makes me feel inspired,” Lewitt says. “No one wants to be the walking dead and just do things for a paycheck. Life’s too short.”

—Sylvia Tan

Julie Schubert
Projects: “House of Cards” on Netflix

“You look online to try to find a definition of casting, and it talks about metalwork,” jokes casting director Julie Schubert. “No one really understands or knows what we do. It is a very fluid profession.”

Schubert says she was lucky to start her career with casting director Juliet Taylor, for whom she was a casting assistant on Woody Allen films such as “Match Point” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” She was later an assistant or associate for CDs Ellen Lewis, Meredith Tucker, Denise Chamian, and more, and was responsible for casting films including “Cedar Rapids,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” and “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.” In 2009, she traveled to Atlanta to cast the remake of “Footloose,” her first feature film as casting director.

Schubert recently served as Tucker’s associate on “Sopranos” creator David Chase’s upcoming debut feature film, “Not Fade Away,” starring John Magaro and James Gandolfini. She’s now the casting director for “House of Cards,” a new drama series developed by David Fincher that stars Kevin Spacey as a ruthless politician. The series, which is scheduled to premiere on Netflix in early 2013, shoots primarily in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., area.

“It sort of opens up another market for regional actors, who wouldn’t necessarily have the opportunity to be a part of the New York acting community,” Schubert says. “I feel like I’ve been introduced to an amazing amount of the D.C.-Baltimore-Philadelphia talent, which is exciting. It’s more people to know and to remember for future work.”