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West March 22, 2002

Casting Qs: Presidential Pardon

By Bonnie Gillespie
Newly named president of the Casting Society of America Gary Zuckerbrod went quickly to the top of my "Interview Wish List" of casting directors. Little did I know, when scheduling our interview, that it would take place on the day the California Labor Board issued a cease-and-desist order on paid casting director workshops. In the midst of the buzz over his current project, the Larry Gelbart pilot for ABC (which Zuckerbrod describes as a social-political satire from the creator of M*A*S*H*), Zuckerbrod maintained his focus on upcoming sessions and pushing forward his agenda for a stronger CSA.

First Casting Job:
Zuckerbrod interned for Bonnie Timmerman in New York while applying to Columbia University for an M.B.A./M.F.A. in the arts. He connected with Timmerman while she was casting the Phoenix Repertory Company. "I was curious about theatre management. I ended up working for Bonnie for three years," Zuckerbrod recalled.

Road to This Position:
"I was a freelance casting assistant in New York and was hired by Bob Weiner for To Live and Die in L.A. They were searching for the leads in New York." After his initial job on the project ended, Zuckerbrod was asked to continue on in L.A. for another three weeks. "That turned into five months," he said, laughing. "The day I was leaving, Bob was offered the new Twilight Zone series, so he asked me to stay for three weeks, help set up his office, get him an associate. A week later they made me his partner." Within two months Weiner left the project, and Zuckerbrod cast Twilight Zone for two years.

Key Things He Looks for in an Actor:
"Preparedness is probably what I look for the most. And that's very difficult in pilot season, so I give actors a lot of slack and tell my directors and producers that they, too, have to give actors a lot of slack. Actors are going out on 14 auditions in a day and really don't have the time to prepare or get the chance to make choices. It's an unfair system, and we all have to be accepting of that. While having that understanding and given the benefit of the doubt, actors do have to come in prepared. I make scripts available to everybody, including dayplayers, if they'd like to have them. You should have an understanding of what you're going in for. To me there's no difference between an audition and a job interview. I would never walk into a job interview without first doing some research. That's part of your job," he summarized.

Advice for Actors:
"Understand that this is a craft that requires upkeep," Zuckerbrod advised. The type of upkeep he recommends: "I strongly encourage studying, doing theatre, honing your skills. As far as auditioning goes, auditioning is as much a technique as anything else. Oftentimes it has very little to do with what you may actually do on a set. Unfortunately you have to learn that skill, too, and be good at it. The only way to learn that skill is through experience. I know that's a Catch-22, but that's the way it goes." How does Zuckerbrod suggest an actor get experience auditioning if he or she is having a hard time getting called into offices? "Absolutely do student films and thesis projects. Any time you walk in front of a casting director or producer, no matter what level, you're still learning a valuable lesson."

His Goals for the CSA:
Going union. "The biggest goal is leading the CSA, and leading casting directors who are not in the CSA, toward unionization. We're working very hard, and that is moving rapidly and well paced at this point." The overarching goal on Zuckerbrod's mind is "creating a greater unity among casting directors." How? "I think we're doing that strictly by getting the word out that we're trying to unionize and that we're trying to better our professional lives. We are the only major entity on a film that does not get pension and welfare, that does not have the protection of a union."

Zuckerbrod had mentioned pacing, so I asked about a timeline for seeing CSA go union: "I honestly think that will change in the next year." I asked Zuckerbrod whether he sees a proposed casting directors union allying with a union that is already in existence. His calculatedly brief answer was, "Yes, I do."

His Opinion on Casting Director Cold Reading Workshops:
"I think that the California Labor Board has made an egregious error. As far as I know, from reading their letter, the coverage in Variety and Back Stage West, and talking with lawyers who represent some of the casting director workshops, the labor board has only been talking with one casting director [Billy DaMota] who has one opinion and one point of view. They've never bothered to contact, or have not responded to, other casting directors who have a different point of view and a better standing in this industry. I think to make a judgment call like that without at least contacting the only governing body, which is the CSA, is negligent."

What next? "I welcome them to contact me to get a different point of view and the point of view of a body that has a greater standing in the casting industry. The casting director leading this movement is a CSA member and we appreciate his passion, but he has not done this in any official capacity with the CSA," Zuckerbrod disclosed.

On whether paid casting director cold reading workshops should be investigated, Zuckerbrod said, "It absolutely needs to be looked at, but CSA is not the place this will be examined. The CSA encourages its members to participate in only those showcases that members feel are legitimate and to discourage casting directors and their employees from participating in ones that aren't up to par.

"Many casting directors feel that these are valuable venues for actors to learn about their craft. I don't know any casting director who looks at this as a way to get payment for an audition. I will guarantee you that none of the casting directors in the CSA feel that way. Many of these showcases are very legitimate and give an actor experience and exposure that they normally would not get. And I don't mean exposure to casting directors. I mean exposure to a process. They are legitimate businesses and they should not be shut down in this manner, not without very serious consideration and a great exploration. I'm shocked that they would handle this in such a poor manner. This is not the way to effect change," Zuckerbrod concluded.

Best Way To Get Seen by Him:
Through an agent or manager. "I attend a lot of theatre back East. I attend some here, but I go back to New York five to seven times a year." Zuckerbrod generally does not open unsolicited submissions. "When you're working freelance, it's almost impossible. I have three weeks to cast this pilot with seven series regulars. There's no way to open envelopes. I have no luxury of time. So I have to rely on the relationships I have with agents and managers."

Opinion of Alternative Submission Methods:
"It would be great, if an actor is with an agent and this agent says that an actor's demo reel is online. I can easily access it and would gladly do so."

Trends He Has Observed in Casting:
"Fortunately there is a major emphasis on diversity, which is wonderful to see. Something happened to me last year when I brought a black actor in for a role that wasn't written black. There was something about the essence of that actor that I knew worked for the part. The producers said, 'Gee, he was really good.' I said, 'Yeah, so what's the problem?' They said, 'Well, we never saw it that way.' We ended up hiring him because he was right for the job. I'm hoping that will continue and that we'll start reflecting the population of the United States in what we're seeing on television," Zuckerbrod explained.

A trend Zuckerbrod said was passing was one of youth-before-experience. "There was this period during the early '90s when there was such an emphasis on young actors that many were unpolished or untrained. While they might have been very talented, they really didn't have a craft. I think that's really changed. I'm so impressed with the level of young actors. And I'm also so impressed that producers want quality and not just youth."

What He Would Change About the Casting Process:
"In essence a lot of it works very well. If there's one thing that really needs to be changed in the process of casting, it's this concept of everybody casting a pilot at the same time," Zuckerbrod opined. Does mid-season work and non-network programming even out the timing throughout the year? "Cable tends to cast at the same time as the networks. There's just more people casting all at once. It really does no one a service. I don't know what the fix is, but somebody should look at how to fix this," Zuckerbrod said.

Most Gratifying Part of His Job: "The most gratifying part of any casting director's job is when we can fulfill the vision of a director, a writer, a producer, a studio, a network--all those people--and still feel that our vision is there." BSW

Gary Zuckerbrod
800 N. Main St.
Burbank, CA 91506

Casting Qs is a weekly column by Bonnie Gillespie focusing on the casting directors behind the projects. Suggestions for Qs are welcome via e-mail at

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