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Searching for next Seinfeld

By Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 16, 2003


Casting director Penny Perry was recently auditioning actors for an HBO project, when one began to spin out of control.

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"He picked me up and started slamming me against the wall," she says. None of her assistants knew what to do, Ms. Perry says with a rueful laugh, "because it was in the context of the scene." He finally put her down and explained that he was using it to prepare for the role, which he saw as "Christlike."

Perry is one of the hundreds of Hollywood casting directors whose shows (if not personal safety) have recently been on the firing line. Over the past four days, TV network executives have been in New York with advertisers, pitching their hottest prospects for the fall season. These shows have been cast by directors like Perry over the past four months.

CDs, as they are known, have a critical job that is seen by millions but recognized by few: Find the next Jennifer Aniston or Jerry Seinfeld.

Pilot season is their worst time. "It's war," says Megan McConnell, who along with her partner, Janet Gilmore, has cast some of TV's top shows, such as "Alias," "The Practice," and "Boston Public." "It's just one big race," she says. "It's the most challenging time of the year because we're all fighting for the same talent."

The hottest question on everyone's mind, especially the actors', is: What do the casting directors look for?

"We're all looking for lightning in a bottle," says Dava Waite, another casting director who has cast shows such as "Yes, Dear" and "Coach."

That can translate into spunkiness, humor, sex appeal, vitality - the list is long, and the answer is elusive enough that most casting directors can agree on only one thing. They know it when they see it. Often, they find it in the most unexpected places.

"That's the fun part of the job," says Deb Manwiller, who cast "24" and "Chicago Hope." "You start to think about people everywhere, like walking through the mall. You just stare at people, because your mind is set to a different wavelength."

"I'll stop people on the street," says Sharon Klein, senior vice president of casting for 20th Century Fox TV.

She points to actor Luis Guzman, with whom she says her studio has a development deal.

"He was a guidance counselor, and he was just out on the street. A casting director said to him, 'You have to be an actor,' and that's how he got started."

Ms. McConnell adds, referring to her partner, "Janet does a lot of casting at [the grocery store] Trader Joe's."

The hard part begins once word of a project gets out. The casting directors are hired by the networks to find talent. That means winnowing through thousands of hopefuls, who contact them by phone and mail or through their agents.

"I get hundreds of those little postcards actors send every week," says Perry, almost too many to glance at.

"I would have to guess that I have around 10,000 faces in my head," McConnell says.

Everyone says they have a different system for keeping track of talent.

"I might have been in Ohio and just seen someone in a play," says Ms. Gilmore, who will remember them and file them away for future reference. Theater credits resonate strongly with Gilmore and her partner, who say they keep an eye out for regional theater credits on the thousands of unsolicited head shots and résumés that pour through her office.

"We keep those behind our desk, just noting that these are people we want to meet," she says.