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From 'Freaks and Geeks' to 'Barbie,' this casting director decides who gets on-screen

James Franco, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini and Seth Rogen in <em>Freaks and Geeks, </em>left, and Issa Rae in <em>Barbie.</em>
Getty Images / Warner Bros. Pictures
James Franco, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini and Seth Rogen in Freaks and Geeks, left, and Issa Rae in Barbie.

Allison Jones, the casting director for Barbie, was a child when the iconic dollfirst came out, but she never had a Barbie doll of her own — and neither did her friends.

"I think a lot of our mothers were like, 'You can't have you can't have a Barbie. She has bosoms,'" Jones says. "I wasn't allowed to have a Barbie, but I was allowed to have a Skipper."

Decades later, Jones worked with fellow casting director Lucy Bevan to cast Skipper and the rest of Barbie's friends in Greta Gerwig's blockbuster film. (They did not cast the films' two leads, Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling; Robbie is a producer on the film and initially brought the project to Gerwig, and the part of Ken was written specifically for Gosling).

Casting for Barbie happened during COVID lockdown, so actors would send in tapes of themselves for her to sort through. Jones says self-taping has since become a "new normal" for the industry — and one she supports.

"It's amazing to get to see so many people from literally all over the world audition and interpret a role," she says. "God bless these actors for doing this because it's not easy and it's not cheap. But we do get to see more actors this way."

Widely credited with finding the actors who ushered in a new era of comedy, Jones has made a name for herself by casting actors who look like real people — and who are naturally funny. She's cast dozens of films and TV shows, including Lady Bird, Knocked Up, Bridesmaids, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Freaks and Geeks and The Office. But things have been quiet ever since Hollywood actors and writers went on strike. Though Jones is not part of the unions that are striking, she stands in solidarity with her colleagues.

"I honk in unison with all the people driving by the strikers over at Paramount, especially Netflix," she says. "It's unsettling, and I think I'm getting a little concerned about work coming back, hopefully soon."


Interview highlights

On not getting residuals for successful projects, including Barbie

One thing my first boss, the late Judith Weiner, taught me was when we would make a deal to do a pilot, she would say, "Ask for a dollar residual — or even forgo some of your salary. Just ask for a dollar residual for each episode of that TV show." Nobody has ever given it to me. And my God, the shows I've done that get shown, repeat, repeat, repeat.

On how casting Freaks and Geeks required a different approach

Prior to Freaks and Geeks coming along, I had done a pilot called Roswell High at the time, and then I think the show became Roswell, and that is where we had to have the best looking people in the world that we could get who were older to play younger. I recall testing Heath Ledger for that, and the studio people said he wasn't good looking or hot enough, which of course, is insane. ...

And [Freaks and Geeks creators] Paul [Feig] and Judd [Apatow] instantly said, "None of that. We just want kids who look like they're in high school. They can be tiny. They can be funky looking, and they can be whatever. But we don't want the beautiful kids." And from the get-go, I think I got that. So pretty much I brought in — I don't want to say "reject" — but all the kids that weren't accepted by the show Roswell High, which I had done prior to that, or a show called 1973, which was a pilot not picked up by Universal Television, where I had met people like Ben Foster and Jason Segel and James Franco, and these kids who are so great, still maybe 18 or 19 or 17, that would not have gotten by the studio standards of "great looking high school kid." ... I loved it.

On casting Steve Carell as Michael Scott in The Office

He's brightly funny. ... [What's] interesting about Steve Carell, his character was really over the top, but he knew how to do it in a very realistic way. And those two thoughts are hard to find together. ...

We had two days of testing for that show and we had a lot of people up for the role of Michael Scott. ... The two people that came down to were Bob Odenkirk and Steve Carell, both of whom understood this comedy in their DNA, I believe. ... The worst thing I ever had to do — and I've said it before and I'll say it again — was to tell Bob Odenkirk he didn't get The Office. It was just horrible.

On the Hollywood trope of pairing an older, less attractive man with a younger, gorgeous woman

It used to drive me really crazy. In the comedy world, yes, they would always have a goofball guy, the lead guy and his girlfriend was gorgeous. The scripts would often describe them as "A girl next door, but who is astonishingly gorgeous and doesn't know it." I did every pilot that came my way back in the day in the '80s. I did every pilot. I was glad to have any work. And then eventually I started passing on a few of those because none of those women were "good" enough.

Some of these actresses that producers and directors would comment on not being pretty enough .... They were judged by their looks and by their legs, and if they needed a push-up bra or something. It was pretty astonishing. ... A lot of movies right up until today have the wives or the girlfriends or whatever much younger than the male lead and someone who wouldn't be in the same universe as these guys. Talk about being out of your league!

On what she's learned from doing cameos as herself onscreen

The pressure to get something right when that camera is rolling is terrifying to me. Terrifying. So I had even more respect than I already do for the craft of acting. But what I learned from acting is the level of expertise that goes into everybody having to get their job right in making a film or making a TV show. Just the respect for the [assistant directors], for their good dispositions, for what they know is going on in the set. ... These people have to really be good at their job, and they are. And that's impressive. I'm very uncomfortable being on a set. I get nervous. I get nervous for the actors, and I probably just get nervous because of the pressure that I sense that's on the set to get it right.

On only seeing the finished project

I like to see it with an audience. So I would go usually the Friday that it opened. In TV shows I watched the second it's on. We're sort of distant from the actual production because our job is finished at the beginning of the production. And so we never know really what it's going to look like. I'm always asking, "What does it look like? How are they doing, what's happening, and what is the vibe of the show and is it working or is it not working? And how are the actors working with each other?" So that is always the wonderous thing to me when I finally see something and it's better than I ever thought it would be — or worse than I ever thought it would be.

On running into people she's had to reject

Most likely at the supermarket or a coffee place. ... It's very awkward and I feel terrible and I feel the need to, if it comes up, to explain why they didn't get the part. Like, "By the way, you were too young when you came in for that," that kind of thing. I'll frequently say that because actors don't really get much feedback [from casting directors]. ... And I think they don't get any real feedback from the people who manage them or who are their agents, and they want that. And sometimes it's a real reason. ... It's excruciating.

On there being no category for "Best Casting" at the Oscars

There is no Oscar for casting. There is a casting director branch, I think in the past few years where we can vote for the Oscar, but we cannot join the company of directors of photography and wardrobe and production and art direction and sound mixing. They have not given us an Oscar, as they have for BAFTA.

I think it's past time that we get recognized as part of the important filmmaking process, the same that production designer, makeup and hair stylist, sound editor, etc., etc., are considered crucial to the filmmaking process. I don't think you can separate the cast from the casting director, and I also think that every casting director brings a different sensibility and a different cast to whatever project they're working on. And I think that our relationship with the director is every bit as collaborative as every other, of the 23 or 24 recipients of an Oscar. So I think it's past time that we got recognized as being experts at our field and artists and collaborators.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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