Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about. In this special edition of the feature, we speak to casting director Allison Jones about finding the actors for such characters.
The casting director: Allison Jones began her work in casting in the ’80s, breaking into television as a staff member on Family Ties and Golden Girls. Following her work with casting director Judith Weiner—who famously persuaded Family Ties creator Gary David Goldberg to take a chance on a young Canadian unknown named Michael J. Fox—Jones had a hand in shaping the ensembles of two of the biggest family sitcoms of the 1990s, Boy Meets World and The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. But it was Jones’ collaboration with Judd Apatow and Paul Feig for 1999’s Freaks And Geeks that had the biggest impact on the comedy world, and she’s continued to work with Apatow and Feig—and much of the Freaks And Geeks cast—as they’ve transitioned from television to film. With a résumé that also includes the U.S. Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Superbad, Jones lent her knack for spotting comedic talent to several projects released (or due to be released) in recent months: The Heat, The Way, Way Back, the fourth season of Arrested Development, and HBO’s forthcoming Stephen Merchant vehicle, Hello Ladies.
Arrested Development (2004-06, 2013)—Casting director
Arrested Development (2013)—“Lorna Hawker”
Golden Girls (1985-86)—Casting, casting associate
The A.V. Club: You were brought in during the second season of Arrested Development. How did that come about?
Allison Jones: I had worked with Mitch Hurwitz before, and he just called me.
AVC: Was that a Golden Girls connection?
AJ: I didn’t know him on Golden Girls. I had worked with him maybe five years prior on a short-lived show that he did called Everything’s Relative. He’s a blast to work with, and I wasn’t available for the pilot of Arrested, as I recall. I think I was doing the pilot of The Office, so I think I was too busy.
AVC: What is it like to take a show over from a previous casting director?
AJ: It’s sort of a non-issue. You just start casting. You’re there to cast the guest roles anyways. You just sort of do it. No ego involved.
AVC: What kind of discussions did you have with Mitch going into the fourth season?
AJ: What I try to do is always get the newest, funniest people in anything. Mitch let me cast all the small roles by myself, without having to have casting sessions. He did that starting with season two. I’m sure he did that on season one, too, with [original casting director] Deb Barylski. He trusts his casting people to pick the people.
As a result, I found I was able to get many more interesting people in there. It’s easier to get an actor when you just ask them to do a day on something rather than have them come in, audition, get picked. In season two, if you look through it, you’d see some very familiar faces—like Andy Samberg and Armie Hammer—doing one line. It gets easier as people are dying to do the show. By the time it was season four, everybody was dying to do the show. So it was just “try to get the most fun people we can.” Especially since [Hurwitz] did not have every actor every episode. So he had to spread out the wealth—casting Seth Rogen and Kristen Wiig, to have fun people for that, to fill out each episode.
AVC: Were there actors you encountered between seasons three and four who made you think, “I wish I could’ve used them for Arrested Development”?
AJ: Yep. I always do that, or I always say, “I think Judd Apatow would like this person,” or “Paul Feig will like this person.” I think that’s what most casting people do.
Freaks And Geeks (1999-2000)—Casting director
AVC: It might not have seemed this way at the time, but this show ended up being the breakthrough for you, Judd, and Paul.
AJ:If you could remotely include a casting director having a breakthrough, yes. [Laughs.] I don’t ever see it that way. For me, it was great. Judd was the only TV person who was nice enough to pull me up to his movies. Nobody else ever did that. They always went with movie people to do their movies.
AVC: Why do you think that is?
AJ: I don’t know. They’re not as smart as Judd.
AVC: How extensive was the process of casting Freaks And Geeks? Judd and Paul apparently did a cross-continental search to make sure they had the right kids for these roles.
AJ: It was a lot of legwork, and I had just done one or two other shows where they needed beautiful kids, so I was always remembering the kids who were not so beautiful—but were really good. I think I had done three or four pilots in a row where I needed high-school kids. I had met James Franco before then—a lot of those kids I met before Freaks And Geeks.
But it was very extensive—open calls across the country and Canada. They had a very fruitful one in Canada—Vancouver, specifically—because that’s where they found Seth Rogen. Period. They found Seth Rogen. That’s fruitful for anybody. Those were the days where nothing was online—it was just literally on tape. So you’re looking at tapes, tapes, tapes. But we never would have had that cast if we didn’t have a multi-state, practically multi-continent search.
AVC: How does the experience of working with Judd compare to working with other directors and other creators?
AJ: It depends on how much studio pressure there is. [The studios] can make it different. Some studios respect the directors more than other studios.
It’s different personality-wise. The big comedy people—like Judd Apatow and Larry David and Paul Feig—I respect their taste so much anyway. They know what they’re doing.
AVC: And the correctness of their decisions shows through.
AJ: I think so. There’s a reason they’re the top comedy people. I mean, Judd started this whole, I don’t know, what you call “the Apatow wave”—the first one to really see that improv-y, sketch-comedy people are better than actors trying to be funny. I started working for somebody who did a lot of comedy [casting director Judith Weiner], so I got into comedy and I was always bringing the comedy people in. It took 15 to 20 years for somebody like Judd to come along and actually really use them and let them improvise. And a lot of comedy people couldn’t audition very much at all, and it took Judd to see that that didn’t matter because comedy transcends auditioning. So he was the first one to see that—one of the first ones.
AVC: Was there any overlap in the processes of casting The Office and The 40-Year-Old Virgin?
AJ: I think we had cast the first few episodes of The Office, and then Judd started 40-Year-Old Virgin. But [Greg Daniels] had signed up Steve [Carell] before that. [The Office and The 40-Year-Old Virgin] were mutually exclusive of each other. It just happened at the same time. However, the success of 40-Year-Old Virgin certainly helped The Office.
AVC: How did the original version of The Office influence the selection of the leads on the American version?
AJ: A lot. They seemed to really stick to the template. Not in a bad way, but they seemed to want to stick to the template a lot.
AVC: Because if it varied too much, there was a worry that people would respond negatively?
AJ: We didn’t really want an imitation of the people, but we found people who were definitely the same types of people. Greg didn’t want somebody who would come in with Gareth [Keenan’s] haircut or something like that. Although some people actually did, God bless them.
AVC: Whose idea was it to start casting from within the production? Mindy Kaling and Paul Lieberstein started out in the show’s writing room, and Phyllis Smith worked with you as a casting associate.
AJ: I don’t think that was on purpose. That was Ken Kwapis, I think, looking at Phyllis and saying, “Oh my God. She’d be great in The Office.” I think Greg Daniels wanted to always have some actors/writers.
AVC: Ultimately, you ended up having your first onscreen role in The Office finale, right?
AJ: Greg wanted everybody in the crew to be in the finale, so most of us did something. That’s not my desire. Same thing with Mitch [and Arrested Development]. He always wanted certain people to be on the show. It’s not my cup of tea.
AVC: In other interviews, you’ve talked about the difficulty of casting actresses who truly “understand comedy.” Do you find it’s becoming easier to cast actresses like in the wake of Bridesmaids?
AJ: Only a little bit. I still frequently have to bring up the case that in Bridesmaids, the funniest women were the ones who made the movie a hit—not the prettiest women. I’ve had to say that for many, many, many years. But now, luckily, Bridesmaids is a good example you can use, because especially for women, they’re up against it if they’re not super pretty. Many studios and networks will still sacrifice comedy for looks in terms of women, which just makes no sense. I’ve said way too many times, “Pretty people don’t keep comedies on the air. Funny people keep comedies on the air.”
AVC: Does the pushback come down to money? Thinking that a pretty face draws more viewers, brings more people to the theater?
AJ: It comes down to executives of any kind simply thinking that pretty is the only way to defend a woman’s presence on the screen. They just think it’s safe that you have to have someone pretty. Not all people are like Judd or Paul.
Now there’s so much single-camera [on TV], I think you get a lot more opportunity in the writing to be funny. And you don’t have to necessarily write for somebody who’s obviously funny, that they can have an interesting quirky quality, blah blah blah blah.
Parks And Recreation(2009)—Casting
AJ: I’ve brought Nick [Offerman] in for a lot for years. And Adam [Scott].
AVC: Both of those actors also read for The Office, but weren’t cast. With Ron Swanson, did you feel there had finally been a part written for Nick’s particular talents?
AJ: I don’t know that I was cognizant of it that way, but I knew how great he was. I think he formed the role more than the writing did—I think it really became Ron Swanson when it was Nick. He’s just so great for a guy in that age group and that vibe. That’s the fun thing about pilots: Parts are written, but it’s fun to bring in people who see it in a new way. He wasn’t really an easy sell, though. A lot of people aren’t.
AVC: What were some of the obstacles in Nick’s case?
AJ: I don’t know in particular. It just takes a long time for all the people involved to finally agree. It’s just the nature of the beast. And you have to keep bringing up the same names and saying, “Let’s read them again with new sides.” There’s a lot more discussion than anybody would ever think. I’ve rarely been in the room where somebody walks in and I knew that was the guy. I don’t think that happens as often as people say it does.
AVC: So casting is a game of patience?
AJ: Yes. Much tenacity and patience and hoping they’re going to pick the right person. Most of my fear comes from, “They’re going to pick the wrong person.”
AVC: Is that because you can only suggest who you think is right, and there are other people who have to approve those suggestions?
AJ: Yep. Always. The only time I’ve ever been able to cast who I want was on Arrested Development. And that was just a small part and because Mitch is great like that. Just trusts me. Plus Mitch doesn’t have time to [make that decision]; he’s always writing on the spot.
Boy Meets World (1993)—Original casting
The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air (1990-1995)—Casting director
AVC: Will you receive any credit on the Boy Meets World sequel, Girl Meets World?
AJ: I doubt it. I think Sally Stiner, who casted after me, I think she cast Topanga, so she should probably get “original casting.” I doubt it, because that’s a spin-off. It’s not a continuance of a show.
AVC: Between Boy Meets World and The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, you had a hand in a pair of casts that defined the youth of the kids of the ’90s.
AJ: Boys Meets World, definitely. Everybody who works for me is about 28, so they all love Boy Meets World.
AVC: How do they react when they find out that you put the Matthews together?
AJ: One of my assistants was much more excited that I worked on the pilot of Golden Girls.
AVC: With a show like Fresh Prince, where there was already a central star in place, did you consciously build around Will Smith?
AJ: No, not really. I did that with Sally Stiner, so that wasn’t only me. And you know what? It comes down to just finding the people who are the funniest people. Period. You’re really just finding the funniest people. That’s hard enough to do to begin with.
Hard Rock Zombies (1985)—Casting director
AVC: The first item on your IMDB page is this horror-comedy musical from the mid-’80s. That’s not a mistake, is it?
AJ: My very first thing with Steve Golin, who I went to film school with. I never saw it, though. Did it ever come out or anything?
AVC: It got a DVD release at some point, and the whole thing’s on YouTube.
AJ: That is hilarious. Well, now zombies are big.
Steve Golin, who is now a gigantic producer, was doing this little low-budget movie, and the production offices were on Cahuenga Boulevard and Hollywood Boulevard, and it was non-union for actors. It was just having open call for any actor who would do it without being in the union.
AVC: Were there lessons that you learned on that first project that have carried over throughout the rest of your career?
AJ: Just that you have to do a lot of legwork in casting. You just have to see a ton of people for it—to be any good at all, to really find the people you want, you have to do a ton of legwork.