The hunt for the perfect thesp takes many roads

Casting directors don’t have the luxury of sitting in their office and waiting for the next Hilary Swank to show up at their doorstep.

Finding the right person for the right role often involves beating the bushes — checking out college and even high school plays, local theater, acting schools and, often, plain ol’ word of mouth.

Casting. It once was the least appreciated job in the industry. Nearly everything about a project — be it film, legit or TV — depends on its success.

The uniting of scripted characters with flesh-and-blood human beings can be a magical art.

These days, casting directors — a term preferred over casting agents — get more respect than ever. Their profiles are higher, their billing better and they appear on the verge on unionizing. But if their jobs are not necessarily harder than in the past, they’re certainly more complex. The casting process has broadened.

“When I started out, I did a lot of location casting for movies, but now the tendency is to hire people who do that for you,” says Junie Lowry Johnson, a 20-year casting vet whose current projects include the hit series “Desperate Housewives.”

Lowry Johnson recalls visiting communities off the beaten path and being surprised by local talent at venues like dinner theaters.

“Though acting is not something everybody can do,” she says, “you’d be surprised how many people all over the place can act. I know it sounds cliched, but someone who’s never acted before, or acted just in dinner theater, can be perfect for a part.”

Now she delegates such duties to people based in those regions. And if a project involves location shooting outside the United States, chances are the casting will be similarly international.

“I did a movie through Warner Bros.,” she says, “and we had a casting director in L.A., one in New York, one in England and one in South Africa. I orchestrated it all, but we hired actors from all those different locations.”

Technology has also played a role in casting’s changing dynamics.

Once, casting directors auditioned prospective hires in person. Then along came videotape and regional casting directors. Now, the distance between actor and casting director has further widened.

“You don’t even have to send tapes anymore,” says Lowry Johnson. “You can do it via computers — downloading an audition.”

And yet casting directors agree there’s no substitute for the up-close and personal. Bruce Newberg, whose clients include the Reprise! series of musical revivals, has been plying his trade in L.A. since 1990.

“New actors come from agents,” he says. “They tell me about new actors. I also go to a lot of theater, and I make a couple of trips to New York every year.”

Newberg also keeps his eye on recent graduates from leading drama schools, such as Juilliard, Yale and UCLA.

“I’m sure there are casting directors who go to comedy clubs,” he says, “but I’m not like that at all. And I never go to showcases. They’re rarely done well. I’d rather see an actor in an actual play than in just a scene.”

For Bernard Telsey, head of a casting agency in Manhattan that bears his name, theater programs are a prime source of fresh talent. And not just at universities; he habitually checks out high schoolers as well.

“A person who’s 12 or 16 is the perfect age if that’s what you’re seeking,” Telsey says. He favors the programs at NYU and Pittsburgh’s Carnegie-Mellon, as well as acting guru Bill Esper’s Gotham studio. “Training is what everyone looks for,” he says, “no matter how much you want a natural off the street like Marilyn Monroe.”

Yet Telsey admits he also does a lot of open calls.

“You look under any rock you can,” he says. He should know: he’s been casting “Rent” with virtual unknowns since it first opened, and is now working on the film version.

Telsey discovered Rob Brown, the young star of Gus Van Sant’s “Finding Forrester” at a prep school. “He was looking to make some money to pay his cell phone bill,” Telsey recalls.

Lowry Johnson, who has worked with Steven Bochco for the past 13 years and also (along with casting partner Libby Goldstein) includes HBO hits “Deadwood” and “Six Feet Under” on her resume, relies primarily on relationships with agents and managers to find actors, but she eschews rigidity.

“I’m open to seeing people I don’t know,” she says, “and there are always more people to meet.” She also watches movies and goes to theater to spot emerging talent but prefers the audition process to other methods.

“You have to have an open mind,” she says. “People with no credits can be good, and people who have a lot of experience can have a bad day.”

As for other shifts in the business, Telsey points to an obsession with youth. Figuring out “how you find the new Tobey Maguire” is a preoccupation among casting directors, he says.

“There’s a wider hunger for the new beautiful kid, and everyone wants someone great.”

But finding that someone special doesn’t necessarily mean you can cast him. Disappointment is integral to the biz, Newberg says.

“Even in theater, it’s rare you get every person you want. And in movies, never. Every project is going after a lot of the same actors.”

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