Trying out tykes

Jennifer Rudin, whose job involves scouring the country for young actors to appear in the stage versions of “Mary Poppins,” “The Lion King” and “The Little Mermaid,” should know a thing or two about what she’s looking for. After all, Disney Theatrical Prods.’ director of casting and talent development used to be a child actress herself, from ages 8 to 17.

“I did an episode of ‘Sesame Street,’ many after-school specials and a very well-known commercial,” Rudin says. That experience helped shape her career path: “I decided I wanted to be a casting director when I was 12. I was at a final audition for a TV movie and I had this epiphany: The casting director seemed to have such a fun job, facilitating this creative process that was also very stressful, and I felt it’d be the perfect job — combining my love of actors and photographic memory, which I still have.”

In college, the New Yorker interned for casting directors Meg Simon (now head of casting at Warner Bros.) and Marcia Shulman (ditto at Fox). “It was a fascinating education,” she recalls. “After a day in a casting office, you see up close how tough the business is.”

After “slaving away” for a few years, Rudin got her big break in 2002 casting the Ensemble Studio Theater’s prestigious one-act play marathon in New York, then spent five years as head of casting for Walt Disney Animation Studios, where she worked on “Chicken Little” and “The Incredibles.”

Rudin’s recent discoveries include Cypress Smith, 10, and Jerome Stephens Jr., 9, who came from open calls and are now starring in “The Lion King” on Broadway. And Disney has been known to turn its stage prodigies into superstars (long before “Camp Rock,” Nick Jonas played Chip in “Beauty and the Beast”).

“I look for natural charisma and personality in kids,” Rudin says. “I do not like kids who are all cutesy and coiffed. We like kids with lisps, braces and freckles, and who also have real lives outside acting.”

Recent breakthrough: Took over casting and talent development for Disney’s legit division.

Role model: Meg Simon. “She inspired me and taught me so much about championing actors and thinking creatively.”

Next: “We’re launching the tour for ‘Mary Poppins,’ and I cast ‘Bolt,’ the next Disney animated film.”

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