Casting director Robi Reed has been in the business long enough to remember when the Casting Society of America presented the first Artios Awards for excellence in casting. The year was 1985, and the venue was the Crystal Room of the Beverly Hills Hotel.
As Reed, now executive VP of talent and casting at BET, was starting in the business, she recalls being an assistant to “Cagney & Lacey” casting director Diane Dimeo and hoping her boss would be recognized for her work. “I thought, there are people paying attention to this,” she says.
Since then, the awards have grown from four categories to more than 20. This year, Reed, along with Tara Rubin, will be presented with the Hoyt Bowers Award for lifetime achievement at the 36th annual Artios Awards on April 15 via a virtual ceremony. It’s the first time two people have been jointly honored.
Rubin, who has cast countless theater roles, including “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Les Misérables” and “Phantom of the Opera,” says one of the pleasures of having a long career in casting has been to see how much the field has grown and how people are now more aware of casting directors. At this year’s Golden Globes ceremony, Anya Taylor-Joy gave a shout-out to casting director Ellen Lewis. “Whenever someone says a casting director’s name, it means something to all of us,” Rubin says.
When she was starting out, Rubin, who studied theater and literature at Boston University, notes there weren’t a lot of conversations or internships around “allied professions.” “I thought you had to be an actor or a playwright,” she says.
It wasn’t until 1986, when Rubin was working as a production assistant on “Execution of Justice” on Broadway that she met casting directors. The play closed a week after opening, and she went to work for the casting directors of the show, Geoffrey Johnson and Vincent Liff, ultimately working with Johnson-Liff Casting for 15 years.
For Reed, having grown up in the industry, it was a different story. She knew she wanted to be a casting director after accompanying her brother on auditions. She wasn’t interested in acting, but she wanted to know what was going on behind the closed door. “After graduating, I started cold-calling people, and Jaki Brown [casting director for ‘Stand and Deliver’ and ‘Boyz n the Hood’] returned my call,” she says.
On the 1985 film “The Falcon and the Snowman,” Reed worked alongside Wallis Nicita (“The Fabulous Baker Boys”). “All those years ago, she was videotaping her auditions. I didn’t know how to work the camera, but I fell in love with it and this idea of helping people achieve their dream.”
A year later, Reed met Spike Lee and cast his 1988 film “School Daze.” “Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X” and “Clockers” are among the many other Lee titles on which she has collaborated on She calls each of the director’s projects a “master class, because he knows so many actors. He knows the ones who aren’t there yet.” She adds, “The beauty of working with him [has been] the ability to continue being able to put people in front of the camera who were not given those opportunities on main- stream projects.”
Rubin says one of her goals as a casting director is to find fresh talent, particularly in theater, where shows don’t always have big names attached to them. “The idea of casting is that you get to open doors and help people,” she says. “It’s the spirit of adventure and not knowing what you’re going to get.”
The CSA is also working to get more members recognition for their work — like Lewis experienced at the Golden Globes. Notes Reed, “We come in so early in the process, we’re overlooked.”
Hollywood remains under scrutiny for its hiring practices. For Rubin, who serves on the CSA board, casting diverse actors has long been a priority for the organization’s members. But developing casting directors from diverse backgrounds was more challenging. In 2016, the CSA formed the Committee on Diversity, implementing a training program “with the idea of bringing young people of color who are interested in casting into our fold,” she says.
Reed notes that one positive sign among actors of color is seeing how many performers are not available because they’re already working. That, she says, “is a step in the right direction.”