Lesley Wolff is a casting director based out of Los Angeles, where she also runs the “Fresh Faces” comedy workshop at The World Famous Hollywood Improv. Lesley dished about her triple-threat background as a writer, actress, and comedienne—and how her experiences influenced her decision to get into casting.
What is your favorite part about being on this side of the business?
I love working with actors. Love it, love it, love it. I love finding new talent… it’s like a workout—giving them a chance to get better at their craft. And I have always been fascinated [with casting]. I love re-casting major movies in my head with the cast I would have liked to see.
Ha! What would have been your dream casting gig? Who would you have swapped out?
I just saw The Help—I was thinking a younger Gwyneth Paltrow would have been great in the Bryce Dallas Howard role.
I can totally see that! So, how did you get your start? Were you on some sort of fantasy casting team?
I started off at the University of Pennsylvania in a female comedy group; we wrote all of our own sketch comedy. I majored in comedy in college—or, as about as close as you could get to that. When I first moved to Los Angeles, I was actually a TV writer—but then I started doing stand-up as a way to express myself in a different way. I found that I was really good at producing shows, so I would produce and book stand-up shows. I was one of the first outside producers at The Improv, on the cusp of knowing unknown talent. I would scout and develop, and people would always come to me to ask who the hot new person on the scene was.
How did you make the switch from booking to casting?
I helped create a show with Peter Cohen on BET—he came to me with an idea for a show and asked me to cast it, so I cast it. It was called Hell Date: A dating show where one person thinks it’s a real show, and one person is an actor pulling an elaborate prank. I got to use emerging comic talent, all unknowns. It was highly improvised and hidden camera, so I got really good at helping people improvise. It was the #1 show on BET and really popular and funny. That was my first big gig; it was so much fun.
What is a typical day like for you? Typical week?
When I am casting, there are “prep” days and audition days. In prep, I’m scheduling actors to come in, and then in casting days, I’m holding auditions all day. I try to keep things very fun and casual and usually err on [the side of] bringing in too many people [rather] than not enough… When I see someone who has really worked on their material or is really prepared, I am more apt to really push for them. Sometimes the best people for the part don’t fit the description, and that can be frustrating.
I bet. Would you say that’s the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part is not being able to give everyone that comes in an opportunity. Sometimes I see someone who’s so great and I want to give them a chance, but the network will go with a big name or a cliché. It’s the casting director’s job to have creative ideas and choices, but, at the end of the day, you’re just a facilitator to get the talent in front of the producers or network.
That’s a bummer. So, you don’t get final say?
It’s not the casting director making the final decision. Of course, I’ve heard stories about someone finding talent and fighting for them to get on a show, but in-network there are so many actors they have to make offers to before they go out to unknowns. A lot of times, movies and TV shows are packaged—meaning, if they want Reese Witherspoon in something and she’s repped at CAA, they’re going to use all actors who are also repped at CAA—so whether or not you have a great person, they’re going to go with all CAA [repped talent].