You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Casting Director Tracy “Twinkie” Byrd Talks ‘Black Nativity,’ ‘Fruitvale Station,’ Writing Her Memoir, and More

Casting Director Tracy "Twinkie" Byrd Talks 'Black Nativity,' 'Fruitvale Station,' Writing Her Memoir, and More

It’s been over a year since casting director Tracy "Twinkie" Byrd spoke with Shadow & Act about her career and projects, which at the time included work on Sparkle, Woman Thou Art Loosed: On The 7th Day, and Sundance feature Filly Brown. 

Since then we’ve seen a few more of her projects come to light – Being Mary Jane which aired on BET, the well received Fruitvale Station, and Black Nativity, the highly anticipated next feature from director Kasi Lemmons, which comes to theaters in November. So there’s been plenty to catch up on, and Ms. Byrd made time check in with S&A about her current work and what she’s up to in the future. 

SHADOW&ACT: Fruitvale Station has been very well received. Tell me about your experience working on the project. 

TWINKIE BYRD: Love, love, love! I also cast Ryan Coogler’s student film, Fig, at USC. I met him through his producers, who chased me down in a wonderful way because they said they loved Notorious. I’ve been truly blessed to work with such great directors. Even on his student project, he knew what he wanted and knew the story that he was trying to tell. In Fig, much like Fruitvale, it’s about showing the humanity of people regardless of their background or what your preconceived notions may be about who they are. 

Sometimes we make not-so-positive choices and are working to change our focus and change our path. And sometimes, unfortunately, a life is cut short in the middle of that change, and it grips and touches us. I’m really glad that he chooses to explore that. Because I feel it’s something that we need to see a bit more of. 

S&A: Black Nativity was your first project with Kasi Lemmons. Tell me about working with her. 

TB: She’s a visionary. She knows what she wants. When I met her for lunch in Harlem and we talked about the project, I had a bunch of visuals for her in terms of cast and she had visuals for me in terms of design, sets, locations, and how she wanted the tone and feel. This woman is brilliant. She’s definitely an inspiration to me and has been for a long time, and I’m glad I got a chance to work with her.  It definitely won’t be the last time.

S&A: You’ve worked on a few different musical projects at this point. Is it more challenging to find actors who can sing or singers who can act?

TB: A lot of artists out there are a triple threat and have gone through performing arts schools, so you’d be surprised at who does what. We’ve learned that Forest Whitaker can sing and Angela Bassett, she sings. It may not be that they sing opera, but they can hold a note and work that muscle because it was part of their study in the past.

S&A: Tell me about casting Being Mary Jane. How do you go about finding chemistry between actors when you’re trying to cast a couple or a group?

TB: When it comes to the Akils, we sit down and I come in with my ideas and lists and they have theirs. And lots of times they’re very similar, which is what I love about the people I work with. With each different person you get into their head in terms of what they like, and my job is to bring what I like and blend the two. And I’m thankful for having those types of relationships where I can play, where I can bring in people that are completely left of center, and the director’s got a crinkle in their forehead saying, "What is Twinkie thinking?" And then sometimes that crinkle turns into, "Oh, I see it now." 

Sometimes you do chemistry tests and see how people work together, much like in Sparkle. And once you get that, you know you’ve got magic. Then I just give them over to my brilliant director, and Salim is going to take it from there. I only do a small part of the job.

S&A: You work with established talent and have a sense of who’s out there. Where are you finding new actors these days? 

TB: I find them everywhere. They could be in a play, or a short film, or a student film. They could be on certain networks that people aren’t necessarily paying attention to, or in webisodes. I meet them on planes when I’m traveling. I have a gregarious personality and if I’m interested, if I see something, I will walk up to you. I also have great relationships with agents and managers and there are times when they introduce me to actors. Some of the acting coaches that I work with closely let me know who’s hot and who’s right up my alley. They don’t waste my time. They know who Twinkie would like, and who’s ready for Twinkie.

S&A: What does it mean to be "ready"?

TB: A lot of actors think they’re ready. I hear that a lot. But "ready" to me is one take, maybe two. I don’t want to have to do four takes of you trying to get emotionally there. But there are lots of things we can do to prepare. "Ready" to me is a passport – do you have one? Because if they want you in New Zealand tomorrow, you have to be ready.  It’s a lot, but each step makes you more prepared for the next. In this microwave generation we want everything now. "I want to be on the red carpet now. I want to be a star now." It’s all feeding ego and it has nothing to do with craft. You have to be careful of ego, because ego can really be the end of it all. Take your steps just like a baby. Crawl before you walk, walk before you run. It’s important. 

The things that I learned from music videos helped me to get to each next thing. I did Biggie’s music video years ago in order to do Notorious the feature film. Casting music videos for Mary J. Blige and 112, I came through that era and it helped inform Notorious. Working with George Tillman on music videos, with Brett Ratner, with Spike Jonze and Tim Story. So many of them started out in music videos.  So the steps are so important to take, and not to rush them. Enjoy the ride you’re on right now. You can’t look over at the other roller coaster and say, "I wish I was on it." You’re on a ride. Enjoy this one.

S&A: Tell me about ‘Twinkie’s Monologue Slam.’

TB: This is the third year of it at the Hollywood Black Film Festival. It is truly a slam with monologues under two minutes. There’s a panel of judges, and this year we did a new format. Actors had to audition on tape and put it up online for the judges and I to take a look at. We choose 10 finalists from those who submit and invite them to the slam, then let them come here and slam it out. We cut it down to 10 so that we can also have a discussion and Q&A. The judges will be announced shortly.  We’re filming it this year. We’ve got a whole new format, so it’s going to be pretty fabulous.

We have great relationships so last year we had a lot of surprise guests, directors, and producers in the room. A lot of young people were approached afterwords. The winner and runners-up got to take meetings with agents, they got to sit down with me over lunch and ask questions, they got hands-on mentoring from the judges, they got headshots. My dear friend Tasha Smith always donates coaching. So this year we’re packaging some equally great prizes for the winners.

S&A: What are you working on next?

TB: I’m reading two scripts now that I’m interested in, an independent script and a studio script. There’s another script floating around, circling me, that I hope to read as well. There are some projects that I go after. Not everything comes to me. There’s always work to be done and when you’re done working, you’re working on working. 

S&A: Any advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps and get involved in casting?

TB: Intern. Find ways to work with casting directors. Build a strong vocabulary of film. Make sure you have a Netflix account, Redbox account, cable. Watch lots of film and television. And listen more than you talk. There are books you can read and podcasts you can listen to, and interviews and symposiums and panels. With some of my mentors, I’ve never met them, but they mentored me through their books. 

S&A: And you’re working on a book as well.

TB: Yes, initially it was a book with tips for actors. But I had to take a step back and realize that it’s important to discuss who I am. I should put out there where I came from, how I got to here from there. And so now that’s what I’m writing. I’m pulling back the curtain and letting people see into what my life was like, who my mentors were, how my parents raised me, what was instilled in me and what the foundation was. And whatever it is that you can glean from that to help mentor or encourage you, please take from that because it came from great people. 

S&A: When do you expect your book to be finished and available?

TB: By the end of this year, I am done. It is happening and I’m writing it myself. So that’s the challenge. Everyone’s giving me the whole, "You should get a ghostwriter." But I feel the need to do this myself. No one can tell my story better than me.

This Article is related to: Interviews and tagged , , ,


Comments

Akimbo

Yeah, cuckoo for coco puffs. It's great that she's still carved out a nice career despite that.

Doe John

This lady is insane. Whenever she was in front of students she would talk about The Game & Girlfriends as if they were bad and now she's over here working for mara brock akil and her husband. hmm. Can you say humbling twinkie ?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *