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Influencers: Casting Director Allison Jones Discovers Unlikely Stars

Olivia Wilde details how her whipsmart "Booksmart" casting director is one of IndieWire's craftspeople shaping the art of cinema today.

Allison Jones participates in an interview with the outstanding casting for a comedy series award for "Veep" at the Television Academy's Creative Arts Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater, in Los AngelesTelevision Academy's 2015 Creative Arts Emmy Awards - Thank You Cam, Los Angeles, USA

Allison Jones

Rich Fury/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Few casting directors have inspired as many mythic stories as Allison Jones, tall tales about the stars she plucked from obscurity, real teenagers suddenly turned into real actors, entire ensembles spliced together by seeming alchemy. With Jones, however, those starry-eyed stories are something else entirely: all true.

You know Jones’ work even if you don’t know her name, from basically building the Judd Apatow crew from scratch (she found Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, James Franco, and Seth Rogen, and most of them were for just one show, the seminal “Freaks and Geeks”) to assembling the cast of the still-beloved U.S. version of “The Office.” Mostly, she knows how to find funny people, but few people understand how irrevocably linked humor and heart are quite like Jones.

Jones’ talents with younger generations have always been her signature, and for projects in need of fresh faces, there’s no one better. In recent years, she’s cast everything from “Eighth Grade” to “Booksmart,” “Lady Bird” to “Mid90s.” Need some interesting adults? Jones is still your gal: this year alone, she’s crafted the casts for “Bombshell,” “Wine Country,” and “Like a Boss.” In between, she’s still shaping television, including over 40 episodes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

“Allison was my co-pilot, we sat together and crafted the tone [of ‘Booksmart’] through casting,” Wilde told IndieWire. “She understood that this movie would rest on a framework based on a specificity of character. She has a skill for finding people who have a natural essence that is unique, and I think that seeks out authenticity above all else. What she’s willing to do is work harder, search harder, and listen more, and that allows you to see such an incredible range of actors.”

Jones is not just a star-maker, she’s a star-finder, seeing potential and spark in all sorts of unlikely performers, and often changing the course of entire projects, entire lives in the process.

“She knows how to work from a place of simple emotional truth,” fellow casting director and Academy President David Rubin told IndieWire of Jones’ work. “No pushing for laughs, no behavior that seems outsized for the moment at hand. Just honesty. That’s the great talent of casting director Allison Jones at work. She knows exactly who can be funny in the ‘real world’ and wring laughs from the most awkward and tragic circumstance. These choices are not accidents.”

The latest bit of too-true Allison Jones tall-tales: tasked with finding a potential love interest for Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s series “Master of None,” Jones instead brought in Lena Waithe, then mostly known for her writing work. That choice changed not only the direction of the show, but set the course for Waithe, who would win an Emmy for writing an episode about her character coming out at Thanksgiving, and embark on the next stage of her own career.

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