Last week I had the opportunity to chat with casting director Tracy 'Twinkie' Byrd; although, as I learned, she prefers "Twinkie" (and if you look her up on IMDB, you’ll have better luck with 'Twinkie' than 'Tracy').
You’re all familiar with her work, I’m sure; here are a few of the notables: Stomp The Yard, Notorious, Jumping The Broom, Sparkle (the remake) Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th Day, and the upcoming Gabrielle Union BET drama from the Akils, Being Mary Jane.
Certainly these are all what we’d call higher-profile studio projects, but Ms Byrd also has some indie credits to her name, both shorts (like the controversial film that caused quite a stir here on S&A, The Strange Thing About The Johnsons), and features (Sundance 2012 selection Filly Brown, as well as a film I recently profiled, A Beautiful Soul directed by her brother Jeff Byrd).
And as Twinkie reiterated during our conversation, she’d like to take on more indie projects (shorts and features), especially from all you black filmmakers (from across the Diaspora) who regularly read this site. She embraces challenging and unique opportunities and is certainly accessible.
“I am within reach and very open to different types of projects and stories that need to be told. It’s timing; and it’s also about the project,” she said.
And what does she look for in a project?
“Strong characters, depth, great story, beautiful narrative… work that comes to me is work that I’m supposed to have,” Twinkie stated, adding, “I want to work with filmmakers and producers that I like; I try to have a mind-meld with them,” emphasizing the collaborative nature of the process – one that she’s gone through repeatedly over the years with success, since the turn of the century; a process she gets involved in very early on, prior to the beginning of pre-production.
But she certainly isn’t resting on her laurels, and remains ambitious in building an eclectic body of work, as well as elevating awareness for casting directors and what they do, such that, eventually, films become as synonymous with the talent that cast them, as they currently are with the actors that star in them, or the directors that direct them.
Although hers isn’t necessarily a chase towards celebrity, rather more recognition; as she said jovially yet assuredly, “I have this fabulous gregarious personality;” and this writer can certainly vouch for that, after spending 45 minutes on the phone with her; it’s hard not to be charmed by her confidence and unwavering optimism. “I’m not necessarily chasing stardom, but I want to get the word out there that I exist, and my career exists, and I have a passion… and I want other young people [interested in pursuing careers as casting directors] to be able to put a face to the name [as I did when I was getting started as a casting director with Robi Reed-Humes, Victoria Thomas, and Reuben Cannon]; just as most young directors reference Spike Lee, I want to be referenced that way as well.”
Both feet firmly planted in the world of casting, but not at all interested in being pigeonholed, not only is she sought after for (and seeks) a wide variety of projects (non-race-specific), Twinkie does also aspire to explore other creative avenues of interest; for example, she’s currently writing a book, and plans to produce, and will hopefully co-direct a project with her brother, writer/director Jeff Byrd.
“I’m not an in-the-box person,” she emphasized.
And while she’s responsible for practically introducing the big screen feature film world to the likes of Jamal Woodard, Naturi Naughton, Tika Sumpter, and Jordin Sparks, she’s still humble about her achievements thus far, and is simply thankful for the career she has, and the work she’s been able to do. “It’s an exciting thrill to be a part of changing someone’s life; I’m elated that I was a part of those actors’ journeys,” she said; actors she still very much stays in touch with, developing bonds.
In preparing for my chat with Ms Byrd, I asked you folks on Twitter and Facebook to submit questions that you wanted me to ask her; since many of your questions were similar, I was able to condense the list down to just a few key questions, and I’ve included them below - and above - (and some of mine), as well Twinkie’s responses to them, which I hope you’ll find informative and useful.
- Mistakes actors make when they audition for her:
Wearing too much cologne or perfume; the casting room is usually small, and over doing it takes over the room in a not-so positive way; not being prepared; trying your best to introduce yourself and shake hands with everyone in the room – you don’t have to do that, but be warm and inviting, and be prepared to go to work; if you have questions, ask… it’s ok to ask questions and that reflects better on you.
- Does she go to actor showcases/shows:
I do and I’ve cast actors from those showcases on projects I’ve worked on. I even go to classes at times – Tasha Smith in LA, Tracey Moore as well – to see actors, and what they’re bringing to the table, and what they’re working with; I try to do as much as I can in order to refresh and bring in new names and introduce.
- On the colorism in casting issue: her advice to actors in her unrelenting optimism is, while she certainly understands the frustration, she adds...
Do not be discouraged; there’s always a project that’s right for you; it may seem like it’s a prevalent issue, however, switch your point of view; don’t look at it as a wall, but instead as a hurdle; focus on the positives, not the negatives; it’s challenging, but don’t waste your lives concerning yourselves with what’s beyond your control.
- Her toughest casting job:
Notorious; I wanted it to be authentic and real. And being from Brooklyn, I didn’t want to mess it up.
- Any backlash from film’s she’s cast:
No; if there was, no one said it to me directly; I’m too busy looking forward, not backwards, to pay any attention to any negativity; but I’m sure people have their opinions; my projects speak for themselves.
- On casting The Strange Thing About The Johnsons:
I saw it as a challenge, unique and out of the box. I’ve cast a lot of short films, and I use short films to explore creatively. When I read it, Ari [Aster, the director] had his [African American] friend in mind, but we were also looking at a multi-cultural cast of families; we looked at a white family, a Latino family, and a black family; and, in the end, because Ari’s friend was African American, we ended up with a black cast.
- What’s next for her?
I'm working on Being Mary Jane.
And finally, in closing, from our lengthy chat, it’s obvious that Twinkie loves what she does and has a passion for it; as she noted, she’s very thankful for the career she’s had thus far, and the work that she’s done and continues to do, as her ambitions take her further into the world she already excels in, as well as extensions of it.
Pursuing work on what she considers diverse, interesting projects and filmmakers is vital; and as I noted earlier, she’s keen on casting more indie projects as well, emphasizing that she is reachable; so, in essence, don’t be shy.
Twinkie also hosts workshops for actors, and will be forwarding me information on those as they happen, which I’ll post here for those who are interested and able to attend.
Thanks Ms Byrd for the time and we’ll be watching!