Exclusive: Casting Director Tracy "Twinkie" Byrd ("Sparkle," "Jumping The Broom") On Her Work, Ambitions & More

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by Tambay A. Obenson
April 11, 2012 10:52 AM
18 Comments
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Tracy “Twinkie” Byrd

Last week I had the opportunity to chat with casting director Tracy 'TwinkieByrd; 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!

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18 Comments

  • Audrey Harris | April 25, 2012 2:05 PMReply

    Congratulations Twinkie!!! You are a gem in Hollywood and thanks for keeping talent of color visible. You hardwork and love of the craft is a constant inspiration.

    -Audrey

    HTTP://www.imdb.me/audreyharris

  • S.E.M | April 19, 2012 1:35 PMReply

    Twinkie has a great eye for talent!!!

  • Al Beard | April 19, 2012 5:04 AMReply

    It would be nice if you recognized a young filmmaker by the name of Alan C. Beard. Check out his site at TEHO ( Too Each His Own).

  • CareyCarey | April 17, 2012 2:20 PMReply

    Tambay, when is Twinkie coming back? I have my list and I've checked it twice... it's real nice. I have questions, questions and more questions.

  • CareyCarey | April 19, 2012 1:48 PM

    Cool, I can do that but, if I receive a reply, will it come from her or her gatekeeper?

  • Shona Eladia | April 19, 2012 1:34 PM

    Hi Carey, If you have any questions for Ms. Bryd, Please feel free to direct them to Lynn Allen Jeter & Associates @ Lajass@att.net.

    Thank you,
    Shona Eladia
    PR/Admin Assistant

  • CareyCarey | April 11, 2012 3:22 PMReply

    **Hand raised in the back row** ... I have a few questions that's burning my throat. Well... last year I asked our resident actor (jug) what exactly are the duties of a casting director. He said, by and large it's just a title because they seldom have the final word on who gets cast. Now I'm thinking... huuummm... that sort of makes since because I can safely assume that many directors and/or producer knows exactly who they want for each part. And, I know nepotism and/or cronyism plays a significant role in most "business" transactions of this nature. So, first question: Does the casting director have a significant role in deciding who gets cast (and what personal other than actors, do they bring on board? 2.) What's the average salary of a casting director? Granted, it's obviously tied to the size of the film's budget, but is there a standard percentage that one can expect to receive? 3.) How long does the casting director stay with each project? If a film takes months to shoot and uses extras on an intermittent bases, our they responsible to organize that personal? 4.) Are casting directors faced with the dilemma of having to scratch the backs of talent agencies? 5.) Do actors and/or talent agents offer to pay their way into a film? Hey, I'm thinking of the phrase "Pay me now or pay me later". If I can somehow get in a "popular" film, I'll reap rewards on the back end. 7.) How does an aspiring casting director get their feet wet and not end up in the poor house or cheese line, while they're going through their "maturation" stage? THE END

  • CareyCarey | April 11, 2012 9:15 PM

    10-4 Tambay, I'll be waiting Ms Twinkie. Now, although you called your film cheap, I noticed that you had a couple of seasoned actors. Would you care to share how much you paid them and how many days it took to shoot? Hey, I'm prepping my more pointed questions for Twinkie. :-). Inquiring minds want to know the whole story. Btw, I wish I would have read you "5 things" before going into my last endeavor. Man, I got in so far that I was getting robbed left and right. In one instance I decided to give a couple of actors a chance to shine, so I expanded the cast (and the script). Well, midway through the process they blackmailed me for more money. Yep, I couldn't do without them and they said they would quit if I didn't meet their demands. And my set designer/ woodworker... THAT MF was constantly jacking up his cost. I was stuck like chuck. Anyway, when is Ms Byrd coming back?

  • Tambay | April 11, 2012 8:15 PM

    Alright Carey; you'll get another shot, because she'll be back. So gather all those questions in the meantime.

    And yes, my film was cheap. Just don't ask to see it, because it's buried.

  • CareyCarey | April 11, 2012 7:45 PM

    Tambay, I think you said that you asked via Twitter & Facebook. I don't tweet and my lady has the only facebook account and I don't dare go there :-(. So I missed it. Nevertheless, "Answers" just about covered it... although I have no idea what casting directors can expect to earn. Btw Tambay, while your here, I was shocked when you said your film's budget was $5,000.00! And we're talking a few years ago when essential "equipment" was a little more pricey.

  • Tambay | April 11, 2012 7:09 PM

    Carey where were you when I asked readers to give me questions for Twinkie?

  • Answers Here | April 11, 2012 7:06 PM

    I am employed in the evil Hollywood system. A spoke in the wheel. Casting Directors are hired project by project. Some try to work on more than one project at a time. I am assuming that Twinkie and the Akils formed a good working relationship on one film and that relationship has continued. But yes, each project is a separate project. Not sure on your last question, so I won't hazard a guess on the fee for 15 to 20M

  • CareyCarey | April 11, 2012 6:24 PM

    Wait, I do have a couple more questions, and let me set this up. In one of my many "occupations" I was surprised to learn that I was making more money than many doctors and lawyers. Albiet I worked maddening long hours (once 72 hours straight) and it was a very dangerous job, so I guess I was surprised at what some professional DO NOT make. I was in 6 figures but some of them were struggling to get a sniff of $90,000. Anyway, since I believe "making it" (a living) in the film industry is a crap shoot (the odds of earning a living as a black film director could be as high as those who hope for a career in the NBA), it would be nice to know what an aspiring casting director is looking at in terms of average earnings? Okay, since I don't know who I am talking to, nor your source of reference, I'll just throw the questions out and hope that someone can answer. It's obvious that Twinkie has close ties to the Akils, so now I am thinking about the old studio system inwhich many "employees" were under year long (sometimes longer) contracts. Is it safe to assume that Ms. Byrd receives a monthly salary from BET? If so, what range would that fall in? Or, is each project a separate contract? And again, on a film with a budget of 15-25 mil, on average, what would the casting director make (with Twinkle's resume)?

  • CareyCarey | April 11, 2012 5:29 PM

    Thank you (Answers) for the quick reply. I am satisfied.

  • Answers Here | April 11, 2012 4:57 PM

    1) While not the ultimate decision maker, they play an essential role. They are the first line of defense. You want your casting director to name the usual suspects and throw in some new names and out of the box suggestions.
    2)Don't believe it is a percentage of the budget. But fees have wide range based on credits and demand
    3) Casting director is on board from pre production until the final role is cast that is their responsibility. That can go into production as roles are sometimes cast last minute.
    4)Casting directors need agencies and management companies to work with them. So they definitely try to see almost everyone during pre reads. 5)No people do not pay their way in. 6)Work as a casting associate/assistant/reader

  • C. Rousseau Gilliard | April 11, 2012 2:01 PMReply

    My sister.....great insights.....success well deserved!!!!!

  • C. Swanson | April 11, 2012 1:57 PMReply

    Twinkie Byrd is truly a warm soul. All the best to her!

  • kA' | April 11, 2012 11:34 AMReply

    a worthwhile exclusive indeed. go twink!

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