Robi Reed wants to help tell stories that represent what the world truly looks like. And with more than 30 years and 70 films as a casting director, that’s what she’s dedicated her career to. Her credits include School Daze, Poetic Justice, Malcolm X, and 125 episodes of In Living Color. She’s helped hire actors who would go on to have expansive careers of their own in some of their early roles — including Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Halle Berr and Rosie Perez — and she cast the directorial debuts for Denzel Washington, Eddie Murphy and Regina King.
Reed was the first Black woman to win an Emmy as a casting director, and now she’s being honored with the Hoyt Bowers Award at the Casting Society of America’s 36th annual Artios Awards, which will be held virtually on April 15. Reed sat down with THR to discuss her journey as a casting director, and what she’s hoping for from the future of the industry.
Tell me a little bit about your journey to casting.
Well, I knew from the age of 15 that I wanted to be a casting director. I was exposed to the industry, early on, having grown up in Los Angeles. My brother was a child actor, and I would accompany him on his auditions. One day, I just asked the receptionist who my brother was going to see behind the closed door. And she said, “Oh, that’s the casting director,” and I said, “Oh what is that casting director do?” And she explained it to me, and it was like a light bulb went off. Up to that point, I was an avid reader but could not get through a book before first putting actors in the place of the characters I was reading about. So by the time I got to college, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Once I graduated, I just reached out to everybody I knew and didn’t know.
You casted so many people early on who now have massive careers. Looking back, how does that feel?
Well, it feels amazing. I have to say that one of the parts I love most about my work, aside from meeting great actors, is helping people achieve their dreams and being able to actually say to someone, “You got the job.” That’s everything. So to be able now to sit back and see Jamie Foxx win an Oscar, or Rosie Perez be nominated for one and still working. Halle Berry. Derek Luke. More recently, the kids from The New Edition Story. I can say that it’s fulfilling in every way imaginable and probably plus.
Were there any moments you really had to fight hard to get a certain actor cast?
There’s lots of those. I can say in each instance, they have paid off. In Living Color, for example. I did the pilot, and I can think of a couple of folks who we ended up casting who weren’t your typical [choice] — they weren’t stand-up comedians. They were actors, really, that were able to do those characters, and that is what we were looking for. So getting really behind those choices and supporting those reasons why, you know, going in that direction made sense for the long haul, [is what] paid off.
What about times where you wish you’d done something differently?
Right before I did the movie School Daze with Spike Lee, I did a project called The Mighty Pawns, which was a PBS [TV Movie] and it was my first opportunity to work on my own project. I was the casting director. I was so excited to have the opportunity, I was like, “Oh I can do it. I got this. No, I don’t need any help.” And I didn’t hire an assistant. I literally did all the casting. I was so young and eager, but I remember being in casting sessions reading opposite actors and the phone is ringing in the other room. Agents are calling to make appointments to pitch their clients, and nobody is there to answer the call — 100 messages left that I had to go through. Return the calls, set up the appointment, do everything, and I thought, “OK, next time I will make sure that I have the proper support in order to set myself up to win.” You’re not a one-person machine. You need a team. So that was a lesson learned early on.
You’ve said that early on in your career you felt a bit stuck. Can you talk more about that, and how your mindset shifted?
Certainly, when I came along, there was a lot of opportunity for actors of color, writers, producers, directors, content creators. It just seemed like the natural thing that each project that came up that had a Black cast — “Oh let’s call Robi Reed.” So I got all of [those projects]. But I remember thinking always, “I’m a casting director. I know talent.” I believed I had an eye for talent and was born with that gift. So I happen to remember just talking to my agent, making suggestions [for other projects]. I got a few of them, but I didn’t get the meetings like my counterparts were getting. At one point it just really frustrated me because I felt like I was being judged and pigeonholed by the nature of who I was. After a while, I was like, “This is a beautiful thing.” I’m certainly doing what I love to do, and I don’t take for granted at any time, even to this day, that I’m in a job that I still love 30-plus years later. I’m making a really good living at it, and I’m making a difference. I didn’t just kind of settle and go, “Well this is it,” but I took it as an opportunity to really make a difference and a mark, and pave the industry in a way that can continue long after me.
How has it been for you as a prominent Black casting director over the past few years as Hollywood has grappled with its diversity issues more publicly?
It’s a great opportunity, I think. [Hollywood is feeling] the awareness of diversity and the necessity to really represent worlds that are true and exist. Why can’t we just create the truth and see that onscreen, big or small? If we just start there, then we’re good. So, I think, finally we are there. First of all, [we’re] aware of it. Secondly, [we’re being held] accountable for it. If we could just stay right there operating in truth, then we will continue to see the diversity that we need onscreen. But people have to care about it, and have to be compassionate. Check yourself, and hold yourself accountable. If we stay right there, we’ll be good.
What are you seeing right now in the industry that inspires you?
Diversity in storytelling, and the voices that we are hearing. I just think there really is an appetite and a welcoming for all stories to be told. And that’s what excites me.