The role casting director Debra Zane understands best is her ownWhen Debra Zane brought in the little-known Michael Shannon to tape an audition for "Revolutionary Road," she pulled out all the stops.
She assembled a team to play the other roles, with casting associate Tannis Vallely and actor friends filling in for Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates. "We were playing all the different parts, so he would have different faces to refer to. We had snacks and martini glasses to make it look like a little party," explains Zane, noting that Ellen Lewis, who shares credit on the film, initially suggested Shannon for the part.
Zane got so into the scene that "when (Shannon) turned to tell me to shut up, I was so embarrassed, (which was) the absolute appropriate response."
Director Sam Mendes saw the tape and hired Shannon. His Oscar nomination this year is perfect testament to Zane's commitment and the dedication she has shown on such movies as "Catch Me If You Can," "American Beauty" and "Traffic." A wiz at spotting breakout talent (Amy Adams, Wes Bentley, Justin Long), she's even been known to put together her own version of an actor's reel to show a director the actor can play against type. It is thanks to work like this that The Hollywood Reporter and Back Stage have jointly named her Casting Director of the Year.
"Deb Zane is grounded; she's real, she's sincere -- and she's very funny," notes director Gavin Hood, who recently collaborated with her on "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." "These qualities are what take the b.s. out of casting and make working with her an unpretentious search for actors that are genuinely right for a role."
Mendes, who has collaborated with Zane on five pictures, notes, "she's funny, funny, opinionated, funny, knowledgeable, wise, funny and she has great taste. Did I mention she was funny?"
But Zane's humor shouldn't disguise how seriously she takes her craft.
When casting "Dreamgirls" with Jay Binder, she spent eight months scouring talent from around the country. About 700 actors read for the part of Effie before director Bill Condon chose Jennifer Hudson for the part that would earn her an Oscar. But it was clear to Zane from the moment she saw Hudson's first of two audition tapes that Hudson was a frontrunner. "I can't explain to you how people who work in casting know something like that," she says, "because there are so many elements involved. It's almost like a chemical reaction where you can say to yourself, 'The director is going to love this person.' "
Zane has loved actors and movies ever since her childhood in Miami Beach. From an early age, Zane paid close attention to the "casting by" credit. "That credit struck me. I knew what it meant, and I knew I could do it because I was aware of actors in different roles."
While Zane seemed destined to go into casting, she made a detour into acting in New York after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College. Migrating west, she became a casting assistant to David Rubin in 1990. After seven years with Rubin, during which she became his associate and worked on such hits as "The Firm," "My Cousin Vinny" and "Fried Green Tomatoes," Zane struck out on her own.
Nearly 20 years into her career, she's still as passionate as when she began.
"I like making sure you've turned over every stone and thoroughly thought through all the angles," says Zane, who lives in Hollywood with her husband, Jeff Jarkow, a faculty member at the Museum of Tolerance, and their 7-year-old daughter, and their 17-year-old stepson. "And then it appears before your eyes."