Casting Director Tracy “Twinkie” Byrd

Talks Casting, Black Nativity, Being Mary Jane,
Her Favorite Films, and More

By Amber Topping


Tracy “Twinkie” Byrd is the successful casting director of music videos for many artists like Madonna, Notorious B.I.G., and Blink 182. She later turned to the casting of feature films such as Notorious, Fruitvale Station, Stomp the Yard and Sparkle. Her new movie from Kasi Lemmons, Black Nativity, starring Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, and Angela Basset was released November 27, just in time for Thanksgiving

Byrd took the time to talk to REAP about casting, her passion for storytelling, advice for actors, mentoring teenagers, and what she’s working on next.

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First of all, can you talk a little bit about your background growing up and where your creative passions may have come from?

I grew up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York. A family of six: four children, two parents, a house, two cars, and a dog. So, I grew up on The Cosby Show, and we were the Cosbys.

How did you become a casting director?

I started casting in music videos in the ‘90s. My brother is a director, and The Cosby Show inspired me in terms of putting that type of family together with the dynamic and the humor and the love and the support of each other, and it just reminded me so much of my own family that I wanted to know more about that process. So I learned more about it by taking a meeting with the casting director of the actual show, and that got me started on my way to get the experience that I needed. But I interned for her—Julie Hughes. And while my brother was working for Spike Lee and different directors and started doing music videos, I interned for a music video casting director once or twice. I already had a business background, so I kind of got the gist of what was happening administratively. But the passion was already instilled within me; it was already a part of who I am before all of it. So I can say that my passion found me as opposed to me finding my passion.

Was that a difficult transition from the music videos into the casting of feature films?

It wasn't difficult. It was the same passion. The administrative is quite a bit more administrative, but that's what casting assistants are for. [Laughs.] It's the passion and the vision that's innate; that’s a part of who I am. I learned a lot of the administrative from my mentors, and as I go along from my different mentors at Screen Actors Guild and my different casting director mentors and such, I learned a lot of the administrative. But the passion and division has been the same since music video.

How do you build trust and connections with the producers and directors?

That's also something that's personal. It’s like any personal relationship. It's tried and true time and time again, and it's a learning process. Some relationships are really, really great, and some relationships are not for you. You learn something, but you never date them again, you know? Kind of like that. It’s like, you were a great learning experience, but I never want to date you again. And so it’s the same—relationships are all the same. They are a learning experience. You find the place where you fit, and you keep within that groove, and you branch out from time to time. And in this business you can have a number of different relationships that are awesome, and thankfully for me I have a number of different relationships that are awesome. But you’ve really got to put yourself out there, at least in my experience. You have to put yourself out there and get uncomfortable and go build those relationships.

What are some of the challenges then you have faced and continue to face in this industry?

Character, integrity, loyalty. [Laughs]. Life challenges. Those are some of the challenges that I face . . . Those are some of the challenges that everyone faces in life, I feel. Learning how to balance, that’s been a challenge. But I'm really digging into that one in 2013. So 2014 will be much, much better. Those are important things.

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What is your creative process when working with actors during auditions?

That's kind of like a Twinkie secret. It’s like, if I tell you, then I would have to— [Laughs] that's a Twinkie secret! I can't tell what happens behind the door. Oh, my goodness. Absolutely not! Just know that it’s special.

Do you ever meet an actor who auditions for you, and they aren't the right fit for the role, but you keep them in mind for a future project and then ultimately end up using them?

Yes. I do ultimately end up bringing them in, yes. “Using” them . . . yes, sometimes. But yes, for sure that happens, and it happens a lot. For me, they're on my list, or I stick a little pin in them in their headshot and résumé or flag it . . . Or I put them in a little folder saying, “Keep in mind.” I’ve got a lot of little tricks of my trade. That definitely happens.

How important is the right casting to a production. Is it a sink-or-swim kind of situation?

Oh, my God. It’s everything. I feel like it’s everything because I work very closely with my directors and producers, and I want them to have everything they need in order to have a smooth, positive environment with which to work. And there’s only but so much I can do. I’m not a wizard or anything, but you try to be aware of personality quirks and dispositions, and [be] aware of process, of people—the actor’s process. Some actors walk off into oblivion to work on something. Other actors are very talkative, and maybe overly so, and you try and keep all of that in your mind—keep all of those mental notes going on of each different [person]—each actor’s process is different . . . But chemistry-wise, you really hope that they’re able to dynamically perform together as a group with chemistry so much so, like in my show Being Mary Jane, the actors have become a family. It’s so great. They go out together, they hang out together, they invite each other to each other's birthday parties and functions and dinner parties; they've become a family, which is awesome.

You mention chemistry; is that something you ever audition for?

Yes, for sure. There are chemistry reads, and then there are brilliant people, brilliant actors like Lisa Vidal who (have) chemistry with anybody. You cast her, you don't have to worry about a thing. She and Gabrielle [Union] clicked so much right away it was scary. We had a table read of love and adoration and crying, and it was so emotional. It was beautiful. I’ve never had a table read like that before. So yes, I’ve done table reads and watched chemistry. I've had chemistry sessions and, of course, paid attention to chemistry, and there are times when it can truly blow you out of the room. The chemistry, it’s palpable; it can blow you out of the room . . . really.

Well, what advice do you have for new actors trying to book roles?

To not try to book roles. Yeah. Don't try to book roles. Study, study, and try to book the room. That's your job, and to be in class for one year is not enough. To think that you’re a natural is not enough.

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Are there classes you would personally recommend to actors to enroll in?

There are. It depends on each actor, and it depends on what the process is, because they are different. There are multiple types of techniques, and each technique speaks to a different person differently; so it depends on the person. But one of the huge and major problems is, in my opinion?and what I have felt from traveling around the country and from speaking and from auditioning and from traveling to schools?is that everyone wants it yesterday. It’s a microwave society. They want to be Will Smith tomorrow. They don't remember him from Fresh Prince of Bel Air. They don't remember or recall how poor of an actor he was during that time. They really need to understand that also it's not a lottery. You don't get into this business to buy your mom a house. You get into this because it’s your actual passion. If it took you 10 years to book your first role, would you still do it? That is part of the question you should ask yourself: Is it my passion? Is it who I am? Is it my deepest desire to be an actor? If it’s my deepest desire to be rich, then no, there are lots of other ways that are much quicker and way more lucrative than acting. But if it's your true, deepest desire to tell stories, to add to a journey, to be part of a journey, for your human physical form to be used in storytelling—that is really what you should be focused on.

Beyond acting advice for actors, do you have advice for anyone who is interested in becoming a casting director?

My advice is to watch tons of movies; create and be a part of the process; intern for anyone and everyone you can; and to have a huge vocabulary of film and performances and plays and theater and musicals and web series and webisodes and—it’s exhausting, but it's beautiful. It has got to be your deepest desire and your passion. Not just to tell people what to do. Not just to be behind the door. But to really be a part of the process.

What talents help to support being a great casting director?

That's subjective. It really does depend on the person. I can only speak for myself. I am great at it because it is instilled within me. You can cultivate certain things, like it’s in me, and I have learned to actually nourish it and cultivate it and to allow myself to be pruned by studio executives and directors and producers. When I'm sitting in meetings and they bring up a film that I have never heard of, or a performance that I haven't seen, I jot it down and Netflix it or Redbox it that night or the next day. So there needs to be a hunger and a thirst for it. And then there are other, different kinds of casting directors. Some are administrative and just by the book: A, B, C, or D. And then there are others who are more—it’s not just passion; it is innately a part of who I am. It's almost like I can't stop. Every time I watch a film, or every time I’m paying attention to kids playing. I’m a people watcher. Because I pay attention to characteristics, and body language, and the sound or inflections in their voice, I can tell across a crowded train station who is having a loving argument, and who is really in deep thought and who, from like body language?and it can be the noisiest train station on the planet?you can look across the platform and see what's going on with the person. Honestly, it's a part of who I am. I don't know how else to describe it.

And when you come in the room with that as an actor . . . you can see the people who act with their whole body, and they understand all of the different elements that are happening. They give you everything from the location, to the time of day, to the look, to the feel, to the vibe. Not just the words, but they give you the whole scene. You feel the whole scene coming together in the room. That is so awesome. That is the part that I love; that is what I like to capture; that's when I know that this is an actor who gets it.

You've worked on some great films like Fruitvale Station, Sparkle, Notorious. Can you tell me about some of your experiences working on those projects?

I had great experiences working on all of my projects! Notorious was close to my heart because I used to cast music videos for Notorious B.I.G. That and I’m from Brooklyn, so it’s very close to my heart. I came up casting music videos of a lot of those artists: Mary J. Blige, Lil’ Kim, 112, all the Bad Boy artists, so it was very near and dear to me. And it was an awesome experience to bring a lot of those characters to life, even those that are still with us living, to watch them unfold; to actually cast characters who I have actually cast for—the original. It's like to cast a Lil’ Kim when I have cast for Lil’ Kim. Put it that way. To cast a Faith Evans when I have cast for Faith Evans and actually know Faith Evans. It was a surreal experience.

Sparkle was my trifecta with a period piece, a musical, and a remake, which I absolutely love. I am so happy to be a part of that. I was just overwhelmed. And then, of course, being part of a feature film with Whitney Houston, the late Whitney Houston, and that unfortunately being her last performance. I'm just so honored that I was a part of that process and a part of that film in and of itself. And then getting Jordan Sparks: her first feature-film debut and her knocking it out of the ballpark, along with Tika Sumpter and Carmen Ejogo, who did an awesome job as Sister. I learned a lot about the actors and actresses who have other talents; casting CeeLo in there, casting actresses who can sing and dance unbeknownst to myself. At the beginning I didn't know that Tika was a singer, and then we found out she could sing and we were like, “Oh, my gosh. This is awesome.” So there wasn't a lot of voice-over going on in that area. It was everyone's voice; everyone had a chance to sing.

And then the Fruitvale Station of it all, that was just—that was a beautiful experience. Ryan Coogler is an awesome director. I met him at USC film school. I cast his first, his feature short film called Fig, at USC. I took that project on because I took a meeting with him and realized it was a meeting of the minds, it was a meeting of the heart, it was a meeting of the passions, and oh, my goodness, he came through with flying colors so much so that when he called me again, I was like, “Absolutely. Whatever you need.” I had no idea it was going to be the Fruitvale Station, of course, that it is today. But I did know that he was going to put the same amount of passion into it, and with that kind of passion, it was going to go far.

Black Nativity is coming out soon. Can you tell me anything about that?

Oh my gosh, Black Nativity. That’s Kasi Lemmons. Kasi Lemmons has been one of my 10 for, I would say, about 10 years. So to finally get a chance to work with and for her is, I mean, it’s the dream. I have my dream list of 10, so I can mark it off now. But she's one of those people that I don't mark off. I highlight, which means more, more, more. Because she is a visionary; I love her vision, I love the stories that she's trying to tell, and I love the passion that's behind it. And not just the passion, but the intelligence with which she tells stories, and how she tells stories through every, every part of everything, you know? There are some directors that just want to tell the story and push it on through. The story is being told, but not with every essence and with every part of the process. Kasi Lemmons, she directs with everything: with the lighting, with the location, with the music, with the wardrobe, and she has a handle on everything. In her mind's eye, every different aspect tells a story, which I love. To me, that's a true visionary.

And we have Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett—it is an all-star cast, let me tell you, it's an embarrassment of riches. We have Jennifer Hudson, we have Tyrese Gibson, we have?oh, my goodness?we have the fabulous Jacob Latimore, it's so awesome. We have these fabulous dancers from all different parts—Dance Theatre Harlem and a wonderful gospel choir. It’s fabulous. We have Luke James, we have Grace Gibson, who is the daughter of Lynn Whitfield and the late great [Brian] Gibson, the director. So it's an awesome, awesome film.

It is the Nativity told on three levels. And you've got to catch the third one; you really have to pay attention. It's full of music and love and laughter and heartbreak and joy, and it's great for this time of year when we all need to be reminded of joy, and that joy exists, and that we're still here to experience it. I'm thankful to be a part of it.

I can't wait to see it, it sounds awesome.

[Laughs.] It was awesome to do. It really was.

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So who, or what, inspires you? Are there any social causes or philanthropic organizations that are dear to your heart?

My father says I have a gift for teenagers. I used to work with an organization, and hope to work with more organizations dealing with teenagers and teens, for teenage girls in foster care. I was a mentor for four years, and that was an incredible experience, and I look to get into some version or some aspect of mentoring again. I'm always donating books and different types of things to the Mary Magdalene House. I was introduced to it actually by Ryan Coogler, the filmmaker, and from Fruitvale Station, because our first film that we did was dealing with teenage prostitution and sex trafficking. And it happens to be not too far for me, this organization. It’s here in Van Nuys, California, and it deals with sex trafficking in teens. I have been donating to them quite a bit: uplifting books—anything that I can donate to them: office supplies, things of that nature in order to just help them continue to maintain their administrative duties, as well as helping the minds. Because when it comes to sex trafficking, it's the mind that is the first line of defense.

It's the mind. And what these people prey on is your mind, and your feelings of your lack of self worth. I feel like empowering the mind is first and foremost, and reading helps to empower the mind. So I’m all about donating books to them. And I donate books to the Long Beach Job Corps—I’m all about donating books. So I gather from friends. I'm like, “Give me all your books. I know we're all doing this de-cluttering thing, and we're all cleaning and—hit me with the books, and I'll take them to the places where they need to go.” So I love doing that, but at some point hopefully I'll be able to mentor again and be able to sow into the lives of teens whatever it is that I've learned, whatever it is that they need or require from me. Yep. That's me.

What does the art of great filmmaking, great books, theater, TV, etc. mean to you?

The art is a journey. I can say it’s a journey. The narrative art can take you on a journey of self discovery, a journey of joy, a journey of the journey through pain. It can take you on a journey of not feeling alone. To know that others are going through the same or similar things. Sometimes there's a film out and you’re like, “Oh, I'm the only one going through this,” and then you go see a movie and you’re like, “I'm not the only one going through this.”

There's a whole feel about it. Whether it be a documentary or a made-for-TV movie or a feature film, it can take you on a journey of joy. And that part I love. The storytelling, it can take you on a journey of self discovery. To enlighten you and for you to discover who it is that you really are, like The Great Debaters. Melvin Tolson—I’ll never forget when I watched The Great Debaters, and of course Denzel Washington and the rest of the cast, it made me then go and do my research on Melvin Tolson, to learn more about him, to discover more about a real life human who had done all of these wonderful things and was a part of the beautiful fabric of America. He pushed his way into the senate and into government, and empowered young people with debate, and it sent off so many things spiraling in my head and in my mind and in my spirit. So to me, all of it is really a journey of storytelling. And it’s awesome. It's beautiful.

Do you have a favorite film that you watch on special occasions that re-centers you or re-invigorates your life?

Yes! Oh my gosh! [Laughs] Yes! Yes! Okay, you ready for the list? Here we go.

It starts with The Wizard of Oz, The Ten Commandments, The Sound of Music, West Side Story. Every time they’re on, I watch them. I own them all, and I'm a musical person. I love musicals and performances, and each time you watch it, you get something different depending on what you're going through in your life. And yeah, those are them. I grew up on them.

Besides casting, what other creative goals do you have?

Right now, I produce every year in conjunction with the Hollywood Black Film Festival, one of the largest monologue slams in the country. It's Twinkie Byrd’s Monologue Slam. And that happens every October. Next year will be our fourth year, and it is huge. I love it. I love watching actors perform their monologues. I love the auditioning process. I am looking to produce films. My focus is made for TV movies or VOD, videos on demand, I really feel like it's time to get back to the After School Special. It’s time for us to have those. Even though we have Up and Lifetime and all of these wonderful networks, the After School Special really helped round out my education and my life when I was growing up. And I guess I'm dating myself in saying that because it only happened during a certain section of time, but I don't care. I will date myself. I feel like there needs to be more, like the Wilma Rudolph Story for me was an after-school special; it was so awesome. [Laughs] It's time for those to come back. It's time to maybe put them on the Internet or something since young people now watch more Internet than they do television. And have a folder of all of those types of stories, whether it be sports based or music based or education based or what have you, like science based. We need to have those, and we need to tell those stories, and we need to talk about inventors, and we need to let people know about doctors, about lawyers, people that are changing the world and who started the Peace Corps. So I would like to produce those types of projects.

If you couldn't be a casting director or work on film, what else would you want to be?

Wife and a mother. Yes. A wife and a mother. I will be a wife and a mother. I am a wife and a mother. But yeah—and my father was a teacher, and being a teacher is something that I always dreamt of being. But it all seems to come to pass with my career. I just did a workshop in a seminar at a college on the college level, and I ended up teaching. I end up doing that with my career now. I was focused on one thing, and then it branched out into a number of different things. I travel. I always wanted to travel, I travel with my career now, so it's pretty awesome, the alchemy of casting.

What are your latest projects?

Being Mary Jane starts again in January, January 7, I believe, on BET starring, Gabrielle Union, Richard Roundtree, Lisa Vidal. And I just cast the two Gabbys for the Gabrielle Douglas story, which is the gold-medalist, all-around 2012 summer gymnastics—I cast the two Gabby gymnasts, the two actresses to play Gabby. And that comes out in February, Black History Month on Lifetime. That's what's happening. I'm looking forward to more independent projects, and I believe my next goal is to conquer the Sundance Lab.

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