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Star search: Tips from Disney’s top talent hunter

IT seems weird to use the phrase 'gut instinct' to characterize the actions of a global corporation, but it keeps popping up amongst execs from both the production and broadcast industries when they talk about Disney's knack for casting. The entertainment goliath continues to ferret out adolescent stars in the making whose on-screen antics manage to capture and captivate viewers.
January 1, 2007

IT seems weird to use the phrase ‘gut instinct’ to characterize the actions of a global corporation, but it keeps popping up amongst execs from both the production and broadcast industries when they talk about Disney’s knack for casting. The entertainment goliath continues to ferret out adolescent stars in the making whose on-screen antics manage to capture and captivate viewers.

Hannah Montana, Lizzie Maguire, That’s So Raven and High School Musical owe more than a modicum of their success to their charismatic young stars. And the person charged with capturing that lightning in a bottle is Judy Taylor, VP of casting and talent relations for Disney Channel.

Taylor has been casting Disney Channel movies since 1997, starting out as a freelancer before joining the company full time in 2004. So what exactly are the qualities that she looks for when searching for the next breakthrough star?

‘We are looking for characters that are aspirational for our audience, but at the same time are relatable,’ says Taylor, trying to define the seeming paradox of finding a teen that kids want to be who doesn’t stir up feelings of jealousy or envy.

The intense screening process for a typical Disney Channel film begins with hundreds of actor profiles submitted via agents. During the first round of selection, an assistant casting director will narrow down the field to 10 to 20 actors for each role. The chosen few will then be scrutinized by Taylor.

‘I sit with them for a while to get to know their personality, and we talk about what they like to do, their favorite television shows, etc.,’ she says.

After that, Taylor narrows it down to three or four candidates before auditioning them in front of the show’s executives, directors and producers. However, the process is always in flux; script changes and character tweaks send the whole shebang back to square one time and time again.

Of course, Disney’s massive reach doesn’t hurt its chances of finding the cream of the kid talent crop. While working primarily out of New York and L.A. and accepting submissions from agents, Taylor also often hits the road in search of the next Hilary Duff or Miley Cyrus.

‘We want to find the diamond in the rough,’ she says. ‘We are always looking for new kids…We try open calls in cities periodically to get a taste for the product.’

The next project that will put Taylor’s skills to the test is Jump In, a 90-minute Disney Channel movie bowing this month. The flick pairs HSM actor Corbin Bleu with Akeelah and the Bee star Keke Palmer in a story about an odd couple joining forces to win a Double Dutch tournament. Although not technically a musical, Disney is playing to its strength and promises a soundtrack with catchy original songs. GR

About The Author
Gary Rusak is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He has covered the kids entertainment industry for the last decade with a special interest in licensing, retail and consumer products. You can reach him at garyrusak@gmail.com

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