Seasoned Casting Director Lisa London Talks ‘From Start to Stardom,’ Being on Set with Her Father Jerry London, and How to Succeed in Hollywood
Hollywood. The mere mention of the district that lies in the central region of Los Angeles, California brings to mind lively film studios abundant with talented A-list actors and filmmakers, the Walk of Fame, and the infamous Hollywood sign. It also conjures up stereotypical images of those struggling to get through the doors, waiting for their big break as they run from casting call to casting call, waiting tables or tending bar in the evenings. It is the quintessential Californian dream: to become an actor. For many, the fantasy crumbles after a handful of rejections and monetary problems, but some still trek on with unwavering resoluteness and passion, despite the obvious obstacles that stand in their way. Of course, with all of the glamour, artistry, fame and wealth involved, it is easy to see why chasing the dream is so inviting, and why so many are determined to see it come to fruition.
So what exactly does it take to break into and make it in show business? Where does one even begin on such an ambitious journey, much less get the chance at auditions and callbacks?
For Hollywood casting director Lisa London, these were just some of the questions she came across countless times throughout her extensive career. After receiving endless requests and inquiries from both parents and amateur actors, she decided it was finally time to sit down and answer them.
London, daughter of renowned director Jerry London (whose credits include such iconic shows as The Partridge Family, Hogan’s Heroes, and Happy Days), is probably the best person to ask about the ins and outs of creating a career in acting. Her love of the craft, honed after years of being on set with her father and then further conditioned after branching off to do her own projects, inspired her new book, From Start to Stardom: The Casting Director’s Guide for Aspiring Actors — a how-to guide on the best approach to break into and succeed in the business, which reads more like a seasoned and supportive friend giving advice over coffee than a practical handbook.
GALO recently sat down with the amiable and knowledgeable London to discuss her experiences growing up behind the scenes in Hollywood, her involvement in hiring some of the biggest names today (such as Jonah Hill and Emma Stone), and what advice she has for aspiring actors.
GALO: You have said that in tagging along with your father, Jerry London, who has directed a variety of well-known shows like Hogan’s Heroes, The Partridge Family and Happy Days, you were exposed to and were fascinated by all aspects of acting. What facets would you say were the most compelling to observe on the sets of these popular television shows? Was there one show that was more fun and intriguing to watch than others?
Lisa London: It was a great experience and a great learning ground because I got to go from different sets and met all kinds of different actors. My dad did The Partridge Family and I met Shirley Jones, David Cassidy and Susan Dey, and then when he did Kojak, I met Telly Savalas. Then he did mini-series like Shōgun, and I got to go to Japan and met Richard Chamberlain, John Rhys-Davies, and all of these great British actors. So every experience was a new and exciting adventure for me where I got to learn about actors and their journeys — and I thought each one of them was amazing.
GALO: Have you ever considered acting something you would want to pursue yourself as opposed to casting? What was it that cemented your knowledge that casting was your calling?
LL: When I was younger and I was with my dad on these sets, I worked as a production assistant on a couple of projects that he did. They would give me a line here and there, but it just wasn’t my passion. You have to have the passion to be an actor. Having grown up on sets and having gotten to know actors — having spoken to them and asked them: “How did you get here?” “What was your journey?” and “How did you become successful?” – [it led me down this path]. When I ended up in casting, I worked as a production assistant on a pilot my dad did, Hotel for Aaron Spelling — when I worked on that, the casting directors had a very big company at the time, and when they offered me a job, it seemed like a natural fit. I felt it made total sense because I’ve always loved actors.
GALO: While on set for several of these projects with your father, you had the fascinating experience of meeting some of the most well-known actors in Hollywood, such as Lee Majors, Richard Chamberlain and Gregory Peck, to name a few. In watching so many different actors embody their roles and their characters, can you recall any particular moments that really stood out and made their performances so admirable to you?
LL: There are so many! For example, when my dad did The Scarlet and the Black with Gregory Peck, Christopher Plummer and Sir John Gielgud, that was a great experience; they were amazing actors, they were icons and watching them work was just as amazing. My dad did a movie called Father Figure with Timothy Hutton and he was fantastic to watch. He was so dynamic and intense. I remember my dad also did Wheels with Rock Hudson and Lee Remick, and these guys were talented actors also. I feel like I was blessed, having been able to watch so many people and their performances, and watching how they really got into their performances that had impacted so many people.
GALO: You have helped launch the careers of many big names of today, such as Miley Cyrus, Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, among others. What was it about them that created an impression on you as a casting director? Did they have a particular acting style that made it more natural to decide which roles they would be best suited for, or was that determined over time?
LL: With each one of them, I either helped or cast them very early on in their careers. With Miley, for example, she had that “it” factor that you hear casting people talk about. She had been on stage with her father, but had no acting experience. As a casting director, what we look for besides your talent is your charisma, your personality. The “it” factor is that intangible quality. If they see this in somebody, everyone has to agree with it, not just the casting director. What we saw in her is that factor, that huge personality, and that was part of what got her that first job.
Jonah Hill had already done I Heart Huckabees and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which hadn’t come out yet. I met him for Grandma’s Boy, and he actually wasn’t right for the role I read him for, but he was so funny, talented and charming, you could see it when he first walked into the room. I called the producer up for the movie and said, “I have this guy and you’re going to want to put him in your movie.” When Jonah came in and read the part, the reaction was generally, “Oh my god, he’s so funny,”and they ended up writing a part that was made bigger for him. And look at Jonah now, he’s a big name and has a hugely successful career.
Emma we met early on, when she’d done a reality show. She had so much talent and so much charm. We originally read her for The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, and actually, the first thing we ever cast her in was a voice-over part for these little talking dogs. Then we ended up casting her in for the lead in House Bunny.
So you can just see that in these people, and usually it’s a combination of the talent and charisma.