From wrestling alligators to casting “The Truman Show,” “Contact,” and “Birdcage,” Jacoby has seen it all
As actors, we all know about the challenges we face when it comes to casting.
But have you ever really considered the challenges faced by the casting directors sitting across the table from you? You might be surprised by what some of them go through to cast a film or television show.
Like how about wrestling an alligator. Literally.
That’s just what Miami casting director Ellen Jacoby did.
“I needed Native Americans for a movie, and we ended up making a deal with the Miccosukee [tribe],” Jacoby said. “And I got them to wardrobe and everything’s going great. But when I went back to check on them, they said, ‘Well, now that we’ve proved ourselves to you, how are you going to prove you’re one of us?’ They said all I had to do was wrestle an alligator. So I said, ‘Okay, I can wrestle an alligator, or I can lose the Miccosukee and get fired…’
“So I wrested an alligator.”
But that’s hardly the only offbeat experience she’s had on the long and winding road to making Ellen Jacoby Casting International one of the most sought-after shops when Hollywood comes calling in South Florida.
As an accomplished singer in her late teens and early 20s, Jacoby was heavily in demand as a lounge act until an unfortunate fall from the stage led to two ruptured discs and the first of several back surgeries. Having been taken out of the game for performing, and having her tennis and other athletic activities curtailed, Jacoby discovered the world of international backgammon of all things, at age 21.
“There’s no natural segue,” she admits, laughing. However, it worked out great for her.
“Being a hot little young thing, all the best players wanted to ‘give me lessons,’” she says. “I didn’t date any of them, but I took lessons from all of them! And I became an international champion.”
But traveling the world, winning over 60 trophies, and chilling in places like Monte Carlo with the likes of Lucille Ball, Johnny Carson, and Princess Grace wore thin after a while.
“I’d go to Europe for a couple weeks, and saunter home six months later,” she says. “I was crazy out of control.”
So Jacoby took up a friend’s offer to settle down a bit and help start up a casting agency.
Fast-forward 30 years or so, and these days most films and television shows shot in South Florida have the fingerprints of Ellen Jacoby Casting International all over them. From “The Truman Show” to “Contact” to “Birdcage” to “True Lies,” and many more, Jacoby is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to Florida casting.
And given her wild life and the people she’s met over the years, if there’s one thing Jacoby knows about, it’s confidence – the kind every actor needs when you walk into an audition.
“You have to have that presence,” she says. “And be confident. You can’t waver, you have to make your choices before you come in to audition and then we can always ask you to adjust something. But if you’re not sure if you’re doing it right, or how it should be, it comes across that you’re not sure. And you won’t be asked to do it again with adjustments. But so long as you portray and carry your choice all the way through, we can see that you can do it.”
And for Jacoby, it’s often not so important if you actually know the lines inside and out.
“I tell everybody too, you don’t really have to learn it verbatim,” she says. “You don’t have to do every word. You can make it yours. If you know the scene, if you memorize the scene, you know what you’re talking about, and you use different words its fine. The words will come naturally.”
And while Jacoby’s collection of war stories could fill several volumes of encyclopedia-sized books, she trots out an especially good one regarding actors who want to take their authenticity to the next level in an audition.
“If you wear a costume, make sure it fits properly,” she says, with a shudder you can hear over the phone, as she begins telling the tale of a guy who crafted his own costume to audition for a role in a film set in caveman times.
“So he made himself a loincloth,” Jacoby says. “However, he made it out of ice-blue suede. Blue suede? But it was like a blue belt, with a piece that went underneath. And as he’s ‘stalking an animal,’ he’s like, jumping around, the whole bottom piece fell out. So I’ve got a guy in my studio with a spear in his hand, and basically just a little blue belt. That’s it. And he didn’t know it. He was still stalking and jumping around. I was mortified. I turned around and said, ‘Ok, great, thank you!’ And all of a sudden I heard a scream. I guess he saw the other piece on the floor.”
No word on whether the Blue Suede Caveman ended up being cast.
But aside from avoiding wardrobe malfunctions, Jacoby has another word or two of advice for actors – advice they might have gotten from scouts years before: be prepared.
“One thing I tell my actors is, ‘If I send my client a lousy casting, I lose my job,’” she says. “So don’t think we don’t want you to look your best. But we have to work together – talent has to make me look good. So I tell everybody to be prepared. I’ll send you the material with plenty of time, and you make sure you’re prepared and on time [to read].”
And one final pet peeve Jacoby has is actors who she says “look like a deer in the headlights” as soon as their lines are done. She says that being ready for it when the director asks you to “tell me a little bit about yourself” can be the make or break moment that lands you the job.
“They don’t want to hear what’s on your resume. They want to hear about you, your personality,” she says. “I had one actor, a much older woman who they asked, and she said, ‘Well, I like to try new things. I recently went skydiving.’ And at the end of the whole casting the director says, ‘You know, we have to hire that woman who went skydiving.’ They remember those things. Things like that do stick out.”
Although not all of us have stories about alligator-wrestling, skydiving, or backgammon in Monte Carlo, Jacoby says we all have an opportunity to make ourselves stand out from the crowd when we audition.
“Make them smile,” she says. “Make them ask you a question about yourself.”
Ellen Jacoby Casting International is located in Miami Beach, Florida.