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Top 25 Casting Directors in Film and TV

The following is a list of the top 25 Power Casting Directors in film and television. We began with more than 100 candidates. In some cases, collaborations were so closely tied that we considered multiple people as one entity. Several drafts later, all 25 spots were cast.

Notably omitted from the list are in-house casting executives at studios and networks, the inclusion of whom would have ballooned our list to 50 or more. But read about them online at backstage com/spotlight. Focusing on independent casting directors leveled the playing field and highlighted people whose puissance is not affected by one scale-tipping affiliation. Now, on to the top 25!

Kerry Barden

Can you imagine Monster's Ball starring Erykah Badu, or American Psycho starring Leonardo DiCaprio? Kerry Barden can, because he saw them read the parts. "There are so many great actors that sometimes it's a disappointment there's not more than one role in a film," he says.

The Atlanta native discovered his calling while producing plays, then formed a casting company with Billy Hopkins and Suzanne Smith. For 15 years, they handled such Miramax movies as Good Will Hunting and Shakespeare in Love and worked with directors from John Waters to Michael Bay. Last year, Barden started a partnership with Paul Schnee and cast The Visitor, which earned Richard Jenkins an Oscar nomination. Barden's current slate includes Sweet Flame, Everybody's Fine, and Betty Anne Waters.

Victoria Burrows and Scot Boland

"I'm Disney, he's Tarantino," is how Victoria Burrows describes her odd pairing with Scot Boland. That pairing has worked magic for such repeat customers as Robert Zemeckis, Peter Jackson, and Albert Brooks. A three-decade veteran of the casting business, Burrows first worked with Boland on Zemeckis' Contact in 1996 and took him on as a full partner in 2000. Lately, they've specialized in motion-capture films, from 2004's The Polar Express to Steven Spielberg's upcoming The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn. Burrows likes the visceral change of pace from live action. "A lot of film acting is internal; it's in the eyes, face, and subtleties," she says. "In motion capture, you're looking for a full-body performance."

Ellen Chenoweth

Ellen Chenoweth was first bitten by the casting bug in the mid-1970s when she took an office job at the Actors Studio. "I was a young girl exploring possibilities in New York," she says. "Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan, and Arthur Penn were all there. I was putting together casts for Studio projects and people started calling me from outside for recommendations."

Having since served as casting consigliere to Clint Eastwood, Barry Levinson, and the Coen brothers, Chenoweth remarks that her New York residence keeps her in touch with many stage actors. For Changeling, she auditioned several on tape and sent the footage to Eastwood.

In addition to casting, Chenoweth occasionally has a hand in selecting music for movies. "I have done it a few times, such as on Wag the Dog, and I love it."

Sarah Finn

A Yale-trained actor, Sarah Finn was mentored by stage director–turned–casting heavyweight Risa Bramon Garcia, with whom she worked at New York's Ensemble Studio Theatre, where actors learn everything from producing to running the light board.

"She said, 'You should really try casting. It's a great combination of acting, producing and directing, all rolled into one.' "

After cutting her teeth with Garcia on films like 1997's The Peacemaker, Finn partnered with Randi Hiller in 2000. The duo went on to cast a string of films from 2004's Crash to Iron Man(2008), the former winning a SAG Award for ensemble cast. Last year, she struck out on her own with Oliver Stone's W. and is currently working on Disney's Tron 2.0.

Randi Hiller

When Randi Hiller was casting Iron Manwith then-partner Sarah Finn, Robert Downey Jr. sang "I Hope I Get It" from A Chorus Line during his audition. "Even when you've done this a long time, you can never forget that somebody is always excited about certain roles," she says. Hiller shares the same enthusiasm about casting. She and Finn -- who recently ended their eight-year partnership to form separate companies -- have worked on Crash as well as several Marvel movies and will collaborate on the upcoming Thor and Iron Man 2. "Actors stop by sometimes to tell us they got a job which has nothing to do with us, " Hiller says. "I love when somebody calls, because they know I'll be excited."

Kimberly Hope, Lynn Kressel, Suzanne Ryan, Jonathan Strauss

For New York actors, no casting quartet is more sought after than Law & Ordergatekeepers Kimberly Hope, Lynn Kressel, Suzanne Ryan, and Jonathan Strauss. Ryan, who works on the original L&O series, says the show "strikes a balance between reality and entertainment," which is precisely the talent they have to mine from Gotham's gritty acting pool. Occasionally, that includes theatre notables like Christian Hoff, brought on board by Criminal Intent casting director Hope. But more often, as Strauss attests, it means having the gut instinct to cast young unknown actors in difficult roles. For SVU, Strauss has cast a transgender teenager, a genius 14-year-old accused of murder, and a child savant with a form of autism. "These aren't your ordinary, Hollywood, Shirley Temple -- style characters," he says.

Sheila Jaffe

Actors dropping by Manhattan's Cafe Central in the 1980s could have easily gotten an audience with Sheila Jaffe. As hostess - night manager, her main casting job was who would fit at what table, but the cafe was an actor hangout -- so she got to know such regulars as Mickey Rourke and Sean Penn. When the restaurant closed, Jaffe got her start in casting after catching a break from Georgianne Walken. Such movies as Slums of Beverly Hills and The Italian Job led to television series The Sopranos (for which she won a 1999 Emmy with Walken) and Entourage, which she co-casts with relative newcomer Susan Paley Abramson. Jaffe still enjoys her role in molding casts, though she acknowledges the process is more democracy than monarchy. "I like painting the canvas [of a show]," she says, "but then reality sets in and people have other opinions."

Allison Jones

When Jenna Fischer auditioned for the role of beleaguered receptionist Pam on NBC's The Office, casting director Allison Jones gave her a priceless piece of advice: "Dare to bore me." Too many actors were trying to be funny in the mock-documentary auditions. Says Fischer, "She said to not look hot and to try not to be funny." Jones has discovered her share of effortless comics, among them an endless parade of improv comics on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Avy Kaufman

New York–based Avy Kaufman likens her work to a journalist who gets inside the heads of her subjects -- in her case, filmmakers from Ang Lee to Steven Spielberg. Like a scribe, she revels in the research, whether it means scouring the theatre scene for "period" faces to cast upcoming Depression-era films Amelia and Public Enemies, or watching stacks of Russian DVDs to find actors for CIA thriller Salt, currently in preproduction. She says the emotional payoffs are similar, too: "If people can laugh, cry, or learn something from [the films], that's just icing on what I do."

Ellen Lewis

Ellen Lewis isn't scared of the road less traveled. Rather, this favorite of Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch, and Mike Nichols explores it with gusto, seeking out undiscovered actors of all stripes to populate her projects. While working on Scorsese's The Departed, she didn't limit herself to New York and Los Angeles actors, teaming with local casting director Carolyn Pickman for a wide-open call in Boston, where much of the film was set and filmed. "We were looking for priests, cops, mob guys, interesting women, and character faces," she remembers. "People from that community came in, and the faces were like Walker Evans' photos walking in."

Junie Lowry-Johnson

After almost 30 years in the business, what Junie Lowry-Johnson loves most about her job is helping create new worlds and stories -- as she's done in films from Bruce Almighty to America's Sweethearts. But it's her small-screen work that truly makes her a leader in the field, having recently molded casts for David Milch (Deadwood, John From Cincinnati) and Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, True Blood).

"Watching actors, studying them, looking at their interpretations of a scene or an emotion always captivates and excites me," the six-time Emmy winner says. "Recognition is icing on the cake."

Amanda Mackey Johnson and Cathy Sandrich Gelfond

When Amanda Mackey Johnson and Cathy Sandrich Gelfond first partnered in the early 1990s, the joke was that when Johnson cried at an audition, the actor got the job. A few years later, Gelfond realized she had developed the same tic. But in many ways they remain as different as the cities they work: Los Angeles and New York. "I'm West Coast, she's East Coast," says Gelfond. When evaluating actors, Johnson admits to being "more critical. Cathy will think more 'yes' and I'll think more 'no.'" Nonetheless, Johnson insists, "Our heart, values, work ethic, and generally our tastes are the same." And, like any good partners, they "fill each other's gaps," Gelfond says. "If I can't find it here, Amanda can find it there."

Francine Maisler

Scour industry Web hubs and you'll find thousands of Maisler references, but hardly any photos or personal details. That anonymity allows Maisler to scout talent unannounced, like when she spotted freshman actor Shannyn Sossamon spinning records at a bash for Gwyneth Paltrow in 1999. Maisler went on to help Sossamon land the part of Lady Jocelyn, opposite Heath Ledger, in A Knight's Tale.

Not that Maisler shies from established talent -- last year she cast Milk and Tropic Thunder, which got Oscar attention for Sean Penn and Robert Downey Jr. She beams about the former in particular. "This is such an important story. It's all about authenticity. I wanted to make sure I did it justice."

Mindy Marin

Show business is in Mindy Marin's genes, but it skipped a generation. Her grandfather Ned Marin was an agent at Ashley-Famous, where he repped such megastars as John Wayne and Kirk Douglas. Her father didn't like what he saw of the business, Marin says, "so he went into publishing." But she keeps a foot in both worlds with her company Bluewater Ranch, through which she casts and produces films (Thank You for Smoking, The Family Stone) as well as publishes books, including the self-penned recipe text The Secret to Tender Pie. Currently, the Pacific Palisades–based Marin is keeping busy with literary projects, an Internet show, and a film adaptation of Claire and Mia Fontaine's mother-daughter memoir Come Back.

Jeanne McCarthy

As a girl, Jeanne McCarthy spent her baby-sitting money on Smothers Brothers albums and, later, tickets to the Improv in New York. The comedy aficionado calls herself "the luckiest girl in the world" to have worked with the likes of Tracey Ullman, Harold Ramis, Jack Black, and Jay Roach, whom she helped populate swinging England for the second and third Austin Powers films. In Synecdoche, New York, McCarthy demonstrated a meta-comedic talent by casting actors who play one another's various selves, winning the Independent Spirit Awards' Robert Altman Award for Charlie Kaufman's film and herself. Yeah, baby, yeah!

John Papsidera