For this installment of Get to Know the Casting Director, we’re featuring the head of casting for Walt Disney Animation Studios, who has an impressive number of big titles to her name. Just a small sampling of Jamie Sparer Roberts’ casting credits includes Frozen, Frozen 2, the Wreck-It Ralph franchise, Zootopia, Moana, and this year’s Raya and the Last Dragon. With a number of projects in the works, the casting director still found time to virtually sit down with Casting Networks and share about her latest film, Encanto, while giving us a window into the person behind all the credits.
It’s nice to virtually meet you, Jamie, and I’d like to start off with the transition you made from live-action casting to animation. What inspired that change?
What’s funny is that it was completely involuntary. For context, I worked right out of college at several other studios as a freelance casting director before joining the Disney staff in 2007. I was an executive under Marcia Ross in the live-action casting department, and the last project I did in that position was Jonathan Mostow’s Surrogates. I also helped out a casting director in the animation department who needed support while working on a feature that was at that time called Rapunzel.
Which ended up being Tangled?
That’s right. That casting director ended up leaving the animation division during the same time the live-action casting department was undergoing some reorganization. I remember thinking that since I was the last one onto that team, it was likely I would be the first to go. So when I was offered the job as head of the animation casting division, it felt meant to be, even though I’d never thought about going that direction with my career. Once I got my feet wet and really started digging into the work, I realized it was actually the best move of my life, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Wow. That is quite the serendipitous series of events that brought you to your position.
The craziest part of the whole thing is that I had a very small child when I moved over to animation. She was barely a toddler at the time, and now she’s applying to college. It’s just been such a blessing to get to share my work with her as she’s grown up. When she was little, she thought I was some sort of superhero because I knew all the princesses.
That’s so sweet and sounds like such a gift to have that connection with her. Before we go any further, I have to say congrats on the recent release of Encanto and the warm reception it’s received so far. I heard in an interview you gave this year that the majority of the casting for the project was done remotely. Can you tell us about moving forward with Encanto through the pandemic in order to bring such a magical tale to audiences?
Thank you, and I can tell you that around the time the pandemic hit, I was auditioning some Broadway actors in New York for the project with my associate Grace Kim. Encanto is a musical so we wanted to tap into that talent pool. Things started shutting down, though, so we had to cut the trip short and return to LA before everything went into lockdown. Continuing to cast the film remotely was definitely challenging because so much of what we do is brokered in the room. A big part of it is the connection between the casting director and the actor or the director and the actor. It’s hard to foster that through a flat screen, which also can be a barrier to conveying someone’s enthusiasm and talent.
I imagine that would be difficult.
We kept going, though, and part of Raya and the Last Dragon was cast that way, as well as almost all of Encanto. It’s crazy to think we might have ended up with a different cast for Encanto if Covid hadn’t happened — I’m grateful we wound up with the one that we did. Plus, we were fortunate that Disney supports its creatives and gave us all the tools we needed in order to continue doing the search for the film remotely so that it could still happen.
I love the perseverance you all displayed, which ensured audiences still got to see Encanto. And shifting gears here, it’s time for my favorite question to ask casting. If someone made an animated film about your life story, which actor would you cast to voice the role of Jamie Sparer Roberts?
I was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley so whoever did the part would need to have an LA native accent. I also sound like a teenager even though I’m 47 years old so whoever got the part would need to encapsulate that. [Laughs] Additionally, they should definitely sing off-key if this film is a musical. I have an ear for music and am a good judge of tone, but I can’t sing a lick myself. And if it’s a comedy, I would have to find an actor who can channel my sense of humor. I think I’m funny, but it’s not always on purpose. [Laughs] So their comedic timing would have to feel accidental. At present, I don’t know anyone who exists out there for the role, but I would love to discover that person. The way we start casting any project is with a search — it’s the best way to uncover just the right person.
I like how you took the question, Jamie. No one’s getting a direct offer for that part — you’re doing a search! Taking it back to Tangled now, I read that you saved Idina Menzel’s audition for the film on your phone, and while she didn’t book that project, the recording eventually led to her landing the role of Elsa in Frozen. Is that true?
Yes, she sang The Beatles’ “Blackbird” for the musical part of her Tangled audition and had a guitarist come in to accompany her. It was one of the most beautiful renditions of the song I’ve ever heard, and since we tape auditions, I asked the sound engineer if I could have the recording so that I could put it on my iPod. I was that blown away by how beautiful it was. With how the different roles evolved, Idina didn’t end up getting that part, but I still had her performance of “Blackbird” saved on my iPod when it came time to cast Frozen. I sent it to [director] Chris Buck, and he agreed that we had to put Idina in the movie. Casting her as Elsa was probably the best professional decision I have ever made and a career-defining moment for me. Everything with how that particular film came together was just lightning in a bottle, and I’m so grateful for it.
It’s fascinating to hear what went into casting such a successful film, as well as what it meant to you. Thank you for sharing that, and before we wrap, I’m curious about what you do with your free time. I don’t imagine you have a lot of it as the head of casting for Disney Animation, but when you are off the clock, what do you enjoy doing?
The thing is, my job entails scouting talent, going to movies, watching TV, attending comedy festivals, catching theater shows, and traveling. I love doing all those things, and I feel so lucky and grateful that they’re built into my job. My husband and daughter love them, too, so we’ll do a lot of those activities together when I have free time. We’re also huge animal lovers. My daughter used to show dogs, and we have our own, as well as puppies. The three of us are just super down-to-earth people who like to hang out and be entertained.
Down-to-earth is a great description for Roberts, who was easy to chat with between interview questions whether it was discussing sibling Halloween costumes or pixie haircuts. The character trait is admirable considering the stacked list of Disney Animation blockbusters that can be found on Roberts’ IMDb page. She also has a fan following from her small role in Wreck-It Ralph. Roberts shared during the interview that she has one line in the film, which snowballed from the fact that director Rich Moore liked her laugh and wanted to record it. “People will frequently send me pictures of my character from the film, Yuni Verse, and ask for my autograph,” Roberts told us. “They’re mostly big Disney fans who are collectors, and I’m happy to do it for them. But I’m not an actor — I’m just me.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.