How does one introduce a casting director whose credits run the gamut from Breaking Bad and its spin-off Better Call Saul to The Walking Dead to The Handmaid’s Tale? Said titles are just a few highlights from a thoroughly impressive body of work, but Casting Director Sharon Bialy was nothing short of warm and relatable when she sat down with Casting Networks via Zoom. But don’t mistake her kindness for weakness — a throughline of Bialy’s career journey has been refusing to be told what she can and cannot do. Keep reading for more insights into the casting director, as well as a peek into the casting process behind the inspiring HBO Max series Julia.
It’s great to virtually meet you, Sharon, and let’s start right at the beginning of your career. When was the moment you knew that casting was the job for you?
There were probably two moments, actually. The first was when I was 11 years old, and my mother took me to see Our Town on Broadway. I heard Mrs. Soames voice for the first time during the play’s second act — when she’s sitting at the funeral — and did something you just don’t do during a Broadway show. In a loud voice, I said to my mother, “Mommy, I’m scared. Take me home!” When she asked for a reason, I told her, “It’s the Wicked Witch of the West.” [Laughs] Margaret Hamilton was playing Mrs. Soames, and it was probably during that production of Our Town that the seed was planted for me. I grew up going to the theater often in New York, but I didn’t know I wanted to be a casting director until I came out to California.
How did you come to realize it then?
I was working at a place called Professional Artists Group, which was a casting facility by day and an acting school by night. I was so intrigued by the former and walked up to a casting director — who will remain nameless — to ask her about it. “You know, I think this is something I’d love to do,” I told her. “I have a really good memory, I know the theater, and I love acting.” She responded, “You’re never gonna do it.” And I was like, “Watch me.” [Laughs] That was it for me — no one’s going to tell me what I can or cannot do.
Oh my goodness, Sharon! That could’ve been your “villain origin story,” right there, but I so love how it turned into the catalyst for what is now a very storied casting career. Congrats on your recent Artios nom for Julia by the way. I’ve heard the HBO Max series called a “fun feast” and couldn’t agree more.
It’s a really delightful series, and I counsel everybody reading this to watch the show because it is absolutely joyful. It was also a joy to work on, and we can’t always say that, even with the best of shows. Julia talks about food, family, and friends during a time when I think we all need some positive things in our lives. It’s also about a woman who defied all the odds and changed the face of public television.
What can you tell us about the process of assembling the cast for Julia?
Well, obviously the role of Julia was the most important one to cast because the show wouldn’t work if you didn’t have the right Julia. So, we did a worldwide search for it. From Danish series to Israeli shows, I watch a lot of foreign television, and Sarah Lancashire was on my radar from Happy Valley. I reached out to her agent about having Sarah read for the role of Julia, and she initially self-taped for it. She’s quite a well-known and revered actor in her country, so that was great of her to do, and then we flew her out here so she could do a test for the role. It was a complicated process — everybody was learning about the role and the tone along the way — and she ended up self-taping again before it was over. But just like Julia Child, Sarah was a trooper and didn’t give up when things were difficult. I have to say, I’m not sure an American counterpart at her level would’ve gone through that process. I think she was smart, though, to know it was a role worth fighting for.
Thank you for pulling back that curtain on how you cast the show’s titular lead.
Here’s the thing about the casting process, in general. The exciting part is not just sitting in your office and writing a list of names. Having actors come into our little audition room and read for us, along with the director and showrunner, is really the most fun thing for us because we get to hear the language and see it come to life. You see a lot of great actors perform, and as the puzzle starts to come together, you somehow instinctively feel which person is the right piece for each role.
It really is an art form. Now, it’s time for my favorite question to ask casting, which I prepped you on ahead of time. If someone made a series about your life story, which actor would you cast to play the role of Sharon Bialy?
I’ll say that I experienced a lot of angst trying to answer this. I even asked people in my office, and it was funny to hear what they came up with for me. So, first I thought of Rachel Weisz, mostly because I want to be married to Daniel Craig … [Laughs] Plus, I really respect her, and we’re both Jewish. But, then I realized that the question doesn’t exclude actors who are no longer with us. So, I’m picking Rosalind Russell, who became famous for His Girl Friday. She was a fast-talker — as am I — and did things her own way. Rosalind was rebellious and wouldn’t let herself get typecast. I see a lot of similarities between us because Sherry and I also refuse to let ourselves get pigeonholed into one area of casting. We do both drama and comedy, as well as work across the mediums of theater, film, and TV. And regarding the latter, we don’t allow ourselves to get put in a box, either. We work in all the different genres of television between streaming, cable, and network series. There truly is this sense of “no one’s gonna tell me what to do,” which Rosalind Russell embodied.
That’s such a great answer! And speaking of Sherry, when we caught up with her in August, she mentioned you’ve also been known to moonlight as a wedding officiant. What other hats do you wear besides that of a casting director?
I studied hard to be able to officiate Sherry’s wedding — it’s a huge responsibility. But, it’s also this heartwarming thing to be able to do for a friend you know really well. Before Sherry and her husband, people in their families had traditionally been married in churches, so this was the first non-church one for them. And on top of that, it was being officiated by a Jewish girl! But, I had them all in tears by the end of it. [Laughs] Besides that, I also run a business. Sherry and I have been in business with Bialy/Thomas Casting for more than 25 years. And I’m proud to say that as two female business owners, we’re still here. I think that’s important to note because I strongly believe in female empowerment and in women feeling good about what they do. I’m also a dog owner, and other interests include black and white photography, as well as interior design.
Between wearing her daughter’s jewelry on our call and sharing some of her son’s accomplishments in journalism, Bialy’s role as a supportive mom also became evident during the interview. She additionally wears the hat of author, having penned How to Audition on Camera: A Hollywood Insider’s Guide for Actors. So, from Bialy’s prowess in casting to her wedding officiant skills to her ability with words, this has been a look into the person behind all the credits. Those interested in learning more about the stacked list of TV and film titles on her casting résumé can find them listed on IMDb.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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