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Richard Roundtree and June Squibb in THELMA, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Jamie Ember Talks Casting ‘Thelma,’ How Growing Up in the Business Helped Her Find Her Passion


Not everyone who grows up in Los Angeles wants to be a part of the entertainment industry. Not even the children of people who work in it. There are plenty of those who grow up in Hollywood and want nothing to do with it, becoming doctors, lawyers or accountants. Not Jamie Ember.

The child of successful screenwriter Matt Ember was in the thick of it as a kid and knew that this was where she wanted to be. After realizing pretty quickly that acting wasn’t her ticket, she found casting as a senior in high school and her path was set. In the years since, she has had amazing mentors who have helped foster her burgeoning career, to the point that she is now casting on her own. And quite impressively, at that.

Her first major solo project is the comedy Thelma, starring June Squibb, Parker Posey, Clark Gregg and, in one of his final performances, Richard Roundtree. The film is currently in theaters. She spoke to us from her home in Los Angeles.

How did you end up in casting?

Oh, I wanted to be an actor. My parents were like, “Cool dream, That’s awesome for you. You can’t do that. You can be in school plays and take classes and do it as a hobby, but we’re not supporting our child working, because also we have jobs.” Now that I’ve watched the Nickelodeon documentary, I called them and I was like, “Thank you so much,” because that’s what I wanted.

They said, “You can take classes, you can do everything you want until you turn 16 and then once you drive, you can take yourself to auditions.” So I took classes and I went to Harvard Westlake High School. Ben Platt and Beanie Feldstein were a year above me, so I knew, “Well, I’m not going to audition for plays.”

They’re amazing. They were amazing when they were 12. So I thought, “I’m going to ask the theater teacher if I can help with auditions. Then they’ll see how good I am when I read with other people and they’ll just cast me.”

A winning plan.

And it worked for a couple of years! I wasn’t actually that good, so after I didn’t get into the musical, which was very sad, I decided to be the assistant director. All through high school, I’m helping with auditions, and I’m either the stage manager or the assistant director.

When I turned 16, I got a couple of auditions. Literally a couple. Two. And I was like, “This is terrible. I don’t like acting enough that this is worth the rejection. I’m too insecure of a 16-year-old. This is ruining me.”

The casting part seemed a lot more fun and a lot more up my alley. You get to do the acting, but there’s no pressure, and also then you’re the one who’s judging.

Jamie Ember smiling outside. Photo courtesy of Jamie Ember.

Did growing up in the biz help you there?

My dad said, “Okay, I’m working on a movie with someone whose wife is the head of Paramount casting, Terri Taylor. Do you want to see if she needs an intern for the summer?” I was like, “Yeah, great, because I also need something to write a college essay about.” (Laughs)

I interviewed with her the week she was leaving Paramount to do casting for Blumhouse, and she needed an intern for two days a week to help sign people in for auditions and help organize her new office, et cetera. I loved it. It was so much fun. There are five days in a work week, and I’m bored with the other three.

My dad’s agent at the time was Nicole Clemens, who is now the head of Paramount TV. Her best friend is Carmen Cuba, he would see if she needed an intern. Carmen was basically just doing Steven Soderbergh movies, so it was one movie a year. They were doing Magic Mike, and they said, basically, my job would be to help find shirtless pictures of actors to see if they could pass for strippers. I was like, “Wow, casting is the best job in the world!”

I was her intern that summer, and I stayed as her intern for my final year of high school, then every summer and every winter in college. I was her assistant for three years, then I left and became Alyssa Weisberg’s associate for almost three years. After that, I started working for Joseph Middleton, who I have been with for three years as his associate. He is very, very supportive of me doing things on my own as well, so I get the best of both worlds. I get to work on big jobs with him, and I also have the freedom to do smaller movies like Thelma.

It’s interesting to me, the sense of community that seems to exist in casting. Not every part of the industry has that, but in just about every conversation I have with a casting director, someone talks about mentors who taught them the craft and supported their growth.

You know, we’re generally one of the first people brought on, and then by the time they get to set, we’re done. It’s kind of an insular job, and it can be a little bit of a lonely job, so I think we’ve all found the need to find a community.

It’s been a big few years for casting. Especially this year, with the new Oscar category, and you realize how important we are, especially to indie films. Getting films financed helps to put together the tone of a film based on the people that we find, but there are still so many people who don’t realize the importance of casting.

We all really, truly do love what we do, and for so long, it was one of those very behind-the-scenes things that people just don’t even think is a thing that people do. I think a lot of people just don’t really have egos about it because any acknowledgment of what we do is more than we expect.

Let’s talk about Thelma, which is the biggest project you’ve had so far, working solo. It must be enormously gratifying to be getting the response it’s getting.

I read the script back in June 2021 and knew it was going to be great. Honestly, it’s hard for me to take compliments to brag and to be proud. I think a lot of casting directors struggle with that since we’re so behind the scenes, but yeah, it’s really fucking cool.

I just couldn’t be more proud of this movie, of myself for doing it, and for getting the cast that we got. I would like to say it’s a testament to me and my abilities and my connections and my relationships, but mostly it was just such a good script, that it was an easy thing to sell people on. If you could get it past an agent and onto someone’s actual desk for them to read, they said yes.

What piece of advice or wisdom would you give to an actor coming in to audition for you?

The biggest one would just be to really have a strong take on what you want to do. Really know it and have it prepared. Make sure you have enough preparation so that you can fall back on something because then you’re not thinking about it. That’s what I look for in the room, people who are really listening and really acting.

It never bothers me when someone drops a line because they were actually listening, because that’s how conversations work. Just be as prepared as you can, because that also gives you a strong take on what the character would be with you doing it.

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