All News
Photo courtesy of Barbara McCarthy.

‘Sitting in Bars with Cake’ Casting Director Barbara McCarthy Talks Working With Younger Casts

Barbara McCarthy didn’t set out to specialize in movies about young people, it just sort of happened that way. The thing is, though, she happens to be really good at it, finding just the right young actors for these films, and then watching as many of them go on to enormous stardom. Her latest, Amazon’s Sitting in Bars with Cake, inspired by a true story, is another such example, with two young stars who show off just how good McCarthy is at her job.

Yara Shahidi and Odessa A’Zion play best friends who take cakes to bars to meet guys, even as one of them gets diagnosed with cancer. The pair take a by-the-numbers story and turn it into something else, based purely on their chemistry. That, in a nutshell, perfectly demonstrates a job well done, and it’s only the latest example in McCarthy’s impressive career. She spoke with us from her home in Los Angeles.

How did you get into casting in the first place?

I grew up outside Chicago, and I knew I wanted to work in film. After I graduated, I came out here, not knowing anybody. I got a job answering phones for TV movie producers. They would give me their scripts to read, but instead of just responding, or having notes, I would give them a list of people who should be in the movies. They just started sending my list to the networks, and the networks would say if we got any of these people, they’d green-light the movie.

So I was still answering phones, cold calling agents and starting to attach people to their scripts. Eventually, they said, ‘You need to be in casting.’ I got to sit in on a few different TV movie casting sessions and see how things ran, and in the very first audition I ever sat in on, it was Jeremy Renner. He got the part and I was hooked. But these guys were never going to let me do anything but what I was doing, so I started applying to casting directors as an intern. No one would hire me, because they would say, ‘You have this nice job at this production company. Why would you want to be my intern?’ So finally, I won a lot of money on a game show, quit my job and then once I was able to say I was unemployed, everybody was willing to make me their intern.

Hang on. Time out. Back up.

(Laughs) Yes, I know. I won a lot of money on a game show. It was 1995, a game show on the Lifetime network called Debt. Wink Martindale hosted it. I won $16,997, and Wink wanted me to win $17,000, so he had his assistant get his wallet and he gave me three singles. So I could say I won $17,000.

I love everything about this story. And in 1995, that was probably a year’s worth of rent.

I was making $15,000 as their receptionist, slash offer person, slash Business Affairs person, so yeah, it was a year’s salary, and it changed the course of my life because it allowed me to quit that job and become who I really wanted to be.

So you got the internship, and how did that lead to you running your own casting office?

I worked for Valorie Massalas for a little while, then she went on to fill in for Gail Levin as head of Disney Telefilms casting while Gail took a hiatus to cast Almost Famous for Cameron Crowe. That’s how I got to know Gail, and then right after Almost Famous, Gail got the job being head of Paramount casting and hired me to be a casting executive under her. So I went straight from being a casting assistant to being manager of features casting at Paramount, which was, yeah, a huge jump. She took a chance on me and I stayed there for 10 years till they got rid of our whole department and then I went out on my own.

So many of your films feature younger casts. Was that happenstance?

Yeah. It was. My first job was a $100,000 indie, and two of the actors ended up married to each other. (Laughs) But then my second film was The Spectacular Now. I was just reading everything I could, and I was obsessed with it. I stalked the producer. I knew him because I’d worked with him on Dickie Roberts at Paramount, so we had a good relationship. And I just stalked him till he gave me the job.

After that, it just happened that, especially in the indie space, a lot of the movies are about young people, just because it’s cheaper to hire them. So then I kind of got that reputation. A couple of my friends who are producers got into that family film space, so I ended up doing a lot more movies for them, and it just keeps going that way.

You mentioning two actors you cast marrying each other is a perfect entree into talking about chemistry. Sitting in Bars is a totally formulaic story, but the chemistry between Tara and Odessa is what makes it work.

Well, I mean, that’s the key to everything, right? We cast it over Zoom, Yara was already attached, and when Odessa read, I just remember freaking out because she was as good as I hoped she would be. It was a goosebumps moment, and it turned out the two of them were already friends. [A’Zion’s] character Corinne was such a unique person. You know how when you meet those people that are such a character and you’re like, I’ve never met anybody like you before and probably never will again? That was the one key thing that Odessa brought that no one else brought.

I end each of these conversations with the same question: What advice or piece of wisdom would you give to an actor reading this who might come in and audition for you?

There are so many, but I think my main one would be to know we’re rooting for you. We want you to succeed. We’re not the enemy. When you go in that room, we want to help you do your best. I would like to just see them come in with that confidence of assuming that we’re all in their corner. I see people get in their own heads, and I know it’s because they’re nervous and they don’t think we like them. We do. It would just be great if everybody knew that we love you and nothing makes us happier than to see you succeed.

There are plenty of strike-compliant roles available on Casting Networks. Sign up or login and see what’s casting near you today!

You may also like: