Allison Jones hates the word "discover."
"Don’t use that. I don’t ever take credit for discovering anybody, except for McLovin on Superbad."
The casting director is being characteristically humble. In fact, Jones is not only the reason that Christopher Mintz-Plasse was plucked out of an L.A.-area high school (a friend’s mom suggested he respond to the fliers that had put up around school seeking "nerdy high school boys") and thrust into the spotlight as the scrawny, fake-ID-procuring sidekick in the 2007 Seth Rogen comedy, she’s also the reason that an ungodly tall and gawky commercial actor named Timothy Simons is now better known as Jonah on HBO’s Veep.
"That’s a good story," Jones concedes. "My assistant Peter knew him through a friend and said, ‘Do you want to meet this guy who’s in this Abraham Lincoln commercial? It’s really funny and maybe you’d want to meet him and use him for something."
So Simons came in and auditioned for Jones, who liked him immediately. "He’s the kind of look that’s genius," she says. "You want somebody who looks like that: interesting-looking and subtle comedy. Subtle, smart comedy."
After casting Simons in small parts on The Office, Jones introduced the actor to Veep creator Armando Iannucci when he was casting his show. The role of Jonah Ryan—the excruciatingly annoying and delusionally cocky White House liaison—was originally written for "someone sort of slovenly and fat," according to Jones, but upon meeting Simons, Iannucci re-envisioned the part.
Nerd comedy directors like Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up), Paul Feig (Bridesmaids), and Mitch Hurwitz (Arrested Development) typically get all the credit for populating our movies and TV shows with the kind of hilarious oddballs that never would have made it past the first round of auditions back in the air-brushed '80s and '90s. But behind the scenes, it’s Jones—who has worked closely with all of the above-mentioned directors, most especially Apatow—who is to thank, in no small part, for the rise of the Hollywood Geek. Among her credits are the TV shows Freaks and Geeks, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Hello Ladies, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine; and films like Talladega Nights, Borat, Bridesmaids, This is 40, The Way Way Back, and Anchorman 2.
Like many creative people, Jones can’t describe exactly how she works, or how she senses that someone has the "It" quality she’s looking for. "It’s just all instinct," she says. "Who I like and who I think is funny. I don’t know."
But she says that one golden rule in comedy (which she learned from Apatow) is to not rely on the audition. "A lot of comics can’t audition—at all," she says. "I have stories that go back to the '80s." (Jones got her start as an assistant casting director on The Golden Girls, and went on to cast The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Boy Meets World.) Instead, she’s more interested in someone’s raw talent, even if that talent might need some finessing in order to be camera-ready.
That was the case with Mintz-Plasse. When Jones first laid eyes on the slightly built, scratchy-voiced teen, "the lights didn’t go off," she says. "He was good, but it was a long audition process for him. It wasn’t immediate. He certainly had the right look and the right purity of nerdness, the right level of nerdness—God bless him, he still does—but he wasn’t fully formed when he came in."
Another rule of Jones’s: Looks don’t matter. "Being funny is everything to me," she says. "Being funny and original." When working with like-minded—and powerful—creatives like Apatow, Feig, or Adam McKay (Step Brothers, Anchorman 2), Jones has no problem disregarding an actor’s appearance. But she says there’s still resistance from many networks and studios who want a pretty face to headline their projects.
"There’s still pushback, especially with women—when they’re not that attractive but they’re hilarious, it still doesn’t matter to many people. They don’t get it." But didn’t a film like Bridesmaids help break down some of those barriers? "Moderately," Jones says. "It mostly just helped those actresses. It’s still tough."
How does Jones get around this? Persistence. She says if there’s someone she believes in, she never stops bringing them back for auditions. And not just when it’s a question of beauty. Certain comics simply don’t catch on with directors or executives. Still, Jones drags them back. Sometimes over the course of decades, as was the case with Jo Lo Truglio, a comedian from The State who, thanks to Jones, now has a showcase role on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, where he plays overly earnest Detective Boyle. Ditto for Matt Walsh, the United Citizens Brigade cofounder whom Jones cast as Veep’s put-upon press secretary Mike McLintock. "People like that, I’m thrilled to get them a good job."
When it comes to fresh talent, there are always the odd introductions (such as with Simons) and the far-and-wide casting calls (such as with Mintz-Plasse, and Seth Rogen, who was discovered in Vancouver, when Apatow and Jones were casting Freaks and Geeks).
And, increasingly, there is the Internet. "I don’t really troll the Internet, I’m not young enough," Jones laughs. "But stand-ups are always good to see on YouTube. There’s a guy named Mike Head who lives in Cleveland. He’s great. He’s an African-American stand-up." Jones came across him on YouTube and is a fan. Has she cast him in anything? "No," she says. "But I will."
Not that Jones always gets her way. But she says she’s been around the block long enough to know which battles are worth picking. "I always know when I just have to (cave). I always know when, okay, that’s who they want, that’s fine.
"It always breaks my heart, though."
[Image: Flickr user Ismar Badzic]