Jason La Padura embraces ethnic and cultural diversity in his pivotal role as a top casting director. Along the way, he and his casting colleagues have brought the world previously unknown cast members of NBC’s Heroes and a little Disney Channel movie called High School Musical.
“We treat actors with respect,” says casting director Jason La Padura, of the way his company conducts casting sessions. “We respect their time as well as their talent.”
No wonder La Padura has enjoyed a casting career for more than 30 years, the last 20 of them working with his sister Natalie Hart on such shows as Crossing Jordan, Touch, Heroes, the Disney Channel’s recent musical film Descendants and the megahit High School Musical trilogy of two telefilms and a feature.
He and Hart received Emmy nominations for the original High School Musical and for the drama series American Dreams, sharing the latter with two others. The duo has also won two Artios Awards from the Casting Society of America and received a Media Access Award from the state of California for casting actors with disabilities.
In September, the siblings welcomed longtime associate Kendra Patterson as a partner, relaunching their company as La Padura/Hart/Patterson Casting. Their current projects include NBC’s Heroes Reborn, a reboot of the 2006-2010 fantasy drama about people with extraordinary powers and Code Black, a CBS drama set in a Los Angeles hospital’s busy emergency room.
Born in New York, La Padura began his career as an actor and stage manager. He stage-managed various Broadway shows and numerous productions for Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival, and served as Michael Bennett’s assistant on A Chorus Line.
He decided to move into casting in 1982, after running into a casting director he knew. La Padura had already gained insight into actors: At Papp’s Public Theater, “Everyone shared the green room. I learned a lot about actors’ behavior, both onstage and offstage,” he says.
How is your company different from other casting companies?
We’re multigenerational. My sister is three years younger, but Kendra is 25 years younger. My approach to casting has always been inclusive. We try to paint the world as diverse as we can make it.
Our interests lie in different areas. I watch a lot of foreign films and niche-type television. Kendra is a black woman with children; she watches a lot of family-friendly programs. Natalie has a son and lives with a man who’s an artist and who works in the CGI world. They cover those areas.
And how does your quest for diversity play out when casting?
We’re really very conscious of it. On Code Black, one of the notes from my producer said, “Don’t [mentally] place your hospital in downtown Los Angeles. Place it in Culver City, where you have people from different strata converging on the same place.” We’re trying to make sure we represent what Los Angeles looks like currently.
There are more languages spoken in Los Angeles than in any other city in the country. You find people speaking not only languages, but dialects – a tribal language, a regional dialect. For Touch, we needed four or five people who all spoke the same tribal language in South Africa. Kendra and I spent a week interviewing. We were able to piece it together.
Do you watch your shows when they air?
I try to watch them live. What I like to see is the context. I like to watch the commercials – I like to see what audience they’re getting, what else they are promoting on our show. How the marketing changes – if they start it one way and then shift.
In Heroes Reborn they had embedded commercials for Cadillac. That’s a luxury brand. You can figure out who the audience is. It’s important that you watch the commercials. It’s part of the whole thing. If I know the network is looking for a certain kind of audience member, it might help in making a decision at some time during the [casting] process.
Where do you go to search out talent?
We go everywhere. We cover movies, watch a lot of different types of television, go to the theater, listen to trusted agents and managers, go to workshops, go to graduate school presentations.
I don’t personally go to YouTube and Vine, but we have explored a lot from the Internet. When we were doing Descendants, I was sent a kid who had two-and-a-half million Instagram followers. He came in and couldn’t act. His manager had gotten him a major agent; he’s going to school, and they’re trying to groom him.
You have to explore anything. You never know when you’re going to find the next person. Just because they’re on the Internet doesn’t mean that they aren’t any good.
For High School Musical, Zac Efron turned out to be “the next person”.
We had cast Zac two years previously, in [one of] Aaron Spelling’s last television show[s], Summerland. They wanted a boyfriend for Kay Panabaker’s character. He came in, and after he left, I remember saying, “I love that kid! He’s terrific.” He was approved, and they liked him so much he became recurring and then a series regular the second year.
When High School Musical came along, Natalie and I said, “Zac would be perfect for this.” [Later,] the [then-] Disney Channel vice president in charge of movies, Gary Marsh, called and said, “I think we have the perfect cast for our movie.” Wow. That was a nice call to get. It was wonderful to be a part of that.
Does being a former stage manager help you as a casting director?
Stage managing gave me great organization skills. I know what has to be done now, and what can wait till this afternoon or tomorrow.
When we’re starting a project, I’m the one who keeps the master calendar. Also, casting is in the details – this actress isn’t available till when. And it helps in running a casting session: How much time does this scene read? How much time do you need of this actor?
You don’t want a waiting room filled with actors. They get anxious, angry, bring something into the room that shouldn’t be there. If I’m running within 15 minutes, everyone’s fine.
And having been a stage manager really helps in understanding an actor’s process.
You’ve been a Television Academy member for more than 30 years. What does that mean to you?
I love being an Academy member. I go to a lot of events. I love being a voter. I take it very seriously – I only vote in categories where I’ve really watched everything.
Is there any advice you can give to actors about auditioning?
Try to think in a way where you’re making strong, original choices. When we’re casting series regulars, I’m listening to 20, 50, 100 people doing the same lines.
When I hear someone do something I haven’t heard, I think, “Wow. I’ve never heard that before.” That’s what gets you a callback and a job. Just because a line is in all capital letters and underlined, with two exclamation points, doesn’t mean it’s shouted. Try to think differently.