Casting Director Tracy “Twinkie” Byrd on Sparkle, Jordin Sparks & Success

From music videos to major films, the New York casting director has always had an eye for future stars

Sparks and Byrd are all smiles

You’re well known for introducing new actors to the screen. What is it that you look for in new talent?

Well, a lot of these actors just seem new to people because most people aren’t paying attention to smaller roles. These actors are out there honing their craft with short films or acting school and a lot of them just need to be re-energized. I look for people doing commercials, theatre, working on TV, and I watch them grow… But my prayer is that they know what to do with the opportunities they get and that they are truly the humble spirits I met in that casting room. And I’ve worked with some great actors—it rocked me to my soul when Laz Alonso thanked me on international TV when he accepted the NAACP Award [2012 outstanding actor]. His words didn’t come from a piece of paper or a list; they came from the heart. That’s who he is and I was so thankful to be a part of that.

You also launched the career of Jamal Woolard as the Notorious B.I.G. in 2009’s Notorious biopic. Was this film more difficult to cast due to Biggie’s popularity and the fact that so many of the other characters are still alive?

It was challenging because I had to make the studio understand how important it was to be authentic—this film had to have Brooklyn buzz. The studio was sincerely open to understanding and allowing us to do what needed to be done. Jamal had never been an actor, but he was a rapper and so he understood the role. Naturi Naughton [who played Lil’ Kim] had done a little Broadway singing and sang with the group 3LW, but there was nothing to show how good she was as an actress. She understood the cadence and tone of Kim. Jamal and Naturi were willing to take the time, and take notes, and implement those notes. When you have a movie filled with all of those loved people, you want to do them justice. That can be a challenge, but I’m from Brooklyn, man! If Brooklyn didn’t love it; it was a wrap.

Jordin Sparks is making her acting debut in the upcoming film Sparkle thanks to you as well. How did you choose her for this role?

She’s a beautiful and effortless singer. Her life is similar to her character’s in that she’s an innocent person who is raised very well. I auditioned many hundreds of actresses for this role and Jordin was no different. She pulled off the arch where you find your own strength and blossom and grow into yourself. She got all of the nuances of the character. She came in prepared. She didn’t come in with celebrity, or entourage, or foolishness. She came for the job. It wasn’t given to her; she took it.

Sparkle is also Whitney Houston’s final acting role, were you ever hesitant about casting her?

No, she was amazing in The Body Guard and everyone deserves a second chance. She had a passion for the film—she owned the rights to it and was a producer; but she didn’t have to be in it. We all thought it would be brilliant for her to be in it, though. I’m so thankful it happened.

What has been your favorite project to work on?

All of them. That’s like choosing a favorite child [laughs]. I choose each for different reasons: Stomp the Yard spoke so much to my background in dance, plus, I went to a historically Black college, too. Notorious was special because I’ve worked with Mary J. Blige, Puffy, and Lil’ Kim for their music videos. The ones that come to me are the ones I’m perfect for.

Can you tell us about the next upcoming project?

Yes! Being Mary Jane [formerly Single Black Female] is a Gabrielle Union one-hour drama on BET and it’s a story about a woman doing wonderfully in her career…but then she looks up and realizes that her personal life isn’t where it should be. That speaks to me, too—my career is doing everything but I’m not married and have no children… and, once again, my life informs my art [laughs]. I’m excited about this, though—it’s written by Mara Brock Akil [Cougartown, Girlfriends] and directed by Salim Akil [The Game, Soul Food]. It’s really a great story; a fabulous story.

Is it coincidental that your personal history seems to be traced by the projects you work on?

I look for things that speak to me. I bring something unique to each project because I’ve lived them all in some way. Fig [HBO short film festival winner] spoke to my work with The HerShe Group, which deals with girls in foster care. I have that experience working with them, then across my desk comes a script about a child looking for a better life and I was able to draw on experiences with HerShe. That’s what allows me to bring more.

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