March 07, 2019 

By Lapacazo Sandoval 

Contributing Writer 


Legend is described as “an extremely famous person” and using that definition casting director Robi Reed fits that description completely.  Now serving as BET’s V.P. of Talent and Casting for Original Programming, Reed earned an Emmy Award for Outstanding Casting in a Drama  (1997) for her work on HBO’s “The Tuskegee Airmen.” She received a second Emmy nomination in 1998 for her work in casting HBO’s “Don King: Only in America”; and a third nomination in 1999 for HBO’s “A Lesson Before Dying.”


But her footprint in the industry, the very first that walked her toward her current legendary status began in the early years, working in the creative trenches with Oscar nominee, filmmaker Spike Lee, and costume designer and Oscar nominee, Ruth E. Carter.  Fact, her gift, to find exceptional (and then) unknown talent for Spike Lee's now, legendary films earned her a spot inside his ”A" team.


“I’m grateful to have started my career with Spike,” shared Reed. “Spike called us the A team which consisted of Ruth E. Carter costume designer, myself, casting, Wynn Thomas production designer, Ernest Dickerson, cinematographer, Monty Ross, co-producer and Barry Alexander Brown who still edits with him.”



Perhaps some people not familiar with how the industry works might think that casting is an easy job but that's simply not the case. Casting is an art form and make no mistake, Reed is an artist vibrating at an incredibly high frequency.  Much like a sculptor who can see an image in a block of unformed marble,  Reed describes the process of discovering new talent to "finding diamonds in the rough" and like a skilled jeweler,  her keen eye has been able to identify and help bring some of the industries, very best actors from obscurity to fame, and in some cases, to occupy the 'legend' status right by her side.


Some of those actors that Reed is credited to have brought to the industry and public’s attention include Halle Berry, Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, and Jamie Foxx, just to name a few. 


In helping to bring back the kinetic energy of the 1970s in the new BET series “American Soul” her role as V.P. of Talent and Casting for Original Programming proved most artistically satisfying because it allowed her to do, what she loves the best and that’s finding new talent.  Another interesting twist which adds to Reed’s legacy is the fact, that as a teenager, growing up in Los Angeles, she danced for four years on Soul Train, despite being underage, with her father acting as the chaperone. 


“To be able to work on BET’s “American Soul” means so much to me because “Soul Train” was a part of my life and childhood,” Reed said.  “ How often does that happen in real life?” she added. “ Life imitates art and visa versa, but to really have had an experience like that in history is something that is now, legendary and to now be able to help bring it the screen in a different way is wonderful. I am grateful”


Below is an edited interview with Robi Reed, whom I caught up with, last week in New York while she was traveling with the cast of BET’s “American Soul.”


L.A. Watts Times (LAWT): Take us back. You were young when you were grooving on the set of “Soul Train”!


Robi Reed (RR): (laughing). I was very young. Underage but the creative team really liked us. It was myself and my friends so they allowed us to dance if we had a chaperone, which became my father.


LAWT: Although you were just a teenager, do you have any memory of working with the late Don Cornelius on the set of “Soul Train”?


RR: Well, what I do remember was that he was definitely a man in charge. In my head, he was always Mr. Cornelius.  He was a celebrity and you know he was about business. I never was around anything where he was mean or anything. You know. He always looked like he was focused and about getting the work done. I would see him laughing ever now and again but for the most part, he was very serious and focused.


But what I do remember fondly is Pam Brown. That is whom we interacted with and she had a brother, Ron Brown, he was the stage manager. So those two were the folks that I had the most contact with. My father became friends with the Browns you know from just being on set. We would literally be there all day Saturday and Sunday. My father really enjoyed that whole experience because he got to see all the performers of the time. It was like a mini concert.  Everybody was on Soul Train.


LAWT: What an amazing place to be and just a teen yourself. Did you know then that you wanted to be a casting director?


RR: Most definitely. I knew what I wanted to do at the age of 15 years old. I am blessed to be doing what I am doing and I am still loving it.  I feel that God has given me this talent. This has been my purpose and that purpose is finding those diamonds in the rough. 


LAWT: So walk me through the casting of BET’s “American Soul” now that I understand that you were dancing for four years on “Soul Train”? 


RR:  When it came to casting the role of Don Cornelius that actor had to be a special person that had to be able to encompass all the layers of that man.  As a casting director, you sit and you think, ‘what actors that we know that have a body of work that can pull this off. Sinqua [Walls] was the first person that I went with, literally.  At the time, I didn’t know if he was available. He was working on [BET] The Break and we didn’t know if BET was going to pick the series back up.  I never got him out of mind. His stature, his voice [there] are a lot of things about him and certainly his talent. I just feel that he’s a chameleon.  The whole show anchors on that character.


LAWT: Well, in my opinion, you got that role right.  I was also floored by actor Jason Dirden whom I know from “The Greenleafs.” 


RR: Jason.  When Jason Dirden came in to read for the role of  Gerald Aims he blew me away.   It’s funny with casting.  It’s usually the people you see at the beginning, and you go around the mulberry bush and you land right back at the beginning but it’s a process. You have to go through the process so everyone on the team can agree that these are the right choices.


LAWT: What about for the role of Tess?


RR: Yes, we went through that process with casting Ianatha [Richardson] for the role of Tessa because we needed an actress that could dance as well as she could act. And I mean classically trained and she has both. She was really a find. 


LAWT: There are two very fresh faces — very young but each very impressive. Can you guess whom I am talking about?


RR: (laughing, deeply) My babies that’s what I call them.  I am so excited about, Christopher Jefferson (“JT”) and Jelani Winston (Kendall). 


LAWT: Correct, JT and Kendall.


RR: For those two roles, we cast the net wide. Christopher [JT]  came in the office to tape and read. The first time that I met Jelani [Kendall] was in an open casting call for the BET Experience. I knew that for the role of Kendall we need a triple threat: actor, singer-dancer. I already knew that and he is that.


We ended up with all of these pieces of talent, that to me, are perfectly cast in that these are their roles.


LAWT: After all these years of slaying it in the game, do you have a philosophy?


RR: I believe that there are roles that are written for people and I believe whoever is supposed to be in the movie, this is my mantra and I say this to my producers, my directors, the network, whatever executives that I am working with the studio, the same from the beginning: ‘Whoever is supposed to be in the movie will end up in the movie. Whoever is supposed to have the role will end up with the role, no matter how it looks.’


That is my mantra. There is a saying that sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle but I like to think that with casting each of the actors we keep catching lightning in a bottle because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. And I love it and I am excited about the work.


To learn more about “American Soul,” go to:  https://www.

Category: Arts & Culture