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First State Native Becomes Blockbuster Casting Agent

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Paul Schnee recalls auditioning “about 75 actresses” for the lead in the gritty 2010 movie “Winter’s Bone.” “It was important to get the right person for the role,” says Schnee. “She was going to be in every scene of the movie.”

He picked the right person: Jennifer Lawrence. Playing teenager Ree Dolly, whose family will be evicted from their Ozark home unless she can find her missing father, Lawrence, then 20, gave a riveting performance in her first major role and earned an Academy Award nomination for lead actress. She lost that Oscar to Natalie Portman, but two years later she would win for “Silver Linings Playbook.” (In 2013, she was nominated but did not win for her supporting role in “American Hustle.”) 

Since then, of course, Lawrence has gone on to super-stardom, largely through her roles in “The Hunger Games” and X-Men films. “I’m sure she doesn’t have to audition anymore,” says Schnee. The low-budget “Winter’s Bone” remains Schnee’s favorite movie among the scores he has worked on. 

“It was a very rare animal in that the money was all in place, so we could cast anyone we wanted,” says Schnee. “A byproduct was that it made Jennifer famous, but it was a movie that didn’t need stars.”

At the time of “Winter’s Bone,” Schnee had been a casting director for only six years and had formed Barden/Schnee Casting with Kerry Barden just two years prior. Both partners work on each picture, with one taking the lead. Schnee has cast such major movies as “The Help,” “August: Osage County,” “Pitch Perfect,” “Prisoners,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” and “Love and Mercy,” the recent biopic about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.

Schnee came to his profession by a rather roundabout route. He grew up in North Wilmington—Surrey Park—with an older brother and younger sister. His father, Carl, a Wilmington lawyer, was active in the Democratic Party and served as U.S. attorney for a brief period under President Bill Clinton. Paul attended Friends School from eighth through 12th grades and played bass guitar in the school’s jazz band. He also participated in what he calls “an informal drama club” at Friends.

After graduation, he enrolled at Kenyon, a small liberal arts college in Gambier, Ohio. Majoring in English and drama, he got his first exposure to professional theater after his freshman year as a summer counselor at the Dorsett Playhouse in Vermont. He followed that with a summer at the Berkshire Theater Festival in Massachusetts.

Though he had won the Paul Newman (Kenyon class of 1949) acting award, Schnee says, “I never really considered acting as a vocation, and I had no clue what I wanted to do after graduation.”

He wound up in New York, where he got into the agent-training program at mega-agency International Creative Management. He spent the first couple of weeks working in the mailroom before a serendipitous maternity leave opened a spot as assistant to an agent. Schnee was promoted to the position, then moved to become assistant to agency head Sam Cohn, one of the most powerful agents of the 1970s and ’80s. 

Next he scored a three-year gig as a production assistant with renowned director Mike Nichols, where he got an insider’s look at what it takes to create a movie. Though he enjoyed the experience and learned a ton, he became convinced that film work was not for him.  “I was a little intimidated by something that was not steady, not knowing where the next job was going to be,” he says.


Photograph by Xanthe Elbrick
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Delaware native Paul Schnee has cast actors such as Jennifer Lawrence.  â€‹

Schnee on the set of “Regarding Henry.”

Always a voracious reader, Schnee landed a job in publishing, spending 12 years as an editor at Random House, Simon & Schuster, and the magazine Brill’s Content. Publishing, he says, “was something that was a combination of creative and a steady ‘real’ job.” 

Then Brill’s folded, and he found himself interning again, this time at Hopkins Smith & Barden Casting. He quickly rose to casting assistant and began working closely with Kerry Barden. When HS&B dissolved, the two men formed Barden/Schnee. With offices in New York and Los Angeles, they are among the leading casting agents in both the motion picture and television industries.

Schnee, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two young daughters, is a special favorite of Debra Granik, who directed “Winter’s Bone.” “He is our go-to guy,” says Granik, winner of several awards at the Sundance Film Festival. “He introduces new blood. He doesn’t just draw from one list or one acting pattern. He and Kerry share that trait. They are so what American film needs.”

Granik cites Schnee’s personality as a key to his success. “Because he’s such a congenial human being, he attracts a really wonderful staff. And that’s probably what makes most of the actors who come through his doors comfortable and able to excel at their auditions.” Casting “Winter’s Bone,” she says, was “the most enjoyable part” of making it. 

The 49-year-old Schnee describes his job as “the HR department of the film.” “I tell actors that you not only need to be a good actor, you need to be someone that I can comfortably recommend to the powers that be. In addition to a good or great actor, producers and directors want someone who is nice to be around,” he says.

“Remember, you’ll spend a ton of time on a set waiting. They want someone who shows up on time for costume fittings or makeup or whatever. This is a pretty small world I operate in, and actors shouldn’t underestimate just how small it is, which is also why I always tell actors to be nice to everyone they meet, from my office to the people on a set.

“You never know if someone just out of film school or college who is a low-level assistant today is going to be a big deal in a year or five, or 10. So why not just be a decent person to everyone? In fact, there are actors—not a lot, but enough—whom I will try not to audition if I can help it, because they’re a pain in the ass. Even really talented actors who aren’t such great people—life is just too short. You need to be Marlon Brando or something like that to justify being a jerk to anyone, I think.”

In addition to casting films, Schnee has been directing New York theater productions, including Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour.” Despite his busy schedule, he made time for the family vacation in Dewey Beach at the end of August.

His next project—“Sisters,” with Amy Poehler and Tina Fey—is set for release Christmas Day.   

 

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