Beth Melsky

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"Let's try that again," instructs casting director Beth Melsky as kindly as possible to the two anxious young actors sitting on folding chairs in her Manhattan studio. "And this time don't be such nervous wrecks." The advice is not meant to soothe them but rather to test a new interpretation of the storyboard for a Volkswagen spot that calls for a couple to be overly concerned about a hidden creature in the backseat. The spot, to be shot by David Kellogg, is the latest in a long line of VW spots that Melsky has cast for Arnold Worldwide, the first of which dates back to 1995. "It was very difficult because it was different from anything else we were doing at the time," she recalls of her initial job for the brand. "They wanted all the people to be very real but have a very hip feel to them." Recently, she's seen the look of the VW actor evolve again, as in the quirkier faces from the Christian Loubek-directed "Over Here" for the Beetle Turbo S, and she can tell this latest audition is not going well. The script is subtle and requires the actors to improvise. Melsky tries switching the characters, so that the woman is driving, then the man . . .

Today she's also casting two other spots and the couches outside her office are lined with hopefuls: the fresh-faced types for VW, blondes in pigtails and kerchiefs vying to become maids-a-milking for a Rite-Aid commercial, and cool urban toughs for Nike. Melsky has been in the business for 20 years and owned her own agency for 18. It was almost as if the Long Island native and onetime film student at the New School in New York was born into the commercials production business. Her father is Barney Melsky, a well-known producer and a founder of the AICP. It was the elder Melsky that, "in his quiet way," as she puts it, got her a job in casting two decades ago to thwart her plans to run off to L.A. and "do whatever, sit on the beach." Now her own influence is ubiquitous in the commercials world. "I don't know anyone in the business that hasn't worked with Beth at one time or another," observes Kaplan Thaler Group head of production Lisa Bifuco, who has worked with Melsky for 17 years. Name any major advertiser or any top director and Melsky has probably been there, done that.

Why is she so omnipresent? For one thing, she's got an eagle eye for talent, which has brought us the likes of Bud's Jersey guys (her favorite job); the chic young Cabriolet riders in VW's "Milky Way"; the moaning women with lustrous manes in Kaplan Thaler's Herbal Essence spots; and, most recently, actors Danny Saltzman and Adam Kulbersh, who star in the wry rebranding campaign for the "new" TNN, directed by Hungry Man's Bennet Miller (see p. 16). Moreover, "Beth is a walking encyclopedia," says Hungry Man's Jim Jenkins. Melsky has cast every spot he's directed in New York, including the current goofy remakes of Ben Hur and The Dirty Dozen for Turner Classic Movies. "Casting is painful when it's not just right," Jenkins explains. "But with Beth I never worry about it. For one spot we had to cast nine principal parts and she could tell me background on each actor without looking them up. She can also tell me what people are like to work with."

"She's a typical New Yorker who gets right to the point," Kaplan Thaler's Bifuco adds. "If something's not working, she'll tell you point blank, 'Maybe you should change your concept or try playing it a different way.' And the creatives have a lot of respect for her. They'll listen to her because she has an instinctual feeling for what will work.'" Melsky also tempers her candor with a flexibility that's crucial in this business. "Beth is a willow in the breeze," says Jenkins of Melsky's adaptability to last-minute script changes or client demands. "That's just my personality," Melsky says. "Let them walk away happy - to me casting is essentially understanding other people's vision."

Perhaps most important, Melsky is dogged about nailing even the most esoteric requests. Her biggest challenge of late was a Goodyear tire spot via Goodby, Silverstein that needed an African family that spoke native Klik. "Languages are always difficult," she says. Eventually she found her performers from the cast of The Lion King. "I was pretty proud," she sighs. "It took me three days of phone calls, but there's nothing I won't try to find."

So does she love doing the job that, clearly, advertising loves her for? "I wouldn't call it love," says Melsky. "I work like an animal. I'm stressed all the time, a nervous wreck every step of the way." But as she turns to take another call, it's hard to imagine her doing anything else.

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