Arts & Culture

Casting Director Thea Washington Wants Baltimore to Have its Close-Up

Washington—whose colleagues have been impressed by her devotion to the city—has contributed her talents to shows such as 'We Own This City' and 'The Bachelorette.'
The future is bright for casting director Thea Washington. —Photography by Tyrone Syranno Wilkens

Thea Washington looks like a boss.

She’s on location at the Copper Canyon Grill in Arundel Mills, where a production crew is shooting a commercial the restaurant will use for recruiting and promotion purposes. An attractive group of people mill about—mixed of race, mostly in their late 20s and 30s. Several have arrived with wardrobe bags slung over their shoulders, as Washington advised everyone to bring clothing options. There is an anticipatory buzz in the air.

In truth, the 37-year-old Washington doesn’t need to be here. As a casting director, her part of the production is already complete. But she likes to make sure everything runs smoothly and provide a familiar face to her actors, many of whom she’s worked with before. So she sits with them in a side room, where the cast and crew mingle, talk about past gigs, and nosh on Dunkin’ doughnuts and coffee as they wait to be called to set.

But despite the fact that she’s just there for moral support, actors look to her to lead. They want suggestions on wardrobe. (In a former life, Washington was a stylist.) They want to know what the vibe of the shoot will be like (well-heeled young professionals having the time of their lives). One actor asks Washington if there’s time for her to run to the bathroom. (Washington looks around, sees no one else to ask, and authoritatively says yes.) A young production assistant realizes that Washington is the one who did background casting for We Own This City and who hosts Instagram live videos where she gives tips on breaking into the industry, and gets excited.

“Now that I know who you are, I’m fangirling!” she gushes.

It’s hard to explain, but Washington has that indescribable it factor. It’s partly her big smile, her cool-girl sense of style (today she’s dressed in a blue blazer with gold buttons and skin-tight leggings, with oversized sunglasses propped on her head), her “I’m in charge”
swagger. Whatever it is, she stands out in the crowd.

On a day like today, her life as “Thea Washington, casting director” might seem preordained, but it took a long time to get here—and she’s just getting started.

Washington never liked to sit still. She was born in Baltimore and raised by her single mother, who worked in the music industry as a marketing rep for labels like Motown, RCA, and EMI. “I was exposed to a lot,” she says. She’s sitting in her postage-stamp-sized office in Federal Hill, the walls of which are festooned with self-help slogans (“When You Love What You Have, You Have Everything You Need,” “Be Kind,” “Hustle”). She’s wearing a brown straw hat, large hoop earrings, and a chunky necklace.

“I have pictures of me with Janet Jackson when I was, like, six backstage,” she says. “I always knew that I wanted to do something in the industry. Kind of like how people whose parents are dentists, they think, ‘I’m going to grow up and be the best dentist ever!’”

She and her mom moved to New York for a bit and then came back to East Baltimore in 1996, where she attended Friends School of Baltimore for middle school. As one of the few Black students, she felt othered. “Friends is a great school, but I felt invisible,” she says.

So she asked her mom if she could transfer to City College. “That was a culture shock,” she says. “They had Black kids of every different type of clique—Black kids that are goth, ones that are fabulous and dress fly, athletes.” She had a great time. Such a great time that she was “invited to leave” (her euphemism for getting expelled for cutting class).

That led to a brief time at Southside Academy of Environmental Sciences in Cherry Hill. She didn’t fit in. “Cherry Hill is a very tight-knit community. They don’t like outsiders. In the beginning they didn’t like me. I was kinda proper and prim and talked like a Friends School person. But now it’s like, I love them so much. It’s like my second home.”

After spending sophomore year at Southside Academy, she transferred back to City College, but her time at Southside was formative. She came to realize that she could fit in anywhere, as long as she truly respected and loved the people she surrounded herself with.

Washington was one of those kids who was in a hurry to grow up. She rattles off the jobs she held as a teen: “I worked at Micah’s Soul Food restaurant when I was 13. I worked at Target. I worked at the Mondawmin Mall. Then at No Limit Communications at 14. I lied about my age to [my boss] and said I was 16.”

That trend continued at Hampton University in Virginia, where she was hired as a college marketing rep for Sony. “I was able to put up posters at record stores. Pass out CDs, meet the artists, pick them up. I have pictures with John Legend riding in the backseat of my car. I got to go backstage to all the concerts, get my friends in, do the listening parties. We weren’t called influencers back then, we were called tastemakers. I loved it so much.”

After college, it was more of the same: She briefly worked for her mother’s gospel label. That was followed by a stint with BET, then one with a concert promoter. She even tried a “normal” job with the City of Baltimore, working as a jury clerk. She made a PowerPoint presentation about how they should utilize social media more to communicate with and track down jurors. Her ideas were rejected. She left shortly after that. (She proudly notes that they began using social media just a few years after she left.)

For five years, she worked in the beauty industry, repping Black hair products at trade shows across the country. Along the way, other Black women entrusted her to do challenging work, empowered her to succeed, and gave her the confidence to branch out on her own. So she did.

First, she started an online thrift store called Thrift Society. That led to her becoming a stylist for one of those true crime reenactment shows on the Reelz network in D.C. When the casting director quit, she quickly offered, “I’ll do it!” “That was my film school. I learned everything,” she says. “The budget was so low. Sometimes I had to hire a crew. Sometimes I had to do makeup and hold the boom. I have pictures of me doing four things on set at one time.”




It was her friend and mentor, the costume supervisor Kim Chewning, who told her to pick a lane. Be a stylist. Be a casting director. If you do both, you’ll never fully be one or the other. She chose casting. Partly because she loved the work. Partly because she thought it would give her more time to raise her son, Bruce-Wayne—yes, like Batman—who is now 7. (Although she is not married to Bruce-Wayne’s super-hero-loving father, he is very involved in his son’s life. Washington was recently engaged to Beau Kershaw, co-owner of Storyfarm, a Baltimore video agency.)

“I was really glad she picked casting,” says Chewning. “It’s a better fit for her full personality and the love she has for people and for her city, for Baltimore.”

In 2017, Thea Washington Casting was born. She uses all the skills she had developed over the years to excel at her job. For one, she uses social media as a professional tool, just like she once encouraged the Baltimore jury system to do. That means putting out casting notices on Instagram, holding Instagram lives with acting coaches and industry insiders, doing online tutorials for budding actors. It also means using social media to make sure people really look like their headshots.

“I look at the tagged photos,” she says. “Not the ones you posted yourself—because that’s not what you really look like. I’m something of an internet sleuth.”

And she uses an online portal for casting directors where people can upload photos, résumés, and audition clips. She says the image of a casting director sitting inscrutably behind a long table and judging a live audition is somewhat antiquated. Most of her casting is done online. The rest is done through word of mouth, social media, trolling gyms, calling a friend of a friend of a friend. Her contact list, a veritable who’s who of Baltimore from all walks of life, is legendary.

“She can fit in all circles,” says Chewning. “From the highest politician to the person on the street to everyone in between.”

At this point, Washington has cast a little bit of everything: commercials, government contracts, university videos for Harvard and Yale. One of her biggest avenues for success has been reality TV. Remember Eric Bigger, the Baltimore guy who made it to Top 3 in Rachel Lindsay’s season of The Bachelorette? That was Washington’s get. Although it took a while to click with that show.

“I learned really quickly that a 10 in Baltimore is not a 10 in LA,” she cracks. “I would say, ‘This person is amazing. They have a great career. A great personality. That certain je ne sais quoi.’ And they’re like, ‘What does their body look like? What do their teeth look like? Do they have a six-pack or no?’”

When she found out that David Simon’s We Own This City was going to be shot in Baltimore, she hoped that it would be the thing that would catapult her onto the casting A-list. Instead, she was hired to do background casting (in partnership with Grant Wilfley Casting in New York), hiring extras instead of stars. At first, she was inconsolable. “I was crushed. I cried like somebody died,” she says. But she quickly turned it around. After all, doing background casting meant she could offer jobs to real people in Baltimore. All those folks who were constantly stopping her on the street and asking for work? She could now provide it for them.

“I was able to give thousands of people jobs and, for some of them, it was the best day of their life,” she says. “It allowed them to join the union, or spark a career, or it just let them pay something off. I was able to be of more service by doing background.”

Her colleagues have been impressed by her devotion to Baltimore.

“She has a real need to try to elevate people from Baltimore City,” says celebrated local scribe D. Watkins, who was a writer on We Own This City. “She’s one of those people who can bridge that gap between the community and a big production. A lot of people don’t really know that when any big company comes to Baltimore to make a film, they’ll bring in extras from all over—from Canada, from LA. That can take away from the local feel. When I tell you that Thea’s Rolodex is crazy. She knows easily over a thousand people who wanted to be part of a David Simon project.”

“It’s just rude to come here and tell our story but not hire us,” concurs Washington. “Fly all these LA people in? You have to show respect to the land.”

And that’s perhaps one of the many reasons why We Own This City ran into very few hurdles during production. Obviously, the subject matter—the notorious Gun Trace Task Force—was delicate and they were shooting in the very neighborhoods where some of the victims of the corrupt squad lived. But with Washington and Watkins on board, the community knew they weren’t going to be exploited.

“They felt protected. They felt safe. They felt invested,” says Washington.

Which brings us to Washington’s biggest get on We Own This City—a lead actor, not a background one: the rapper Young Moose. It was Watkins’ idea to include Young Moose’s story in the series. His constant victimization by the Gun Trace Task Force’s Daniel Hersl (played by Josh Charles in the series) had derailed a promising rap career and landed him in jail.

“Moose has to play Moose,” Washington told Watkins. “I know,” Watkins agreed.




From there, Washington whipped into action. “Moose changes his number a lot,” she says. “I had to go through Instagram, call him through the video chat. Sometimes I had to get a friend to call his mom to get him to call me. I was like, ‘Look, you have to play yourself. This is your moment. You’re not messing this up.’”

When the time came to shoot the series, she picked Young Moose up, brought him to the set, and drove him home. She made sure he was there on time. And as an actor he was a natural, impressing the crew so much they didn’t believe he was a novice.

“They didn’t realize he was playing himself,” says Watkins. “Thea saw that vision and now it’s a piece of history.” Which is why Watkins says he’ll work with Washington anytime. He has sold some TV shows of his own—one of which takes place in Baltimore.

“When it’s greenlit, Thea is going to be at the front,” he says. “She’s going to be the main casting director when I step into that EP showrunner position. She’s going to be my person to make sure it’s as authentic as possible and that makes me extremely happy.”

And Washington says that, although she could probably get more work in New York, Chicago, or LA, she’s not going anywhere.

“I’m very passionate about bringing more locals and especially people of color into the film industry,” she says.

Which means she’ll be staying in Baltimore—like a boss.