Exclusive: Casting Director Robi Reed Talks ‘Set It Off’ 20 Years Later

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Exclusive: Casting Director Robi Reed Talks ‘Set It Off’ 20 Years Later
by Wilson Morales

November 6, 2016

Back in the early 1990s, a lot of urban classics came out from that time period BUT none of those films, with the exception of Waiting To Exhale (1995) had a core group of females in lead roles.

This week marks the 20th Anniversary of the release date (Nov.6) for ‘Set It Off,’ which was directed by F. Gary Gray and starred Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, Kimberly Elise, and Blair Underwood.

Released by New Line Cinema, the film centered on four Black women in Los Angeles, California, who decide to plan and execute a bank robbery. They decide to do so for different reasons, although all four want better for themselves and their families.

On a budget of $9 million, the film took in $41M worldwide and became New Line Cinema’s highest-grossing film of 1996. More importantly the cast went on and continue to do well on the big and small screen.

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Putting together this cast was legendary casting director Robi Reed, who has worked with Spike Lee on seven of his early films (School Daze, Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, and Malcolm X among them) and also cast cult classics such Harlem Nights, Love Jones, Soul Food, and The Best Man among others.

She is currently the Vice President of Talent and Casting, Original Programming for BET and spoke with Blackfilm.com about working with F. Gary Gray when they put the cast together for Set It Off.

Was this your first project with F. Gary Gray?

Robi Reed: Interesting enough, I first met F. Gary Gray when he worked as a production assistant on a film I cast called Heatwave, which was about the L.A Riots in the 60s that starred James Earl Jones, Blair Underwood and Cicely Tyson. F. Gary Gray was Cicely Tyson’s handler. This was his second film after he did ‘Friday’ with Ice Cube.

What was the thought process in terms of casting ‘Set It Off’? Did he want veterans, newcomers?

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RR: Some years had passed between Heatwave (1990) and Set It Off and it was the studio (New Line Cinema) that brought me on to cast Set It Off. The game plan was to get the best cast. I remember talking about this great script and there was no talent attached. They knew they wanted Jada Pinkett Smith and we cast around her. She was the “It Girl” at the time and it was after ‘Menace II Society’ and ‘The Nutty Professor.’ She was poised to have her own vehicle and this was it.

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With Vivica A. Fox, I had cast her in a series called ‘Out All Night’ with Patti LaBelle. She has just done Independence Day. It had not come out yet but there was a lot of buzz around it. We auditioned everyone that were known and unknown. Most of the projects that I cast at that time was to find the best actors. They didn’t have to have a name. At one point, the studio would require a star or a pull but it felt like the material (for Set It Off) was the character.

Can you talk about bringing in Queen Latifah for the role of Cleo? She made her debut in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever but this is the film that gave her a bigger spotlight

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RR: Her music was so phenomenal and interpretive. She showed potential in the small part she had in Jungle Fever, which was her first acting job. I remember when me and Spike had gone to a concert at the Pier in New York when they were doing summer concerts there and Queen Latifah had opened for Ziggy Marley and the Wailers. That’s who we came to see. When we saw Queen Latifah, we thought she would be interesting and we brought her in. That’s how it started and when Set It Off came about, why not give her a shot and see what she does.

SET IT OFF, Jada Pinkett, Kimberly Elise, Queen Latifah, Vivica Fox, 1996

SET IT OFF, Jada Pinkett, Kimberly Elise, Queen Latifah, Vivica Fox, 1996

She came in and auditioned and she was great; but then it was the follow up phone call that came when all the producers were in my office. It must have been a casting session and I had her on speaker phone and she was telling me all the reasons why she should be Cleo. She went through this entire explanation of “I am this bitch! I know this bitch! This bitch is me!” They all heard it and Gary too. I was like, “There you go! I told you and now she’s telling you. Let’s do this” I think this role set her up like Jungle Fever did for Halle Berry, where people were going to take her seriously. That movie gave them every reason to.

The new face in the film was Kimberly Elise, who will next be seen in ‘Almost Christmas.’ How did she get the role?

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RR: This was her first job. She didn’t have a SAG card. I got her a SAG card in that movie. With everything you see her do now, she just dove, like Angela Bassett and Meryl Streep, and has that place where they go where there’s depth and she can do it no matter what the part is. She had it then and there was that quality that spit out. I saw a bunch of people for that role she was that diamond in the rough. You knew that there was something there in all her rawness. She has such a truth and honesty and depth and she brought it. The role itself wasn’t the most developed (on paper) of all the girls, but she brought life to it.

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Was Blair Underwood the first choice for the lead male?

RR: No. We met with Cuba Gooding Jr. also for that role and a host of others. At that time, in the earlier 90s, Blair had been doing primary television and still at that time, they were crossing over music actors. They were not bringing over TV actors in lead roles. The studios wanted a movie star but you couldn’t deny the presence that Blair had and brought. He’s a leading man and a great actor. I would often remind people of the role he had opposite Sean Connery in Just Cause. That was so against type and I love to point that out if ever anybody had any doubt to his ability and talent. “If you haven’t seen it, go rent the tape,” is what I would say.

How was the first table read with the leads?

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RR: Amazing. It was magical. I remember them improving in my office on Beverly Blvd and we were sitting in that little room and they were on the floor reading the scene where they are plotting that first robbery. I remember them high-fiving and clapping with each other. Each one was perfect for the role they played.

Among the supporting cast were John C. McGinley, Ella Joyce, and Chaz Lamar Shepherd, who are still working today. Chaz is actually touring in the theater production of Love Jones the Musical.

RR: Yes, Chaz played Jada’s baby brother in the film, the one that got shot by the cop. It was also the first acting job for Natalie Desselle, who is now Natalie Desselle-Reid. She later went on to do B.A.P.S. with Halle Berry and the series with Eve and a bunch of other stuff. She had the scene in the apartment with Stevie (Chaz) right before he got shot and killed. We also had Thomas Jefferson Byrd, whom I knew from a couple of Spike Lee’s films that I cast him in including Clockers.

set-it-off-cast

Over the last few years and with Moonlight, The Birth of a Nation, and Straight Outta Compton among others, we’re seeing a boatload of new talent emerge on the big screen. What do you say to aspiring actors, whether they are singers, athletes, or not, who are still looking for that big break. What should they bring to the table?

RR: I think every scene that you think you know, you don’t and to be as open and willing to learn and grasp what you can at each moment. A pure sense of curiosity and willingness to learn because there is a lot to learn if you haven’t done it before.

Making Of


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