Northampton native Sherry Thomas makes her mark in television Wins Emmy nomination for casting of hit show “Breaking Bad”

Last modified: Monday, August 04, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — When she was growing up in Florence, Sherry Thomas thought she might like to live in California when she was older. A longtime dancer who was part of the annual musicals at Northampton High School, she had some dreams about a career as an actor or dancer. But she was also moved by a basic desire to try her hand in the big city.

Some 25 years later, Thomas, 45, who lives in Los Angeles, has realized her goals, though they’ve gone in a different direction than she first imagined. She’s built herself a career as an in-demand casting director for television, working in recent years with her business partner, Sharon Bialy, to select the actors for cable shows such as “Walking Dead,” “Under the Dome,” and the AMC Network’s “Breaking Bad.”

The latter program, which has been widely acclaimed by critics, winning a slew of awards over the last five years, has also thrust Thomas into the spotlight. She, Bialy and a third woman, Kiira Arai, have just been nominated for a 2014 Emmy Award for their casting of “Breaking Bad,” which completed its fifth and final season last fall.

In a phone call from Los Angeles — “I’m sitting in traffic, which you do a lot of here,” she said with a laugh — Thomas said she’s thrilled to get the nomination, particularly since it’s the first time the casting decisions for the award-winning program have been recognized.

“I love what I do, and it feels really good to be recognized for that work,” she said. Casting directors “have a skill ... we see hundreds of actors, and we have a sense of who’s going to be right for a role, who could make a difference for a show. We’re an important part of the process” for a successful program.

Thomas, a 1987 graduate of Northampton High School, has worked in the industry since her mid-20s, helping select actors for TV shows, movies and plays. She’s lived in Southern California for over 20 years, ever since she decided at age 22 to take the plunge and move to Los Angeles to try to break into Hollywood as an actress.

She’d been to Los Angeles just once before, when she and a few girlfriends went there for a brief vacation as high school seniors “to work on our tans for the prom,” she said. But she liked what she saw — so five years later, she put a modest amount of possessions into a small car “with vinyl seating and no air conditioning” and drove cross-country with a friend in summer. She had a couple hundred dollars in her pocket and a place in L.A. where she could crash on someone’s couch for a while.

Today, Thomas is well-settled in the Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles; she’s married, and she and her husband, Kyle, have two young daughters, Andi and Ryan. But as a new transplant to the area in the early 1990s, she was pretty much on her own.

“I didn’t have any friends there, no one I knew well,” said Thomas, who had lined up a retail job in California before moving. “But I just felt like I needed to do this, and do it now ... I think it’s important to dream big.”

Big dreams pay off

What Thomas did have was a good work ethic. She and her sister, Zina, lost their mother, Diane, when Thomas was 13. After she graduated from Northampton High in 1987, Thomas went to Holyoke Community College for a couple of semesters but then got a job at a GAP store in the Holyoke Mall, eventually becoming the store manager.

“I wanted to work,” she said. “I thought that was really important at the time.” She says her father, Gary, a nursing supervisor at the former Northampton State Hospital, “worked his ass off for us ... he taught us it was important to work hard for what you wanted, that you have to do it yourself.”

But ultimately, what Thomas wanted was to take a shot at the entertainment industry, so she arranged through her supervisor in Holyoke to transfer to a GAP store in Los Angeles. Once she’d settled into her new home, she began going to auditions for movies and TV shows, and the interactions she had with the casting crews “really kind of got my attention. I could feel the energy in the casting office, a sense of urgency that I liked.”

Her auditions didn’t lead to any acting roles, but Thomas began making some connections that led to other jobs. She did volunteer fundraising for The Pediatric Aids Foundation, for which the actor Christian Slater was part of the effort, directing a play whose proceeds would go to the group. Thomas, who with other volunteers telephoned film and TV industry people to ask for donations, did so from the office of Mary Jo Slater, Christian Slater’s mother and a veteran casting director herself.

In addition to meeting Mary Jo Slater, Thomas met another longtime casting director, Victoria Burrows, who worked in the same office suite. Soon, Thomas had landed a part-time internship with Burrows, who most recently handled the casting for “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.”

“She took me under her wing and showed me the importance of the casting director,” said Thomas. “I owe a lot to her ... she saw some potential in me.”

Burrows eventually recommended Thomas for her first paying job in the industry, working as an assistant to the location casting director — the person charged with hiring extras for movie and TV sets — for the 1997 movie “Contact,” starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. When that job ended, Thomas, with encouragement from Burrows, began applying for other positions, and she landed one on the set of “Home Improvement,” the 1990s TV show starring Tim Allen.

Following that, Thomas met Sharon Bialy, who hired her for her casting business and then made her a partner several years later. They’ve worked together about 15 years, says Thomas, “and it’s been both a great partnership and a great friendship.”

TV hound

Thomas jokes that she’s been a good fit for a TV casting job because she was a bit of a tube addict when she was growing up. “I was a TV kid. I watched way too much of it and got yelled at as a result.”

On a more serious note, she says working as a casting director — auditioning and talking with myriad actors in different settings — has led her to look for a range of different qualities and to “think outside the box” in recommending someone for a role.

Case in point: Thomas and Bialy auditioned Bryan Cranston, the actor hired to play Walter White, the central character of “Breaking Bad,” for an Aaron Sorkin play, “The Farnsworth Invention.” Thomas says she remembered Cranston primarily for his role playing a goofball dad in the TV show “Malcolm in the Middle” and was astonished with his interpretation of Sorkin’s script.

So when Thomas and Bialy were hired to do the casting for “Breaking Bad” and had an initial meeting with the show’s writer/creator, Vince Gilligan, Thomas recalls saying “You might think this is crazy, but what about Bryan Cranston for Walter White?” The character has been called one of the darkest and most complex in TV history — a high school chemistry teacher who, facing terminal cancer, becomes a methamphetamine manufacturer and dealer to build a nest egg for his family.

As it turned out, Gilligan had been thinking of Cranston for the role, too, because Cranston had starred in some episodes of TV’s “The X-Files” that Gillgan had written. “It was a meeting of the minds,” said Thomas.

Not that casting decisions always go so smoothly with the producers of TV shows and movies. But Thomas said she and Bialy are willing to fight hard for their choices: “I’m very opinionated. I’m not a quiet girl.”

Yet given the success of “Breaking Bad,” the Bialy/Thomas stock would seem to be pretty high. The partners are now doing auditions for a spinoff of “Breaking Bad,” called “Better Call Saul,” that will be based on one of the characters from the first show. And last January, Cranston gave a shout-out to the pair when the “Breaking Bad” cast received a SAG Award for TV drama ensemble: “Our casting directors, terrific job,” he said before thanking anyone else.

Thomas says she’s grateful for that kind of acknowledgment of her role — and she’s also grateful for growing up in Northampton, which she still thinks of as home. She remains close to her sister, who runs a hair salon, HairSpace, in Easthampton, and her father and stepmother, Ann, who live in Greenfield. She also stays in touch with friends through social media, email and occasional visits back East.

“I am so proud of where I came from,” she said in a follow-up email. “I always say it with gusto when someone asks me and it’s because of the people. My best friend has been my best friend since I was 3 years old ... I believe every person I have had in my life has had an impact on where I am now.”