It was called “The All New Mickey Mouse Club,” but a better title might have been Tomorrowland.
During its 1989-96 run, the Disney Channel variety series delivered a major peek into Hollywood’s future. Few could predict that its stable of kids—including Ryan Gosling, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Keri Russell and Britney Spears—would morph into Oscar-caliber actors, Grammy-winning singers and celebrity heavyweights.
What made an innocuous kids show such a magic kingdom for talent? Who better to ask than the casting director who discovered them all?
“I was always looking for kids that were average and green, with exceptional talent,” Matt Casella says from his home in Sherman Oaks, Calif. “If I wanted polish, I’d have done the casting in L.A. These were ones that kids could relate to.”
To ensure the children weren’t too wet behind their Mouse ears, then-Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg instituted “a throwback to the old Hollywood system,” Casella adds. “They went to singing class, acting class, dance class, they learned to read cue cards, they did music videos. They even learned to deal with the press.”
After screening more than 100,000 kids in North America, Casella concluded auditions in Orlando, site of Disney-MGM’s theme park. How competitive were tryouts? Consider those rejected: Kirsten Dunst, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Ryan Phillippe, Jessica Simpson, Brittany Murphy, Joey Fatone, Donald Faison and Nick Carter.
Despite one of the savviest casting jobs in TV history, the former New York theater director says, “People don’t know that I’m alive. I haven’t done a lot of press, so anyone can pop up and take credit.”
Casella refused to participate in E!‘s recent “True Hollywood Story,” so the documentary snubbed him, he says, by never mentioning his name. “They used stock footage of five people around a table with kids’ resumes, which never happened. It happened in hotel rooms with me and my video camera.”
As a Disney subcontractor, Casella—whose credits include “Rain Man” and “Spanglish”—never cashed in on his casting coup, but he said he believes his reams of audition footage have great value.
While the 1950s “MMC” introduced Annette Funicello and the 1970s offered Molly Ringwald and Lisa Whelchel, why did the `90s version produce so many stars?
“If one kid from the show made it, they’d say it was great. If two made it, that was really great. Three, four or five? Either there was something in the water, or the guy who cast them knew what he was doing,” Casella says with a laugh. “I’m incredibly proud of them all.”
`90S-ERA MOUSKETEER BIOS:
Mousketeer moment: “Her mom drove eight hours to our open call in Atlanta in 1990, and they waited seven hours to get into the room. The singing and dancing from this 8-year-old was mind blowing. It was like meeting Shirley Temple or Judy Garland. She sang “Shine on Harvest Moon,” “Cry” and “Sweet Georgia Brown.” ... Lynn called me (for advice), so I hooked her up with one of the best agents in New York. To this day, she says, `Too bad you didn’t get a finder’s fee!’”
Grown-up highlight: 2004 Grammy for best dance song
Turning Disney in his grave: French-kissing Madonna. Or pick a day from 2007.
Mousketeer moment: “Justin was just 11 in Nashville ... normally it’s hard to get boys to sing, but he sang `When a Man Loves a Woman’ and hit every note. His mom, Lynn, did an awesome job. She said, `Justin just got back from “Star Search” and didn’t even get past the first round.’ The irony is that if he would have won, he wouldn’t have auditioned for me. Even then, he had a white light over him.”
Grown-up highlight: Won four Grammys
Turning Disney in his grave: You can bet Snow White would have remained clothed with him at the Super Bowl.
Mousketeer moment: “I met her in Pittsburgh. She and Britney were too young to (hire), they were 10. So I kept in touch `til they were old enough, in 1992. Christina was like Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Whitney (Houston) wrapped into one voice.”
Grown-up highlight: Won four Grammys
Turning Disney in his grave: Brilliantly played a transvestite Samantha on “Saturday Night Live’s” parody of “Sex and the City.”
Mousketeer moment: “I found Ryan in Montreal. His singing and dancing were good, but just talking to Ryan, he was such a nice kid. I had him do a comedy scene, and his timing was perfect. It’s ironic, since he’s known as a great indie actor. He has `it,’ that special something.”
Grown-up highlight: Oscar nominee for “Half Nelson”
Turning Disney in his grave: In “Lars and the Real Girl,” he romances a doll. (Now, about that rated-R version of “Pinocchio and Gepetto”... )
Mousketeer moment: “I found J.C. in D.C. He was crashing the audition with a friend. He was called J.C. because there was already a Josh on the show. During a break, I asked, `Do you sing?’ So I cleared the room and he sang Richard Marx’s `Right Here Waiting.’ It was incredible.”
Grown-up highlight: `N Sync sells millions of records.
Turning Disney in his grave: Dated Eva Longoria. Even dead guys are jealous.
Mousketeer moment: “Keri couldn’t sing a note, but she was a dancer on the level of whoever did Jennifer Beals’ dancing in `Flashdance.’ I found her in Denver. The camera loved her, so I said nobody will care that she doesn’t sing, because every girl is going to want to be her. Keri oozed that quality. Now she’s making a nice niche in indie films.”
Grown-up highlight: Golden Globe for “Felicity”
Turning Disney in his grave: Walt would never have let Cinderella cut off her hair like Russell did.