There are 42 muscles in the human face. For Leeba Zakharov, a casting associate and director with the award-winning company Avy Kaufman Casting, studying those muscles and how actors use them to convey emotion is all in a day’s work.
A New York native who grew up on the Lower East Side and studied business and theater at an all-girls school, Zakharov’s fascination with film began when she was still a student. While working as a production assistant during a summer break, she became enamored with filmmaking and quickly decided to ditch the ad executive career path she’d mapped out for one in entertainment instead. “I loved the collaborative effort everyone puts in to make a movie happen,” says Zakharov, who took various jobs at Miramax and Focus Features after graduation before ending up in casting.
Her current role is just as hectic as one would imagine, and it requires far more than peering at headshots and holding casting calls. From having the foresight to visualize actors in scenes to meeting with directors, making business deals and coordinating schedules, no two days in the office are ever alike. She’d rather collaborate than work on a project alone, and she is quick to champion a talent for a role if needed—something she’s had to do on several occasions.
Zakharov’s work on Life of Pi, where she assisted casting extraordinaire Avy Kaufman on filling the title role, involved combing through more than 3,000 video submissions to find the virtually unknown actor Suraj Sharma. “Life of Pi was a beautiful, spiritual journey,” she says. “It was all about finding that one boy that could be in the boat with the tiger and the water for so long.”
Working on Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln proved to be just as challenging, but for different reasons. “For a film like Lincoln, you look at a lot of good faces that fit that time period,” Zakharov says. “You’re also looking at New York theater actors that may not be so recognizable on television, but they just do great work on the stage.” Such actors include Michael Stuhlbarg, who played the U.S. Representative from Kentucky, George Helm Yeaman.
While she’s mum on her upcoming projects (“I don’t want to jinx it!”), Zakharov is taking everything in stride. “My goal is just to keep working with talented people,” she says, humbly adding, “I’m very blessed that way.”