Once the principal cast members were in place, the real challenge was to fill the classroom with musically talented kids. Producer Scott Rudin, director Richard Linklater, casting director Ilene Starger and music supervisor Randall Poster all shared the same thoughts about authenticity.
“We cast children who could actually play these instruments and sing,” explains Starger, who saw several thousand children in cities that included New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Seattle throughout the five-month casting process.
“In the end, we struck a great balance, mostly choosing kids who are not the classic Hollywood actors,” says Poster. “All of them have a fresh sweetness about them, and each definitely brings something special to the film.”
Two members of the “School of Rock” band, 11-year-old classical guitarist Rebecca Brown (bass player Katie) and 12-year-old classical pianist Robert Tsai (keyboard player Lawrence), were found through “From the Top,” a Public Radio International program featuring performances from young classical musicians. “From the Top,” which originates from WGBH Boston, provides information, entertainment and education for pre-college-age musicians, their parents and teachers, and Rebecca and Robert were real finds.
Joey Gaydos Jr., who portrays Zack, the lead guitarist, is a resident of Belleville, Michigan. Now 12, he began playing the guitar at eight, and started his own band in Michigan. He was found through Dayjams, a summer program that provides the opportunity for kids between the ages of nine and 15 to study guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and vocals.
Founded by the National Guitar Workshop (NGW), Dayjams is the nation’s largest summer music program.
Kevin Clark who portrays Freddy, the rebellious drummer, was discovered at an open casting call in Chicago. He started playing drums with local community bands at the age of three, at which time he would wander up on stage and break into a drum solo to standing ovations. He began formal percussion lessons in fifth grade and has been drumming ever since.
“Many of the kids in our cast had never auditioned before, let alone been in a movie,” says casting director Ilene Starger. “In fact, one of the great things about this project was watching their progress.”
For example, 10-year-old Maryam Hassan, who plays shy Tomika, had appeared only in school plays, but when she heard about an open call in New York through the Internet, she and her mother drove into the city from Long Island for the auditions. Maryam belted out her version of Jennifer Holliday’s solo from “Dreamgirls” and the role was hers.
Being a musician/singer himself, Jack Black recognized the talent in his costars immediately. “These kids were amazing musicians from the start and they took direction really well,” says Black. “I mean, the performances Rick Linklater drew from them were really something.”
Because auditions took place in more than 10 U.S. and Canadian cities, the cast of talented kids came from diverse locations, but soon after gathering in Manhattan to begin working on the film, they became a tight-knit unit. From veterans Angelo Massagli (Frankie, head of band security), who plays Bobby Jr. in “The Sopranos,” and Aleisha Allen (Alicia, the backup singer), who appeared in “The Best Man” and “Finding Forrester,” to newcomers Maryam Hassan (Tomika) and Robert Tsai (Lawrence), who had never stepped foot on a movie set in their lives, all the kids quickly adapted to their busy schedules of practicing the music, filming and regulated classroom time. In the end, they became so comfortable with performing that, during the final weeks of filming, two young cast members, Joey Gaydos Jr. and Kevin Clark, actually appeared at a local club with their teacher, Amanda Kaupousouz, a talented Irish fiddler.