Cleveland casting director extraordinaire: Meet Lillian Pyles

February 14, 2023

CLEVELAND — Lillian Pyles has had a more than 40-year career casting films with some of Hollywood’s biggest names. But her journey and what she’s seen along the way, is just as interesting from behind the camera.

Born and raised in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood, Pyles got her start in the industry when she moved to New York City in her early twenties. She graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology before taking her first job in the film industry.

“I started out in New York. My best friend was a production coordinator. He hired me as his assistant,” she recalled. “So I learned this job on the job training.”

Pyles worked in film and TV in New York for more than twenty years, but in 1995, Cleveland came calling when Pyles realized she wanted to return home and live closer to family. She didn’t have to worry about keeping up her growing career for long.

“[My parents] were getting older, and I met a woman who was casting a TV movie and needed someone to cast extras. So I took the job. She gave me an office and about five interns, and like they say, the rest is history.”

Her resume grew quickly. Over the years, she was hired to help cast productions from top players in the industry – from Francis Ford Coppola to the Russo brothers, but for her, one experience stands above the rest.

“In New York, I worked with Spike Lee, I worked with Mario Van Peebles. I worked with Gordon Parks, but in Cleveland, Antoine Fisher came here and they hired me to cast the local cast and to work with Denzel was a pleasure.”

Pyles still remembers how that project was a particularly touching experience.

“The last day of shooting, we’re all walking back to our prospective cars and trailers, and [Denzel] taps me on the shoulder and says ‘Come with me. I want to show you what you did.’ And we go to his trailer, me and my assistant, and he shows me the end scene when the twins [in the movie,] open the door and all the seniors are sitting at the table and we’re watching that scene. And I look over at him and he’s welling up,” she said.

The twins cast in that scene were members of Pyles’ church.

Through her decades working in production, Pyles has seen the industry evolve.

“Now we have a big indie market. We have a tremendous group of people who do shorts, who shoot with their phones, and they’re beginning to show their creativity because that’s all Hollywood is. It’s somebody created it,” she said. “I get people to ask me all the time, how do I become a casting director? If you are lucky enough to learn the business the way I did, then I suggest that. The great thing about it is when you’re in that theater and you are watching that movie and you see your name on that screen, [there’s] nothing better than that.”