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Former Disney Stars are Making 'Mickey' Proud

Courtesy of

   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 said 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 said, "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 said with a laugh. "I'm incredibly proud of them all." 


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ŠThe Voice 2007
01/13/2008 03:13:41 PM —