Think about the experience of sitting and watching a movie. What is it about that big, wonderful image that connects with you? If you’re a diehard film nerd the answer might be the film’s cinematography or its use of music.
But for most audiences, chances are it’s the actors. They’re the ones we identify with, root against and lust after. But as much as their agents and managers might want you to believe otherwise, actors don’t appear onscreen by accident.
Enter the Casting Director. One of the most important—and unsung—positions on any film crew, the Casting Director is the person responsible for assembling the actors tasked with translating the script’s character descriptions and dialogue into flesh-and-blood.
The Casting Director’s role was the subject of Film Independent’s recent “Meet the Casting Directors” panel held February 9 at the Film Independent offices in Los Angeles.
The panel was moderated by veteran casting director Matthew Lessall, former Director of Feature Film Casting at 20th Century Fox, and featured an all-star panel including:
Kerry Barden, whose credits include Boys Don’t Cry, American Psycho, Bad Boys 2, Pineapple Express and Spotlight, among dozens of others.
Angela Demo, who was featured in Vanity Fair’s “5 Casting Directors Who Deserve Oscars” and whose credits include The Spectacular Now and this year’s Film Independent Spirit Award nominated The End of The Tour.
Julie Hutchinson, who served as 20th Century Fox’s Vice President of Feature Casting (2002-2014) and Senior Vice President of Casting at Universal Pictures. Her recent credits include Underworld 5 and The Boy.
And Julia Kim, whose credits include the recent Sundance 2016 premiere Spa Night and Sean Baker’s Starlet, for which she won the Robert Altman Award for Casting Director at the 2013 Spirit Awards.
The discussion (which included a lengthy audience Q&A and reception mixer) touched on many aspects of the job, including:
THE PERILS OF THE OFFER-ONLY ACTOR
For most actors, auditioning is an accepted part of the job. Spending long hours in traffic and in dingy waiting rooms surrounded by other hopefuls eager to take your part are as much a part of the job as saying lines in front of a camera.
But there are some actors who are “offer-only”, meaning that he or she will only consider a role if its offered outright—no auditions, no camera tests and no check to see if the actor has any chemistry with their co-stars.
Obviously Tom Cruise isn’t going to take time to read sides for your web series. But sometimes, the offer-only mentality can infect performers who only perceive themselves as A-list.
“There are some people you just know are offer-only,” explained Hutchinson, adding, “It’s frustrating when you’re working with actors nobody has ever heard of and they say [they’re] offer only—what?!”
But Demo hastened to add that generally if the script is strong enough, smart actors are willing to audition, regardless of career level, citing her experience with the gritty docu-drama The Stanford Prison Experiment as an example.
“You would not believe the caliber of actors coming through the door,” Demo said of the films (Stanford, for example, eventually featured up-and-comers Tye Sheridan and Ezra Miller, among others), “It was clear that the passion for the project was there.”
COLOR-BLIND CASTING IS REAL
During the evening’s Q&A, the panel was asked about their approach to diversity—namely, how and when to push for a more diverse cast when the script itself doesn’t bother to specify a character’s race or gender.
This kind of color- and gender-blind casting is infrequent, but occurs with more regularity than ever before. In fact, nontraditional casting has frequently made Hollywood history—Alien’s Ripley was originally written as a man, and few of Will Smith’s early roles were conceived with an African American actor in mind.
Kim, herself a Korean-American with deep ties to the Korean acting community, said, “I always try. Really, it’s such a small part of the day just to see if it will work.”
Demo added, “I would bring in a woman [to audition for a male role]. It’s exciting to see what you can do.”
“One of our jobs is putting together a mosaic of different faces,” said Hutchinson. “It makes it interesting to watch.”
But Kim was careful to stress that injecting diversity into movie can be a balancing act. In Spa Night, she was strict about representing the film’s Korean-American milieu accurately, declining to consider other non-Korean Asian actors for Korean roles.
BIG STARS VS. REALITY
Casting a big star in your movie can be a surefire route to getting that all-important greenlight. But unless you’re a major studio, securing the talents of name actors to topline your indie movie can be unrealistic.
“It’s a challenge to do anything, but if the expectation is that we can only get this done with one of the top five people in town who get offered everything, then I have to manage expectation,” said Barden.
“It’s not just the Johnny Depps,” said Kim. “It’s the Dane DeHaans. He may play bit parts in studio movies, but he’s on his way and he’s got a stack of scripts.”
Using the example, Demo stressed the importance of remaining flexible when considering other actors: “It’s great to have Dane DeHaan as a prototype, but let’s see who else is out there.”
Lessall asked how the panel knew if the group of actors they put together would be star-studded enough to satisfy the film’s director and producers, to which Demo admitted, “You want some people that the audience knows so that they see the film, but it’s a balancing act.”
“It’s a fine dance between art and commerce,” said Hutchinson. “Sometimes you have to make concessions. You just hope that you don’t have to compromise too much.”
DIRECTORS, AUDITIONS AND STARTING FROM SQUARE ONE
Lessall asked if, in the panel’s experience, their directors enjoyed being part of the audition process. Kim answered, “Yes, I work with lots of writer/directors who love hearing their words come to life.”
Barden, who has worked extensively with Mary Harron, explained that the American Psycho director “uses auditions as a tool to see what works and what doesn’t,” adding that during the process of casting 2005’s The Notorious Bettie Page, Harron “cut entire scenes [that weren’t] working. By the time we got to set there were scenes that were 100% different.”
Lessall also asked the panel if it was more fun to cast a film from scratch or spin a film’s cast out from one or two key attachments.
“It’s fun to start from square one,” said Barden. “On Winter’s Bone we didn’t have anyone cast. We cast Jennifer Lawrence first and built out from there,” he said of the actor’s star-making turn in the 2010 film.
Barden added, “When you see who the first person [who signs on] is, you sort of know what you’re going to get,” stressing that often, the first piece of the puzzle to fall into place will often dictate the caliber of talent signing on to the project moving forward.
“Pitch Perfect is the perfect example of starting from scratch,” said Hutchinson. “Anna [Kendrick] came in and auditioned with her ‘Cups’ song, and Rebel [Wilson] was always the director’s thought.”
Wrapping up, the panel agreed that the community of Casting Directors is a tight-knit one and that camaraderie—rather than competition—is what drives the process of placing the right actors in the right roles.
“We’re a family,” said Hutchinson of herself and her peers. “We’re all in it together.”
Matt Warren / Film Independent Digital Content Manager