Writing characters and casting them are two of the most enjoyable parts of the filmmaking process. Bringing people to life on the page and then seeing them manifest in front of you in the casting room is really quite thrilling.
Regardless of the type of script I am writing or the length or the genre, I believe in writing characters big, very big. My husband thinks, quite often in fact, that they might be a little too big, but I prefer to begin that way and whittle them down if needed, rather than pad them out in rehearsal, or on set, or heaven forbid in the edit!
If you’re anything like me, the characters you see in your mind as you write are so perfected by the process and your imagination that you cannot see the piece on film without being able to fully realize them in the flesh, or more precisely, during casting.
While I have been lucky enough, almost always, to have been able to either find my cast through the wide net of online casting and casting services, or through writing characters for actors I already know in mind (take note actors, this happens an awful lot…so be nice to writers!). This is not always possible, and I have, from time to time, had to either change my mind about the character completely, or cast an actor in the hopes that they can stretch into the role.
This has worked to varying results…
Of course most of the time this only happens if you are facing a deadline, and even if you don’t have studio executives breathing down your neck, unless you give yourself some kind of deadline for casting, you’re buggered.
Why? Well, if you have five characters in your film and you have found four of them and are still desperately searching for the perfect fifth, you could risk losing one, or all of the four.
You could lose them to other work, leaving town, holidays, loss of interest, conflicting work, the sudden onset of a flesh eating virus, the possibilities are endless. If they are as wonderful an actor as you think they are, the biggest danger is that they get cast in something else…that pays…
I think the point I maybe staggering towards is that you have to maintain an open mind in some way, because luck is not always with you, even when relying on the best and most perfect actor you find, or know. The casting room is not the set, and what happens in the former cannot always be repeated in the later.
I want an actor to show up to an audition like he’s joining a circus, or some cataclysmic disaster has occurred, we are alone on the planet and its life and death. Too dramatic? Well, I am a storyteller… In short, I want them to be open, to be fearless and to be prepared for anything!
In costume I hear you ask? Well, not always, but the odd scarf or stick or balaclava wouldn’t come amiss. I don’t think an actor needs to wear something just to make them memorable however, whatever their agent might tell them, dangly pineapple earrings can distract from a great read for a serious role, male or female, but if it’s directly connected to the character in some way, and you can get it through the door without a struggle, then why not!
Honestly, casting is a bit of a mine field…
There are a few general rules that I have discovered over the years and films that you might find helpful. I don’t usually work in bullet points, but there’s a first time for everything! Maybe I should make that one of the rules?
Don’t cast too early
If you do then it will be all the more likely that you will get work conflicts at some point, usually last minute. An actor will keep auditioning, even after you have cast them in the role, who knows how many projects that get cast actually make it to the shoot date, so they could get an offer to work on something that pays or is a bigger role. Even though they have committed to you, their loyalty lies with themselves and their career, quite rightly. Because of this, generally actors won’t want to commit too far ahead, they don’t want to run into this possibility any more than you do. So casting two weeks to a month ahead of the shoot date is ideal, a week or even a few days is not unheard of by any means.
It is essential to have a shoot date when you cast.
It is your film, you can always be flexible on the actual date you film, and trying to get everyone, cast and crew, organized is complicated to say the least. The chances are you will probably be shooting on a weekend, so you also need to give your actors time to get their shifts covered, or find someone to walk their dog…
You don’t want to sound like a complete pillock when they inevitably ask you when it is shooting and you say “soon”. It doesn’t inspire confidence in you or the project, and in LA, whatever level or budget you are shooting at, confidence is everything.
Stick with your vision.
Even if you are running this project entirely by yourself, you will want someone with you during casting, if only to make you look more professional. That someone could be the DP, or a producer, or even one of the actors you have already cast or written a role for. I am sure they would love to see what it’s like on the dark side, so to speak. But whoever or whatever you have with you, don’t let them influence your vision, or confuse you. Advice is one thing, but too much can dilute your ideas, change the perspective of the story and just get up your nose.
Make rules in the casting room.
No one speaks but me is usually a good one. Or, do not speak unless spoken to, which doesn’t work for my kids, but can in the more cut throat arena that is the casting room. Audition first, chat later is also a rather good one and a time saver. This is not true for everyone of course, I know some people who prefer it the other way around. Usually I only want to chat to actors who are contenders for the role, so anyone who isn’t would just get a “great, thank you for coming”. Don’t feel like that is being brutal, you are saving their time as well as your own.
Timing really is everything
Always try and stagger the auditions, but not by too much, 15 minutes is fine. Most actors will be early and if someone is late you can switch times and still give the late actor who got stuck in traffic or couldn’t find parking a chance to read, any longer than that and you will be waiting around….not fun.
Look for actors.
This might seem an obvious one, but put aside age, race, even sex and really look for an actor. My favorite actors often inspire me as a writer to be brave in the script and they can inspire that same emotion in me as a director even, or most especially, in an audition, and it’s welcomed. Inspiration is always welcomed.
Say thank you and always give everyone a chance to read. Even if they don’t look the part, they may either change your mind, or you can keep them in mind for another project or another role.
Always ask for head shots and keep them. Being organized like this has saved me on numerous occasions when, at the last minute, and in nail biting desperation at 2am the day before the shoot, I needed an actor for a role. I have every head shot any one has ever given me filed and catalogued, and I have many, many times been grateful to be able to draw upon them. Also, actors spend a lot of money on these, and they deserve to be kept and used as they were intended. Online only works so far, I don’t want to go trolling through websites etc waiting for inspiration, I want a hard copy of their most recent head shot that actually looks like the person I met so I can make that connection in my elderly, clouded mind, full of hundreds of actors I have seen and imagine I have seen and the rest of my junk not remotely related to the project at hand. Note to actors….please, please, please have head shots that look like you, do not over retouch them, or have you hair ‘done’ so that you cannot replicate it when you audition. You don’t want the first thing out of your mouth to be an apology for your headshot which is about the only thing you have control of, apart from your performance. I cannot tell you how many auditions I have held where this is the running theme…you must have head shots with you, they must be recent and they must look like you and not be taken by your 5 year old or someone who has the equivalent experience and capabilities.
Having said all of the above, casting is fun! Most of my casting experiences have been wonderful, especially when you get your dream cast of course! I am a writer, director, producer who loves actors. Not such a rare occurrence, although you may imagine otherwise. I enjoy a collaborative filmmaking process, so whoever I cast I have to enjoy being around, which is what puzzles me when actors audition like you owe them something or treat the other actors with disdain, or are rude to the person in the reception area, who, lets face it, could be anyone regardless of the films budget. I have dismissed actors even before they audition because my assistant came in to give me some information on who was next and told me some actor was complaining about the wait or was rude to her. I saw them of course, but I would never hire anyone who did that…what a twit they must be at the very least!
But that aside, casting is an exciting process for the filmmaker, because it makes what you are about to do, make a film, real. Once you put that notice up on Actors Access, or Facebook, or Craigslist or wherever, you are declaring to the world that, “ yes, I am making a film.”