Unusual Casting – and why it can save your film…

“Casting is storytelling”…Joss Weadon

We are all in the end, tragically…or maybe not, at the mercy of our actors.

When you are working with no money you may imagine that you should hold to the ‘realistic’ ethos of just “taking whatever you can get.” But that, my friends, is a critical and potentially disastrous mistake.

And people make it over and over again.

It’s a very fine line to walk when casting your movie, or rather several very fine lines.

You must be true to the vision of your characters and the story they will tell.

You must be realistic and not expect Benedict Cumberbatch to wait patiently in the lobby for the possibility of an audition with you…well not at this stage in your career anyway.

You must be aware that you may, given your budget, be auditioning actors who may not have that much experience on screen and therefore in the auditioning room. If you are lucky you might get many theatre actors, looking for screen time. Actors who audition for stage work usually audition with their own well rehearsed pieces or monologues and not four lines of ambiguous shouting you emailed them the night before, so be understanding. And most importantly, this is something I always do and it’s really important, so pay attention, take a moment to scan their resumes when they hand you their headshot…lots of hidden gems may be there for you to work with, to help draw them out of their terrified shells and to support them in giving you something that you absolutely want – the perfect actor for the role.

And here is the big one for me. Cast bravely and uniquely and memorably, across type, gender, race, physical ability, language, and never, ever, ever cast safely.

I cannot tell you how many times I have seen this happen, and even have been guilty of it myself. If you have a small film, short and sweet, or short and salty or short and scary…whatever… you will not do it justice at all by casting safe, good, reliable, attractive, twenty somethings.

You know the films that you remember? The Good The Bad and The Ugly…with ugly in it….Reservoir dogs…Jaws…Mad Max…The French Connection…Alien…good grief even Ghostbusters, or Fargo, or Pricilla Queen of the Desert and I could go on and on. None of these films, these crazy, dirty, wonderful, gorgeous films had anyone who could remotely be referred to as beautiful in them. Or fit, or handsome or tall even.

If you want people to watch, if you want your film to stand out, your little, not many people are going to see it film, you must CAST BOLDLY…

Some of my most treasured films are the ones where I made bold or unpopular choices in the casting. I have cast people with unusual physical characteristics, disabilities, against gender and age perceptions and with such thick accents that, for some at least, it is hard to understand them, and they are present in the film with no explanation of their background, no ‘reason’ why. Because that is how the world is, a wild mixture of people with cultures gorgeously reflected in the faces of our neighbors. All of us unique and powerful and far from cookie cutter.

The right actor can elevate your work to levels you had never dreamed of, and the right actor could be anyone, any shape, any form. Do not be the fool who limits themselves by pandering to the studio executive in your head.

Our culture is so ridiculously misrepresented in the media and although it is changing, more Black actors, and Asian actors etc., and even, heaven forbid, more non traditional (whatever the heck that means), female actors, it is the ‘lives richly drawn’ that attracts me the most. That always shows on the face, in the eyes, the movements, the physical echos and definitely in the personality of an actor.

I am working on a new and very ambitious project for next year, a Sci-fi feature film that I will write and direct myself and shoot for very little money. I will cast beyond the Hollywood norm, filling every frame with the people-riches of the world, with faces and lives that not only reflect who we are as a planet, but who we are endeavoring to become.

Can you imagine how amazing it would be to cast Gary Busey in your film, as the Dad, or the cop or the priest for instance? Do you think it would be easy? Probably not, but boy would you have an audience. Every other actor would rise up to meet his crazy and brilliant talent. Your little film could actually get seen, get shown, and be something other than you had ever imagined it to be.

Okay, it might crash and burn. But if we are being honest, that could happen anyway, with or without an actor who is, to put it politely, unpredictable. But the gamble is worth it. What you get onscreen from these actors with difficult lives, or histories or huge personalities is a presence that often you can’t find anywhere else. They fill the screen. Their thoughts mirrored in their eyes, translating your words into powerful moments and memorable relationships and vivid interpretations.

What we all want in the end is to be seen.

Our films, our stories, our lives. Film is the ultimate ‘seeing’ machine. The stories we tell are important, because they are our stories, but that’s never enough. You need someone to help you tell them that can captivate, mesmerize and stand out from ever deepening ocean of content. Interesting and some might say even ‘risky’ casting can make all the difference in the battle for an audience.

To ‘be seen’ you must take chances, be interesting, push limits and gather those artists around you that have the ability to do the same. Not by trying to be, but by actually, truly ‘being’ all these things that you can imagine, and some things that without their unique and inspiring contributions you never, ever could.

You may make your producer pull their hair out and give them and probably you a few sleepless nights, but the results will be so rewarding, the film you make so beautiful and honest and real that you will have no regrets and every reason to cast again and again these abstract, challenging and brilliant actors with a universe within their bodies and a lifetime of experience in their faces.

Samantha Simmonds-Ronceros
Author: Samantha Simmonds-Ronceros

Samantha Simmonds-Ronceros is a Theatre and Food Writer and Filmmaker living in Los Angeles.