There are several parts to the casting process. Putting out a cattle call is probably not for you on your first film. You don't really know what you'll get. You're better off identifying your principal actors in a more focused way. Sure, if you have a big budget you can go to an agent and bid for specific actors. But for low-budget films, casting can be a hit-or-miss affair, and it's usually collaborative. By that, I mean you need an actor for cheap, and they need exposure. They'll be evaluating your property—at least smart actors will—to see if it can be a vehicle for them.
But you don't want it to be hit or miss. This is your opportunity, and you want quality all the way.
You could, if you had a decent budget, hire a good casting director. Casting is an art and a science. It involves psychology and it can be delicate. It takes skill. Casting directors understand actors and know how to look past the slick photos and credits to the human beneath. That's important because every good actor uses who they are to interpret their character. A good casting director also interacts with the actor in readings. They will give them various bits of direction to see how the individual handles it.
But you don't have a decent budget, so you have to be your own casting director. If you take the job seriously, you can do it well. But it will take some preparation. You need to know what you're looking for in a performer, and how to elicit it. As a casting director you need to be an actor's director, one who has empathy and can reach inside an actor and help bring out their best. There is one very important advantage to doing your own casting: control with insight. One thing that will help is if you can muster confidence without arrogance.
Directing is what film making is all about. The director has a vision that is not imposed upon the actors, but is shared with them. The actor wants a lot of things—but mostly to be a good actor. Good actors want to give you what you need. Good directors are able to form a symbiotic relationship with each actor so that the final performance is a collaboration. During casting, your job is to find out if such a relationship is possible. At this stage of the game, we're not even thinking about all the technical responsibilities the director has. Too many “directors” spend little time thinking about the actors and most of their time concerned about the technical aspects of their job. That's poor form.
The Basics of Casting Your Film
There are a few key categories to consider when casting. There is overlap, but this breakdown can be helpful:
Celebrities. Sure, it would be cool to cast a well-known and well-loved actor. It will bring investors, credibility and fans to your project, and the actor will probably bring experience that you will learn from. But at least on my first film, I would avoid celebrities. Casting one has many inherent problems, not the least of which is your ability to direct them. How confident will you be in insisting that they do it your way, fitting the story and the project, rather than their way, which fits only their perception of their part. Symbiosis can be difficult to achieve with a star. If you're good, you can establish a rapport and help them. But I've also seen veteran actors give crap performances with a bad director. Also, you will find that celebrities are protected in many ways by their agents and lawyers, so it's unlikely that you will attract a celebrity the first time out. There are ways to do it, but we'll save that for another time. As producer and director on this low-budget film, you need to be the guy in charge.
Faces. There are hundreds of out-of-work faces—people we all recognize even though we don't know their names. Older actors who still like to dabble may be available, and they often bring a certain amount of respectability to your project. I'm thinking of some of the stars of past sitcoms and sci-fi TV series. Other familiar faces are usually supporting actors in TV series or movies. Faces work for a living, and it can be a tough business, with a long time between jobs. Several of my friends have had great success finding faces and getting them involved in their project. It can be a win-win. I recommend that you make some effort to find a face or two, or even more, to attach to your project. You can do this by offering them a great script, a role that will allow them to stretch beyond their stereotype, and, best of all, a competent director that they can relate to. More later on how to find faces.
Local Colorado actors Gary and Meredith Daniel on-stage at the Glenwood Vaudeville Revue.
Established actors. Every community has actors that are well established and talented. You'll find them in local clubs and at community theaters. Here in my corner of the Colorado Rockies, we have the Glenwood Vaudeville Revue, full of excellent actors. You can often find them online in local searches, but usually they're not hard to discover.
Emerging talent. There is a vast pool of fine new acting talent out there. Nobody knows their names. Most have played extras or small speaking parts, so we may have seen their faces but are unlikely to remember them. They have support groups where they gather and can be discovered via showcases, public readings, and YouTube reels. These are usually young people who are finding their legs in acting and might jump at a chance to act in a film so they can put it on their reel.
The Pre-Casting Process
Be active. Good actors often put on showcases. Go to them because they're usually well done and very entertaining. As a director, you will get an opportunity to see several actors showing their best stuff. If you're like me, you'll find bits and pieces inspiring—and you might even steal some ideas—but most important is that you make contact with those actors whom you feel you can work with and afford. Make it a win-win as cleverly as you can.
Also, drama schools often organize year-end showcases for their better students. Actors' groups do them as well. I even found some very good actors by going to readings organized by Tulis McCall at a bar in Santa Monica. In L.A. and New York, we also have something called “fringe theater” that's about as low-budget as you can get, and yet, seriously, you can see some damn fine performances. It's another great place to find your actors. Your nearest city most likely has its own kind of fringe scene. I also subscribe to several actors' newsletters. Here's a video from Tulis about a great New York resource, just for example.
An individual casting pag efor an actress at castingnetworks.com
These days, you can probably afford a professional casting service online. For example, Casting Networks Incorporated represents hundreds of fine, mostly established but often out-of-work actors. They work internationally as well. The actors pay a monthly fee for premium exposure (they do have free listings as well). You, as a casting director, create a webpage describing your project. Then you post it for free on their site, where thousands of hopefuls can see it. You will get the usual agent stuff—photos, CV, and for many, videos of performances—on those you select. Just remember that a great demo clip of an actor is really a collaborative effort. So what you see on the video may not be what you get or are capable of bringing out. But let's hope it is.
Another free and useful service that's international in scope is Spotlight: The Home of Casting. Check it out. They even have studio space that you can rent for a reasonable rate. (See the shot at right for an example.) They have a reputation and have been involved with some pretty big projects, like House of Cards, The Imitation Game and more, so they have credibility. These services often represent faces.
Here's another: Casting Frontier.
I like the idea of pre-casting, because you have an idea of what you'll be dealing with. If it's a small production, you may be able to find all your actors without an official cattle call. Those can be long and draining and often go not far. With a typical casting call, you will be astounded how many hopefuls have big hopes and little talent. But then you spot the one. He or she will stand out—that is, if you know talent when you see it. Many of us do not recognize actual talent. Again, let's hope you do.
You want to pick only a few candidates for each part. Send them a synopsis of the movie and the script section you want them to read.
Now you have the actor coming to your low-budget casting space. Don't feel bad about the space. Crappy spaces are not uncommon. It's good if you can get a backstage space or some other theatrical place. It lends credibility. So you, as director, must find a way to maintain your confidence, at least on the outside. First time out, all sides are a bit intimidated. It's your job to put everyone at ease (including yourself).
Make your actor feel wanted when he or she walks in the door. Smile, On a cold day, offer them hot cocoa. Seriously, reach inside yourself and pull out the kind, understanding and appreciative side. Do not be afraid to make them feel that you are honored by their presence. Why? Because this is not your time to establish yourself as the boss. You can do that later. This is the time for you to connect with the actor and find out who they are. You've looked at their reel, their stills, but now you find out who they really are.
During the reading, I recommend you forget about all the reasons you called in these particular actors. Use your instincts and get a feel for them. Ask for different interpretations of the character. See how they take direction. Do they get it? Are they versatile? Are they fun to work with? Do you like them? Do they look the part? You'll have an instinctive feel for these things if you pay attention.
During this series, I will refer to the excellent Nina Foch Course For Filmmakers and Actors on DVD. Nina (pictured at left) was a legendary teacher at USC who passed away in December, 2008. A loss to our community. Fortunately, George Lucas and Randal Kleiser, as a labor of love, produced this wonderful DVD set. If you want to make a movie, get it, study it and believe what she tells you. Nina demonstrates how a casting director can best get a representative performance out of an actor. Randal Kleiser told me, “Nina Foch was my mentor. Most of what I know about directing I learned from her.” Randal is the fine director of my fave hits The Blue Lagoon and Grease, among many others.
Nina advises that you have each actor do two or three reads, changing the directions each time. In one instance, she tells the actress on the third read: “Okay, now I want you to beat the shit out of him.” She explains not physically, but verbally and emotionally. The actress tries but cannot do it. Nina explains that now we know she doesn't have access to that part of herself. But she makes it perfectly clear that that actress has it in her, she just doesn't know how to access it. So if you find an otherwise perfect actor who can't show anger? As a talented director, you must have the confidence to help her bring that out, or you must cast someone else.
Don't forget YouTube. Do a search for “Actor's Showcase” “New York” 2015, substituting your location and current year, to find a ton of good actors' reels. If you want tips on how to do casting, there are lots of video resources for both actors and directors. Please, use local talent when you can.
In the end, casting is both an art and a science. You have to use feel and observation, and you need to test your subjects under different conditions to see how they do. Don't think of this as a low-priority part of filmmaking. Like most parts of the job, it is critical. By taking the time to learn the ropes here, you further your chances of becoming a successful filmmaker. And remember the final print will show a performance that is a symbiosis of both you and the actor. I'll have more on directing soon.
If you're curious why I feel qualified to present this advice, just remember that I've been been a journalist in the industry for more than two decades and I've studied, interviewed, and spent a lot of time with filmmakers worldwide. I've seen the ups and downs and watched them jump willingly into pitfalls. I've made note of which people do well and which ones do not, and why. I'm also a writer and a psychologist—two allied fields to filmmaking, believe it or not. I also vet my thoughts through successful filmmakers that I know. So take from this series what you will.