Audition And CastingNo director can make a film without actors.  Putting together the right cast is one of the key elements that determines the quality of a production.  For the layman, the casting process remains shrouded in mystery.  There are vague notions of starry-eyed actors entering a mysterious room, then emerging moments later, either elated or defeated, depending on how they performed.  As a director, one of your primary responsibilities during an audition is to listen and observe.  Once you have a clear understanding of the audition process, which includes assessing the actor’s performance and deciding who to hire, you’ll be armed to choose a cast that suits your creative needs.

Actor’s Performance – The ‘read,’ as it’s commonly known in Industry parlance, takes place when an actor is invited to a casting session to read portions of a script that involve the character he hopes to play.  Your job as a director is to make the actor feel comfortable when he arrives to read.  You should ask if he has any questions regarding the role or the ‘sides,’ the small section of the script from which he will read.  Refrain from attempting to provide any direction to the actor so that you won’t influence the skills or tone he or she brings to the read.  Directing an actor’s performance may also dissuade him from bringing something new or improvised to the role that you never expected.

Once the actor is ready, he will read the part.  Casting associates, a producer or some other member of your crew will read the other role or roles in the scene.  The first read is critical because it can determine if you’ve heard enough to let the actor leave, or if you want another read to gauge the performance at a deeper level.  Every director is different, but in general, you’re listening for emotion, authority, clarity of language and confidence.  Take your time, so that you can measure the read and all its nuances.  Don’t be alarmed if you experience a certain dissonance between what you imagined the character to be and what the actor is bringing to the table.

If you’re unsure about the read or you found the performance lacking in one area, let the actor read again, and this time give specific direction to shape the second read.  However, make sure you don’t give the actor a ‘line read,’ which is when you tell them exactly how you want dialogue spoken.  Give the actor a tonal suggestion or provide additional background as to what the character may be feeling before the scene began, then allow the next read.  If you like what the actor does, you can shape the scene further for a third read.  If you’re not impressed or don’t feel anything changed, then the second read may be sufficient for you to make your determination on the actor’s ability.

Above all, don’t fall into the trap of becoming euphoric if the first read is terrific, because a number of actors are brilliant at reading in a casting session, but can’t replicate or sustain the performance when the camera is rolling.  Conversely, some actors aren’t skilled at casting reads, but are terrific in front of the camera, and prove to be adept at taking direction when it counts.  If you hire an actor whose read was fantastic, you run the risk of being stuck with a performance that has no depth, in which each take is the same as the one before with no variation or improvement.

Casting Decision – Now that you’ve undergone the process of listening to actors read the material, you have to decide who to hire for your film.  In most cases, the decision begins the moment the actor exits the session and you start discussing the performance with your associates in casting.  Key questions to ask include the actor’s background, prior work history and personal comportment.  If you’ve retained a good casting department, they’ll have extensive information on the actor, or they will know where to obtain the information you need.

Another consideration is balance.  There’s a delicate, high-wire act that occurs on most movie sets involving how well the actors play off each other.  As a director, you have to cast your film in such a way that disparate personalities and acting styles will mesh.  Keeping all these elements in mind can drive you crazy, especially after hours spent listening to actors who may have sullied or destroyed your conception of what the cast would sound like.  At this point, holding on to some idealized version of your ‘dream cast’ can be counterproductive to the task at hand.  You must let go of perfection, and adapt to the talent that is available for your film.  Don’t lose your dream, just let it sit in a corner of your mind while you open yourself to the new possibilities that an actor may bring to each role.  Hearing a line of dialogue spoken in a way you didn’t think possible, or watching an actor mine an unseen aspect of the character can be a wonderful experience.

Part of the decision-making process involves a fair amount of disagreement.  Your producer will have strong ideas that may not align with yours.  You may reject many of the actors that came in to read, which will trigger a negative reaction from your producer.  Stick to your guns as much as is reasonable, being mindful that compromise is likely around the corner.  You’re not going to be able to cast every role in the exact way you envisioned; that isn’t realistic.  After much discussion, you, your producer and the casting department will make an initial list of the actors you’d like to hire for your film.  Not every name is one that makes you jump for joy, but at the very least, every name on the list is someone from whom you believe you can elicit a decent performance.

Once you approve this list, the producer will go off to contact the actor’s representatives to inquire about making a deal.  This process rarely goes smoothly. Some of the common issues include, scheduling conflicts with another film or an actor who wants more money than is in the budget.  In some instances, you’ll have to take an actor off your list and replace him with another actor.  Depending on the size of the role, this could require another casting session.

One of the comforts of casting established actors is you’re assured that they can handle the role.  But if you’re working with less-experienced actors or complete unknowns, prepare for anxiety and stress in the weeks leading up to the first shooting day.  Perhaps you can ease your mind by thinking about a statement attributed to Rudolph Serkin, a renowned Brahms concerto pianist.  At the age of 75, he admitted that he still experienced stage fright, and that he wouldn’t put much stock in any performer who wasn’t nervous before a show.  Confidence is a prerequisite of any good director, but certainty in all things is dangerous.  Doubts and fears are conquered through frequent discussions with your producer and casting department.  If you find your enthusiasm for the project wavering, revisit the positive notes you made during the casting sessions.  You can also alleviate worry by meeting privately with an actor that you’re not sure about, just to talk over the role and see if you can get on the same page.  If a deal hasn’t been signed, you still have time to make a casting change, though you have to be clever about replacing an actor.  If a deal is in place, it’s much more difficult to initiate a change.

Casting Ramifications – The proper cast is critical to the success or failure of your film.  The right cast can do much of the directing work for you, because a well-chosen group of actors will express the vision of your film to the audience.  The right cast will elicit new emotions and depths from the characters that you never imagined.  The right cast can sell even the darkest and most difficult to believe element in your film.

Audiences tend to invest in characters they like and for whom they have a rooting interest.  Your choice of a cast doesn’t just influence how the audience sees your character; it permeates every aspect of the world that you’re trying to create on screen.  Actors don’t just read lines or inhabit characters; they help establish the reality or fantasy of whatever world they move through in the film.  A skilled actor cast in a period piece can make the audience forget the present, transporting them back to the days of old.

Often, a creatively cast film is one that goes against type.  The leading man is short and pudgy and not a matinee idol, and the gum-smacking girl with a loud voice and brash laugh is Harvard-educated.  Innovative casting can also involve placing something incongruous in a setting, such as a New York native working on an Iowa farm, or a devout Amish man, living in Sin City, aka Las Vegas.

When it comes to casting, physicality is important.  Matching the height of a star-crossed couple can increase the audience’s yearning for them to be together because of the illusion that they’re made for each other.  The manner in which an actor moves is another key casting consideration.  For example, a trained dancer’s walk will be different from a boxer’s walk, signaling realism for each character’s background.

Conversely, a poorly-cast film can destroy any chance you have of making a hit.  Think of some of your favorite films, and imagine another actor in the lead role or in another crucial role.  Consider how differently you would view that film if an actor of lesser ability played that part.  In the Golden Age of Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s, movie studios amassed a number of actors under contract, and plugged them into as many films as possible regardless of whether or not the actor fit the role.  Many actors in those days were known as ‘contract players,’ and studio heads eager for a return on their investment valued volume of work far more than a performer’s suitability for a role.

Though many beautiful women and handsome men filled the casting sheets in those days, few of the films featured innovative or imaginative casts that branded a movie as an original.  That distinction was left to foreign films, especially those made in Europe.  American films would experience a renaissance in well-cast films during the 1970s, when a new generation of avant-garde, l’enfant terribles directors tore down the foundations of conventional cinema to build a more personal legacy of film that featured some of the most imaginative casting in movie history.