Casting TipsCasting

The most important part of film production after writing, revising, and preparation of the script is casting. Find the appropriate cast, and you’ll likely create a great film. Alternatively, a bad cast, even with great cinematography, writing, or editing, is likely doomed. A bad cast does not necessarily mean bad actors; extraordinarily talented actors can be completely miscast, or a part may be inappropriate for an actor to play, for various reasons. In these cases, the acting will come off as wrong.

Unfortunately, major studios often cast films based on who can get a project moving at a certain time, or who carries appeal to wide audiences rather than if they are right for the part. For example, the film The Substitute (1996) stars Tom Berenger, who excellently plays a weary, scarred, middle-aged mercenary. Executives claimed, after the film’s release and favorable reception, that Berenger was their first choice.

Except that he wasn’t. And this story is typical for major studio casting, with the exception that this story, thankfully, ends well. The lead character needed to be a battle scarred, weary, middle-aged man. And the studio’s first choice was Denis Leary.

In context, it was 1995 and Leary was popular at the time, known as “hot” in some circles. Leary had just reached comedic acclaim with an HBO special as well as from well-received roles in Demolition Man (1993) and The Ref (1994). Talented as Leary is, he was far too young (and young looking) to properly fit into the role. Leary, however, turned down the studio’s offer of $1,000,000, believing he was wrong for the role. Kevin Bacon, who was also offered the role, agreed to play it, but eventually changed his mind after further consideration.

Their third choice for the film was David Caruso, who was another popular actor who had just achieved notoriety in the mid-1990s. Caruso certainly had more experience with gritty work (e.g., NYPD Blue), and he looked older and more worn out than Leary or Bacon. It suggested he had history, and a tough one at that. Aside from that, Caruso was generally known as a decent actor competent in his roles. The studio offered him twice as much as Leary, $2,000,000, but he refused the offer, largely because his two major films, Kiss of Death (1995) and Jade (1995), were considered failures – by critics and even more so by Caruso.

When Caruso refused the offer, the studio finally decided to go with Berenger. He fit the description of the character, was fairly well known, and audiences who knew his work associated him with the gritty military films he was praised in: Platoon (1986), Sniper (1993), and The Dogs of War (1981). Audiences could believe that Berenger had been where the character in The Substitute had been.

Casting Independent Films

Casting for independent films tends to be different than for major films. When producing an independent film where funding is raised, if not directly paid, by the filmmakers, casting choices are strictly up to the filmmakers. The only concern then tends to be who fits the role best, rather than who is considered a “star.” A potential issue with this process is that small budgets, as they often are for independent films, lead to mostly nonunion actors. However, using nonunion actors is often how talent is explored and discovered.

Tips for Casting: Attracting Talent

One method to attract large enough pools of talent for your film is to advertise what makes your independent or low-budget project exciting and unique. For example, an independent film’s producers advertised roles as having “transportation, meals, and slight pay provided,” and “no nudity.” In contrast, many advertisements for nonunion actors had not offered transportation, food, and offered little or no pay.

Many low-budget filmmakers expected the nonunion actors to be happy just to have work. As for no nudity, many actors feel they are asked to perform things that are demeaning or pointless when it comes to nudity. Many actors want to work (i.e., act) without being asked to do things simply to please a producer or director’s whims. The combination of transport, food, and lack of gratuitous requests showed many actors that the film was worthwhile and not a project that was just someone’s filmic whims.

After advertisements for talent come resumes and headshots. While major studios or high-budget films will have a casting director, many low-budget operations fall to the filmmakers themselves, and it can be a hard decision when a pool is selected from just resumes and headshots. With that, however, come actors who get accepted and, the next logical step for choosing the actors proper for the roles, the auditions.

Running Auditions

When running an audition, it’s a great idea to have individuals experienced as actors or directors or those who have worked on stage productions. How does one treat the actors, in the auditioning time? Unfortunately the answer to that tends to be like cattle – five minutes reading per slot. Many actors request information about the roles (e.g., motivation, history) and for some material to help them become familiar with the role. For smaller parts, some experienced directors recommend that actors come with prepared monologues. This method can be used to filter who is talented, who chose interesting material, or whether the actors’ look and voice were suited for the role.

If an actor performs well and is generally liked, audition leaders can use adjustments or improvisations to the audition material to see how the actors respond to certain directions, if they can alter their performance on cue, or whether or not they can stay with their role through a circumstances changing. Directors with little experience acting can more easily see this.

When actors perform readings the same way over and over, even with a change in direction, it shows that they do not know the character and they cannot improvise with the character or story. This makes it easy for filmmakers to be able to tell which actors will work for the part. Good, talented actors can respond to the challenge; in fact, many enjoy character exploration. Often, they will go into a reading with the changes in mind and find subtext where no one may have expected it to be.

Interestingly there are often many more women acting than men. It has been noted that women are far more often familiar with their readings and often do not even use the script during the audition, mapping out what they will do and say. Men, meanwhile, seem to often fail to learn their roles and characters by heart, instead reading directly from the script during auditions. It may be that women are more emotionally connected and familiar to characters. Men may have to overcome more of an analytical nature to expose their raw feelings.

Many observations can be made about gender among actors. It has been noted that, regarding Screen Actors Guild (SAG) actors, the disparities between men and women actors were balanced. This seems to point to the fact that actors’ talents are not based solely on credentials or gender, but simply on whether or not they connect to the part – in other words, if they are appropriate for the characters and the film, not whether they are a man or woman.