5 Important Questions Filmmakers Ask About Casting

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Completing the casting process is a pivotal milestone in pre-production, and one that will shape the entire project. Just as good acting won’t save a bad script, bad performances will kill a great movie. It’s something you just have to get right. Once a filmmaker graduates beyond using friends and family as their cast and crew, they start looking for the services of a casting director. This is the person or agency who will get the production ball rolling by finding the right talent to portray the film’s characters. Here are some of the many questions we’ve received about the casting process.

1. Where do casting directors look for actors?

Casting directors start by creating a character breakdown of exactly what they’re looking for. This includes age, gender, ethnicity, and any information that can narrow-down the kind of talent they need for the production. Larger casting agencies may post these breakdowns exclusively on their own websites, or use public online platforms which provide casting information to prospective actors. The actors will in turn submit their headshots, demo tapes
and resumes in the hopes of being called for an audition.

Casting agencies also have extensive back-lists of actors they’ve worked with before, which they may draw upon for a new project. Most, however, are always interested in seeing new talent and will not confine themselves to actors they have assessed in the past.

2. Are some actors chosen before the casting auditions?

In some cases, yes. The bigger studios may already have multiple-project deals with their lead actors, particularly if they are filming a sequel. At times, the script has been built around a particular lead whose participation had to be secured before the project could be financed. For any number of reasons, therefore, key cast members may already be in place before a casting agency is hired to fill the other roles.

3. Does a casting director advocate on behalf of certain actors?

Definitely not. That’s the job of the actor’s agent, who gets a commission every time their client lands a job. The role of the casting director is to make recommendations to the producer and/or director after sorting through the list of hopefuls. They are hired by the production company and that’s whose interests they represent.

4. Who gets to make the final decision?

The producers and/or directors of the production. The casting director is a knowledgeable and experienced advisor, but it is the client who makes the final decision on who gets the job.

5. What happens at an audition?

The casting director will ask a selection of applicants to attend an audition based on their promo information. These sessions will usually be recorded so that the work of those chosen by the casting director can be shown to the producers and other studio executives. Actors will be given material to read and asked to perform short pieces, either individually or in pairs.

Depending on the progress of the script, they may be asked to read directly from the parts for which they are auditioning. The casting director is looking not only at the talent level of each performer, but at the way they interact with each other and are able to follow directions. Following the first set of auditions, the casting director will make recommendations and screen the videos for the producers/directors. A second round of auditions will often be held to finalize
the selection or test for alternative roles.

Many actors initially audition for one part and are selected for another. Bradley Whitford auditioned to play Josh Lyman on The West Wing but was initially offered the role of Sam Seaborn. Sonequa Martin-Green, who plays Sasha in The Walking Dead, originally auditioned for the role of Michonne. Second round auditions allow the producers to play with where to place the talent they’d like to include in their project.

5. What’s the “value-added” in using a casting agency?

Other than taking care of the time-consuming, detail-laden, and specialized job of conducting auditions, casting directors provide advice on almost everything to do with the talent personnel. This can include what they should be paid and what the work for each actor will entail. They may also make suggestions on character development and script revisions, based on their knowledge of the actor who will play the role. Many will also do background checks on an actor before the producers make their offer, taking on the due diligence required in any contractual exchange.

Ultimately, finalizing a cast list is no different than staffing in any other corporate enterprise. The casting director acts as the director of human resources, recruiting promising candidates and making recommendations to the board of directors who are ultimately responsible for hiring. Identifying marketable talent and helping the producers and directors specify what they’re looking for is a specialized skill, and one that all seasoned professionals recognize is best left to the experts.

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