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Film Production: Casting
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Film Production: CastingThis year I’m flipping the camera around, from having spent most of my time as an actor to spending most of this year as the producer of an independent film. Ah, the lessons learned.

One of the most shocking lessons for me was how poorly actors behave when seeking work; how self-centered they are; how, in large part, many of them don’t care about the film — the story — the vehicle at all, but merely about getting themselves on film; and how their perception of the complexity of filmmaking is distilled, for many actors, down to The Director and Me, The Actor.  It’s a sad lesson to learn.

Today I want to share with you my experiences in casual casting for this particular film.  Casual casting, as I have dubbed the practice, means hanging out at places where performers might be, socializing with actors, going to parties, going to see plays or stand-up or children’s events where actors are performing, participating in industry gatherings and visiting the sets of other films that are shooting.

I like to watch actors being themselves to get a sense of how they might work with others; I like to watch actors performing when they don’t know they’re auditioning.  I prefer to do the casual casting first, before calling agents or putting notices on callboards.  I learn much from this practice, and sometimes I don’t even require formal auditions if I’ve done enough casual casting.

My casual casting opportunity was a table read at a fellow screenwriter’s home.  He had written a draft — a tenth draft — of a screenplay and had a dozen actors in his living room reading the script out loud so he and his writing partner could hear where they wanted to change up the writing.

I sat in as an actor, reading a small role, but — small town and gossip gets around — most of the actors knew I was in pre-production for my own film.  So…two of the actors were clearly kissing up to me during the reading, playing off me instead of off their appropriate scene partners. Either they were reading their lines directly to me or I could feel their energy focused on me and not on the actor with whom they should have been engaging.

These two guys were clearly out: I would not cast them. There’s a time and place for everything. I need actors who will focus intensely on what they’re doing, who will suspend all life outside of the imaginary scene in the script. The split-focus told me they might not stay in character during my shoot. That costs time, money and quality.

After the table read, we all socialized. Who, for heaven’s sake, does not like a glass of lapsang souchong (oh, you don’t?!) and a cookie? An actress who had focused intensely on the role she was reading at the table read now, during the social hour, turned her focus to me.  She cornered me and told me tales of all the roles she’d done and how seriously she took her work.

She talked about a sexy alien spy she had played and discussed how her acting teachers had trained her to “fully express the intimacy of each moment.”  Okay, sure, I agree with that.  But, I didn’t ask.  Nay, I didn’t get a word in edgewise during this whole conversation. She talked but never asked and never listened.  That’s a sign of a poor actor.

Listening to your scene partner is job one. Then, while I was digesting the “intimacy of the moment,” she climbed on the back of a couch and started humping it, talking — not to the imaginary couch — but directly to me about how she was not afraid to express her physicality. Good for a laugh; but, again, not someone I would ever cast: she had no sense of who I was or how I fit into a conversation. For her, everything was a performance, everything an opportunity to display herself, regardless of how appropriate that characterization of herself was or was not to any particular film or film producer.

My next stop on the casual casting train ride was at a Women in Film event. Busy as I was producing this film, I also was spending time chairing a committee for the Women in Film chapter. At the event that evening, I did a small pitch about my committee needing volunteers. An actor made her way to me and gave me her business card, taking mine in return. She wanted to talk about working on my committee. The next day I called her, only to hear that she was burned out on volunteer work and couldn’t work on the committee. What’ up?

Raj headshot
Raj auditioning

Ah, the next sentence follows: “I heard about your film and I’d like to read for you.”

Nope, that is simply dumb. If you don’t have time for the committee, don’t talk to me about the committee and get me on the phone with that ploy. I’d rather she had just asked me directly about reading for my film.  Now, I will always think of this actor as dishonest and a manipulator.

At this point I didn’t yet know if she was a good actor or not; but I already had a negative perception of her personal style. I did formally audition her later, but — since, as we all know, there are dozens of actors who could do each role and you must choose only one — I didn’t give her a callback simply because of her sneaky tricks.

All of this — and more — casual casting activity helped me get a sense of who each actor really was, not simply what kind of prepared performance they could give at a formal audition. Over the next several weeks I spent more time casual casting, and I’d like to share those experiences with you in my next column before I talk about the formal auditions.

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Michelle Shyman is an actor, comic, screenwriter, filmmaker, corporate video producer and film journalist. She’s appeared in 35 films and stage plays and has won regional acting awards. One of her screenplays placed in American Gem Screenplay Competition and Script Nurse Screenplay Competition, and she’s produced or assistant-produced a number of independent films, three of which won festival awards. Michelle executive-directed the Lake2Sound Youth Film Festival and serves as a judge for several student film festivals nationwide. She coaches actors, teaches directors how to work with actors, and presents seminars on directing actors. She’s a former Board member of Women in Film Seattle chapter. Michelle also consults on product strategy for entertainment startups. In addition to her Reel Life With Jane column, Michelle writes “Balancing Act,” a weekly column for Reel Grok, named one of MovieMaker Magazine’s top sites for working filmmakers. Follow her on Twitter @michelleshy.

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