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Casting Movies

A Casting Director Shares Dos and Don’ts for Actors

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Casting Movies

In San Francisco, casting for an independent film, I went hunting around town for actors to invite to auditions.  I do this because I like to discover interesting characters in addition to — or instead of — doing formal casting.

I’m not one of those producers who say they always cast “real people,” not actors, or who say that “anybody can act if you find the right look.” I don’t care how famous the producer is or how successful their movies have been (Jodie Foster has been quoted saying something similar about “Little Man Tate,” but I think she’s wrong.) So, I’m not looking for “real people” with the right look; I’m looking for a skilled actor with the right internal psychology to play a particular character.

In pursuit of my characters’ interpreters, I dropped in on a film criticism class. After observing people interacting with the teacher, sitting in their chairs, smoking on break, and in the hallways with other students, I left a stack of my business cards with the teacher, asking him to invite any actors who happened to be in his class to email me a headshot and résumé.  (My production company uses a special email address that is only for receiving headshots.)

DON’T DO THIS. An actor from the class took the email address and put us on a mailing list. We got her newsletter with (boring, truly) chat about her projects and photos of her in various headgear: hats, veils or wigs. The newsletter even included snapshots of her trip to Italy with her husband. Puh-leeze. After having my assistant opt out multiple times, we are still getting her newsletters.

  • Don’t put me on a mailing list without my specifically having asked to be on it.
  • Don’t ignore opt-outs.
  • Don’t email a self-promotional newsletter when you’re asked for a headshot and résumé.
  • DO … if you have logorrhea of the braggadocio, please see a doctor.

DO THIS. I was at a Screenwriters Guild meeting. Before the main event — speaker, workshop, reading, whatever — everyone is sucked into the bountiful vortex of the snack and drinks table. With our mouths full and our hands reaching out for more cheese-n-crackies (that’s me: my vice is food; but, as we know, most screenwriters are notoriously either heavy drinkers or recovering alcoholics, so the snack table is airy while the drinks table at these events is … well … sardines) we all gab about what we’re working on.

Most of these folks are simply (not simple, by any means) writers, though there also are always a few members, like me, who are currently producing what we’ve already written or producing someone else’s film. I mumbled through my cambozola about the film I was working on that was in pre-production. The story is about a woman who runs a wolf refuge and finds herself forced to work in a dotcom to raise money in a hurry to keep her refuge from being sold to land developers.  (I think it’s a great story.)

Some members of the guild are screenwriters slash actors. One of these hyphenate souls grabbed me during a break in the evening and told me how much fun he thought the story was and how he’d love to see it shot in town. He asked me about the story and about the production. After we chatted, he gave me his card — a tiny headshot with his email and phone. I will remember him as someone who was interested in my story; not simply in getting a role, any role.

  • Do be interested in the story of a film.
  • Do tell producers and other decision-makers that you like their story.
  • Do think about what specific role you’d like to play (not just “Cast me in anything, I beg you”) in that film.
  • Do be friendly and outgoing.
  • Don’t forget to keep track of who you talked to about what film and when you might be able to contact them to read for a role. Don’t make the mistake of running into the same person at the SAG networking event and repeating yourself. Believe me, I will remember if you say to me two months later, “Oh, I think that story is great!” if you’ve already told me the same line at the screenwriters guild. At least remember to say something different, such as, “Have you made any progress in casting wolves for your film?”
  • Do, if you have trouble remembering faces (as I do), please, please, do keep great records, including snapshots, and study them before you go to networking events, along with reviewing your log of what you said to whom.
  • Don’t, if you’re a specialist and truly only want to act, offer to do any other type of work on the film unless you really are willing to do that crew work. If it’s just a scam to get an acting gig, I will remember that. If you are willing to work as a PA (either in the hopes you’ll get upgraded to an extra or speaking role or just to get on-set experience or to meet people and to make connections) then that’s great. But, please don’t manipulate me by pretending to be interested in the film if you’re only interested in getting yourself on camera.

Next week, shall I talk about getting cast in voice work, or shall I talk about formal auditions? Let me know in the comments below. 

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.

Michelle Shyman has written posts on Reel Life With Jane.


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