Casual Casting

Pre-Production Diary: Casual Casting for an Indie Film

Last week I shared with you an important part of how I make casting decisions when I produce an independent film. To recap, casual casting, the particular casting field work that I’ll talk about today, means hanging out at places where performers hang out, socializing with actors, going to see plays or stand-up or children’s events where actors are performing, participating in industry gatherings and professional associates, visiting the sets of other films that are shooting and watching actors working in their classes. I prefer to do the casual casting first, before calling agents or putting notices on callboards.  Much can be learned from this practice, and sometimes I don’t even require formal auditions if I’ve done enough casual casting.

Child actors from Huck Finn
Child actors from Huck Finn

I certainly didn’t invent casual casting.  My friends who are casting directors for major studio films look for actors in many of the same ways that I do. One casting director (CD) I know travels every month from LA to New York to see as many plays as she can squeeze in— matinees, evenings, Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway (yes, this is an official designation for theaters in NY.)

Another friend of mine watches late night commercials to spot talent shining through the dreck. CDs also go to the major theater markets (Chicago is a biggie) to catch rising stars. Many CDs in Hollywood, even if they don’t travel to other cities, spend time in Los Angeles area theaters and comedy clubs. There’s also a practice — but this is closer to formal casting than to casual casting — wherein acting schools will host casting director nights. Students give prepared performances; CDs watch, sometimes giving feedback but often just observing and taking notes.

The difference between me and these casting directors working on high-budget films is that I get to make the final decisions on casting, in consultation with (or sometimes deferring to) my directors. The Hollywood CDS comb through hundreds of actors in their offices, in their heads, in their files, in their notebooks, on their laptop or in databases and send “tape” (a videotaped audition reading) to the film’s director, who will make the final choices (or who will make the choices in conjunction with the producer.) Me … I do my own scouting and make my own decisions.

Today I want to talk about casual casting at acting classes.

This is a tricky practice. It’s not always the right thing to do. In some ways, an outside visitor in an acting class is intruding on a very private place. For many actors, the weekly class is a place to be safe with their craft. It’s the only place where it’s okay for them to make mistakes: to totally blow a scene or to hog the stage and get yelled at or to take off the makeup and play an ugly person or to try a character or emotion they’ve never done, thus to risk being terrible the first time or even the first twenty times.

Think about an actor who makes her living as the girl next door but wants to stretch her instrument and attempt to do a scene in class where she’s a maniac child murderer. To make a living in Hollywood, most actors (the non-A list folks) have to restrict the way they present themselves. It’s not good to do everything. To compete, to get jobs, you want to be the person at the top of mind when a CD wants teen mothers or policeman or buffoons or whatever. That’s your brand as an actor, and that’s what will get you called in (until you are a star and then you’ll get called for lots of roles.)

So, if casting directors are invited into an acting class, the ability of the actors to explore is instantly restricted. It’s not good for a casting director — person with influence over hiring decisions, with influence over the actor’s precarious career — to see her so far out of her “brand,” so far out of her image, so far out of the roles for which she’ll actually be considered and the roles she’ll actually be hired to do. When a CD attends class, the actors cannot afford to take risks (without which we cannot grow as artists), either in acting choices or in role choices. The acting class becomes another business tool and not — what it should be — an artistic tool.

Therefore, a lot of acting teachers and coaches do not allow outsiders into the classroom.  No visitors, no auditors, no spouses and certainly no casting directors. These, by the way, are the classes and teachers I choose for myself as an actor.

Actress prepares for a scene in acting class

However, there are some acting classes where it’s known up front that CDs will be invited from time to time.  Usually the students are given weeks to prepare for these evenings and they all understand that they’re not doing regular class exercise, but they’re doing casual auditioning. No surprises. And if any actor doesn’t feel ready, he doesn’t participate that evening. If I plan enough ahead of time, I’ll attend some of these when I’m doing casual casting.

Another type of acting class — perhaps another philosophy that acting teachers hold — train actors to always perform for an audience. These teachers allow any visitors without advance notice (so long as they behave as a proper audience member.) The coaches who teach these classes tell their actors that to learn the craft in a safe environment, without an audience, is a disservice.

“Acting, when you do it for a living, is always done with an audience; so why train yourself to do it without an audience?” they ask rhetorically. It would be, perhaps, like learning to play piano on a cardboard imitation of a keyboard. These classes are always open, and it’s a good place for me to go to observe actors without them knowing who I am or that I’m casting for a film. I’m more anonymous than at the invited evenings; therefore I get to see what each actor can really do when she’s working and not simply trying to impress me.

There are also some schools — and these are mostly in LA; I haven’t run into very many in NY and hardly any in smaller markets — who really aren’t about teaching at all; they’re merely about holding casting director showcases all the time. That’s not really a school; it’s not really an acting class. I have attended those on both sides of the camera — as an actor and as a producer casting an independent film. They’re okay; they’ll do. When I’m casting I tend to look on these venues as a last resort — do I want to cast actors who have to pay a school in order to be seen by a casting person?

Next week, I’ll talk more about dos and don’ts for actors when they run into casting directors or indie producers and directors at industry functions.


4 responses to “Pre-Production Diary: Casual Casting for an Indie Film”

  1. Sammy Avatar

    I am not a movie professional of any shade. As a movie watcher I really enjoyed your insight regards casting. When I watch a movie I don’t give much thought into how it was cast. Thank you for giving me a view into that world. It will give my viewing of movies more depth and from that more enjoyment.

    1. Michelle Shyman Avatar

      Hi Sammy, thanks for saying that. I sometimes wonder if people not inside the industry are interested in the peeks behind-the-scenes.

  2. Acting Classes In Perth Avatar

    Use your acting class to try everything. Don’t shy away from
    your impulses, urges, and ideas, embrace them. This is how you
    will grow as an actor.

    1. Michelle Shyman Avatar

      I agree that you need to experiment and be bold.

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