10 Secrets of Casting Directors
For every Peter Jackson, there is an Amy Hubbard. For every Martin Scorsese, there is an Ellen Lewis. You may not be as familiar with the work of Hubbard and Lewis—the casting directors who brought you Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins and Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump, respectively—but you've definitely benefited from it.
Rarely interviewed and rarely recognized, a casting director is someone whose mind is an archive of faces, names, and talents—and the wrong combination can make or break a production. Mental Floss spoke to a few of these professionals about the tricks of their trade, and the ups and downs of a business unlike any other.
1. YOU DON’T NEED A COLLEGE EDUCATION TO DO IT—JUST A PASSION FOR THE CRAFT.
Film school is not a prerequisite for working in production—John Waters, Quentin Tarantino, and Stanley Kubrick are just some of the many filmmakers who never attended. A good work ethic and a commitment to professionalism will get you far. And while the job market is competitive, it's fairly easy to score an entry-level casting internship or job in the larger markets of New York, L.A., and Atlanta. (For those interested in getting their start, websites like Staff Me Up list many reality show projects, which can transition to scripted projects later, and EntertainmentCareers.net provides agency and network desk jobs that don’t involve actually working on set.)
Casting directors say the most important part of their job is being able to connect the right people to the right opportunities. Eli Cornell, who has worked in both principal and extras casting on projects such as “The Big C” and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014), tells Mental Floss: "You need to be a good judge of character and talent and good at reading how talent can work together. [You need] to be able to be on the same page as the producers and creative teams and have a sense of their needs and wishes for their respective productions." Cornell himself started in film and TV as a production assistant, but says he transitioned to casting by sending emails to casting offices throughout New York City. "I explained to them my desire to enter the casting world. When I got into interviews, it was easy for me to talk and share because I was so genuinely excited for the opportunity."
And don't be afraid of starting out as an assistant, our sources say. “The Most Feared Man in Hollywood,” infamous producer Scott Rudin, got his start as an assistant in the casting world at the age of 16. He was head of production at 20th Century Fox by the age of 26.
2. REALITY CASTING IS HARDER THAN IT LOOKS.
Finding memorable characters like Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi or Carson Kressley is no small task. Often, reality shows don’t pay their talent, so it’s hard to get someone to commit to weeks of shooting with no compensation. Gillian Heller, a reality casting producer who has cast such shows as Food Network’s hit Chopped and MTV’s Made, tells Mental Floss, “Being a reality casting producer is really three jobs in one—most are expected to be researchers, story producers, and editors on a razor-tight budget. One of the biggest challenges to me was the fact that there is usually more that you can't tell applicants than things you can. Network requests and production details change rapidly, so getting people to agree to speak with you is a lot like one blind person trying to sell another blind person on a room with an amazing view.”
But, she says, the hard work is eventually worth it. “Building a trusting relationship with applicants is a huge part of the job, and there's no better feeling than getting someone to open up to you and knowing you helped them nail their interview.”
3. EXTRAS CASTING IS JUST AS DIFFICULT AS CASTING THE STARS.
Extras casting staff have to do much more than just fill up a location. They're responsible for ensuring new faces in every scene (imagine if you saw the same extras over and over), bringing people back for continuity, casting background actors that fit specific measurements for costumes and/or to match lead actors, and other nuances of appearance. And while many film crew positions wrap at a specific time, extras casting is required to inform all of the background actors of where they are supposed to be the next day and when—usually about 5 a.m. If a background actor cancels at the last minute, it’s up to the extras casting team to replace.
Furthermore, it can be hard to gauge new talent. Mel Fabi, who worked on The Dark Knight Rises(2012) as an assistant casting thousands of background actors, tells Mental Floss: “[If] you are doing principal casting you sort of immediately know who's really good and what they have done before. That's completely opposite from background casting.” With extras, the talent are usually newbies, and it's always a gamble putting someone with no on-camera training on the screen. “Vetting everyone's abilities takes time, and since shooting days can sometimes have literally hundreds needing to be booked, our flow of work is always high volume and very stressful.”
Fabi admits to rolling his eyes at how often a film’s success is attributed to the main cast. “How about the vast amount of talent that was needed in the background, didn't that contribute to the success of the story? Yes, it does. But no one acknowledges it.”
4. THEY ARE TRYING TO CAST MORE DIVERSE ROLES.
The lack of diversity in Hollywood is a well-known issue, but casting directors say they are making an effort to remedy it. NBC hosts showcases for actors, writers and directors with an emphasis on highlighting LGBTQ actors and performers with disabilities. Walt Disney Studios recently opened up the casting call for the live-action Aladdin adaptation to the public to ensure they get Middle Eastern actors in the lead roles. (At time of publication, Disney had cast a relatively unknown actor, Mena Massoud, in the title role.)
The boundaries are also being pushed in commercial casting, according to commercial casting director Melonie Mack. “If you think about the Cheerios commercial that showed an interracial couple [in 2013]—that was the first time we were seeing that. We’ve recently had same sex couples cast and we are trying to push those boundaries in the commercial world. It’s archaic. Then you have the studios looking at streaming services like Netflix and their casting process. With shows like Luke Cage and Orange is the New Black that truly showcase diversity—it’s no surprise to me that the rise in popularity in streaming was bigger than the studios could ever hope to be.”
5. A CASTING DIRECTOR’S JOB IS NEVER TRULY DONE.
Casting professionals log a lot of time holding auditions and attending production meetings. But the job isn’t over when they leave the office—they're always scouting for new talent. They frequently attend showcases (a kind of variety show put on by actors) and scout plays after-hours, host their own acting workshops where they coach actors in audition methods, and accept various freelance positions for casting projects like web series, student films, and local commercials.
6. THERE’S NEVER A DULL MOMENT.
Casting directors have to cast everything from crime scene re-enactments (think Law & Order SVU) to celebrity nude photo doubles. Sometimes, their job might entail making sure the background actors are comfortable being near a wild animal. Former extras casting assistant Melanie Block told Mental Floss about casting a commercial that appeared in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and included a real lion walking through corporate offices. “We had to send an email to all of the extras and verify by telephone that each and every extra was comfortable with working around an actual lion. Sure enough, before the lion was even let out of its cage, we had complaints coming in from the union asking us if we had cleared this with the background actors. Of course we did!” Eventually everything worked out and Scorsese got the shots he wanted—the ad made the cut to final edit.
7. IT'S FEMALE-DOMINATED.
Film and television are often considered male-dominated areas, but not when it comes to casting. Mack tells Mental Floss: “I’ve been in casting for over 10 years, predominately doing commercial casting, and 95 percent of the people I work with are women. I think women tend to be more in touch with their emotional psychology—[we] create a safe comfortable inspiring space when actors come in the room to audition.” Mack points to the career of her own mentor, Liz Paulson, who is now Senior Vice President of Casting at 20th Century Fox. “It’s a powerful position to be in. Casting can make or break a show. And it’s inspiring to watch a woman rise up like that.”
The dominance of women in casting isn't anything brand-new, either. Director Tom Donahue’s 2012 documentary Casting By is a profile of one of the most unsung heroes of the film world, Marion Dougherty—often credited with creating the “New York” look in films during the 1960s. Dougherty was a casting director responsible for the transition from the old Hollywood casting method of casting actors based on looks to hiring based on talent. She gave many actors their first film credits, including Al Pacino and Glenn Close, and had the unwavering support of directors such as Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen until her death in 2011.
8. EVEN BIG-NAME ACTORS HAVE TO AUDITION FOR THE JOB.
Did you know that before Rainn Wilson became Dwight Schrute, Seth Rogen read for The Office role, while Adam Scott auditioned to be Jim Halpert? There are thousands of actors in Hollywood and only so many parts available, so even stars face rejection—and it happens more often than you would think. Sometimes it may even come down to the chemistry a celebrity may or may not have with those who have already been cast, and other times, an actor just may not impress the director. (Peter Jackson famously slammed Oscar-nominee Jake Gyllenhaal for not using a British accent while auditioning for the part of Frodo in Lord of the Rings.)
Vincent Veloso, a director whose web series Changelings has screened at Cannes Marché du Film and who has auditioned top-tier talent for his projects, says: "Attaching a well-known established actor may help with potential financing, [and] raise exposure in producing and marketing. However, [big names don't] necessarily [have] a given automatic lock-in or upper hand in auditioning every time, anytime, if at all.”
9. THEATER CASTING JOBS DO NOT PROVIDE HEALTH CARE AND PENSIONS.
It may surprise you to know that the casting directors responsible for finding the stars in many of your Broadway favorites are not guaranteed benefits for their work as independent contractors. Broadway heavy hitters like Bernie Telsey (Hamilton) and Tara Rubin (Dear Evan Hanson) are just some of the casting directors encouraging the Broadway League, the trade organization for the Broadway industry, to negotiate a deal with Teamsters Local 817, which Broadway casting directors joined in 2016. In a statement released at the time of this year’s Tony Awards, the Broadway League stated: “We have had a respectful dialogue in the past year with Teamsters Local 817 but do not believe it would be appropriate for the Broadway League or its producing members to recognize a union as the bargaining representative of professionals who are not employees of our productions.”
10. THEY HATE THAT CASTING STILL ISN'T OFFICIALLY RECOGNIZED AT THE OSCARS.
For years, casting directors have hoped to be included in the Oscars. In Casting By, notable casting directors such as Ellen Lewis (The Wolf of Wall Street, 2013) and Laura Rosenthal (Carol, 2015), alongside Hollywood stars Glenn Close and Al Pacino, argued that casting directors are just as important to a film as a director. However, then-Directors Guild of America (DGA) president Taylor Hackford insisted in the film that casting directors are undeserving of Oscar recognition because they “don’t direct anything.”
In a 2013 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Lewis said, “It's funny, in a way, because what [Hackford] is saying is this: Nobody knows what goes on behind a closed door. And that's true. Casting is very private. It's between the casting director and the actor. Of course what [Hackford] doesn't address is why he's meeting the actors that he's meeting. And that's because his casting director has done her job! He's also leaving out that the reason it's behind the closed doors is to protect the actor who's doing something vulnerable. Nine times out of 10 [an audition] ends in rejection.”
There may be some hope, however. In 2016, screen actor-turned-casting-director Lynn Stalmaster was recognized by the Academy for his achievements in casting over 200 films and TV shows, including "Gunsmoke," Tootsie (1982), and The Graduate (1967). Stalmaster was presented with the Academy's Governors Award for “extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement, exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences, or for outstanding service to the Academy.” For now, though, the Casting Society of America celebrates the achievements of casting professionals throughout the country each year with their own Artios Awards, which commemorate the achievements of principal casting directors in film, television, and theatre.