10 Secrets of Casting Directors

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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.

Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi Jason Merritt/Getty Images

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.

Cast members from "Orange is the New Black" at the Critics' Choice Television AwardsMichael Buckner/Getty Images

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.

Liz Paulson and Sarah Paulson at the Emmys in 2016Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

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.

Lynn Stalmaster Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

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.

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29

Amazon

This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28

Amazon

The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

Buy it: 80s Tees

8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

Buy it: 80s Tees

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

Buy it: Shop Disney

10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

Buy it: Shop Disney

11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24

Amazon

Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19

Amazon

If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

Buy it: Amazon

13. SNES Classic; $275

Amazon

The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

Buy it: Amazon

14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24

Amazon

Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

Buy it: Amazon

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12 Secrets of Spirit Halloween Employees

Spirit Halloween stores are a sign Halloween has arrived.
Spirit Halloween stores are a sign Halloween has arrived.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When Joe Marver founded Spirit Halloween in 1983, he probably didn’t have any idea his seasonal Halloween store would eventually grow to over 1300 locations in the United States and Canada. But now, seeing a Spirit pop-up materialize in a vacant building has become as much of a Halloween tradition as pumpkin carving.

In order to assist shoppers with Halloween costumes, decorations, and animatronic creatures, Spirit employs a small army of seasonal workers. To get a better feel for what goes into this spooky vocation, Mental Floss reached out to several current Spirit Halloween team members. Here’s what they had to say about everything from customers making a mess to the hazards of trying on a mask during this pandemic-heavy Halloween.

1. Most Spirit Halloween employees really, really love Halloween.

Why take on a seasonal job with no potential for year-round work? If you love Halloween and the macabre, it’s a dream job. “I've never once worked with an employee that didn't love Halloween,” Kota, a five-year veteran of Spirit Halloween in Kentucky, tells Mental Floss. “It's something that all employees have in common from my experience … It's a perfect place to meet people with the same interests.”

2. Spirit Halloween employees are supposed to open costume packages for customers.

Spirit Halloween employees are happy to help with your costume selection.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

If a Spirit Halloween employee is eyeing you with a little bit of consternation, it might be because you ripped open a costume package. Owing to issues of loss prevention and hygiene—even before COVID-19 struck—Spirit’s policy is to let employees open items and then package them back up. But not every customer is willing to wait.

“Our employees are supposed to deal with opening and closing each and every package,” Kota says. “This way we don't have to worry about things coming out or going into the packages that aren't supposed to. Although we try hard to make it as easy and friendly as possible, some customers would rather do it themselves wherever they may be standing in the store.”

3. Spirit Halloween employees can’t keep astronaut helmets in stock.

Every season brings a different phenomenon to Halloween shopping. In 2018, it was the popular video game Fortnite. This year, it’s an astronaut helmet. Not the suit, just the helmet. The trend is due to the popularity of a smartphone game titled Among Us, which puts the player in the role of a space explorer.

“Despite what you might think, the suits themselves seem significantly less popular than the helmets themselves for reasons beyond my comprehension,” Derek, a Spirit Halloween employee in New Jersey for the past three years, tells Mental Floss. “It's still just a bit too early to say, but if the helmets keep shipping out at the rate they are, in-store stock will probably remain at a near-constant zero. If I'm recalling it right, all of the stores in my area currently have one helmet if any, and no more than five are being shipped to each store.”

4. Spirit Halloween employees can’t believe customers are still trying on masks.

It's probably not a good idea to try on Halloween masks this year.Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Despite newfound concerns over touching surfaces or being exposed to infectious particles, customers are still willing to try on masks in the store, even though someone else may have already been wearing it. “Ultimately the pandemic hasn't affected my store, aside from everyone needing to wear face masks while they're inside,” Jayme, a Spirit Halloween employee in Florida who’s worked there for four years, tells Mental Floss. “But people still ask to try things on and … they do still put masks on despite orange signs everywhere saying not to.”

Derek agrees. “If you've bought a mask from Spirit in any of the past seasons, there's a very high chance you're one of at least five people who’s worn that mask, and that's a conservative estimate for some of the masks. Despite the rule, I think I've seen that many people trying on [fictional creepypasta internet character] Jeff the Killer masks just in this past week.”

5. Spirit Halloween employees have seen some spooky things.

While a store full of scary costumes and props is a Halloween lover’s dream, some Spirit Halloween employees say it can also be the site of some spooky events. “An associate and I have both seen things swaying on the shelves as if someone walked by it, though nobody else is in the store,” Jayme says. “We've seen a few shadow movements as if people were hiding behind [a] corner. The funniest one [was] at closing time. One of my associates yelled ‘whoo’ and we heard a guy's voice say something in response. It totally freaked him out. It was one of our sound-activated hanging [animatronics].”

But not all employees get creeped out. “As much as I want to say that I've experienced anything creepy or paranormal, the store's about as creepy as a former Circuit City can be,” Derek says. Still, he's seen some strange things. “The lights used to turn off at the exact same time every day for about a month, there's always been the occasional inexplicable bang or creak, and some of the aisles do get messy a bit too quickly. One time, I was working at the fitting room. I sent a kid back with a previously unopened, dry Morphsuit costume [a full-body spandex outfit] and it came back warm and moist.”

Wet costumes aside, Derek won’t declare any paranormal activity just yet. “If I see a kid go flying across the store, I'll let you know.”

6. Spirit Halloween employees wish customers would stop making a huge mess.

Spirit Halloween employees like to keep stores neat.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

Owing to the nature of pop-up stores or the excitement over the holiday, customers at Spirit Halloween stores tend to make messes. Big ones. “You could've just finished putting every mask neatly back on the racks, and half of them will be back on the floor before you've caught your breath,” Derek says. “It seems like everyone takes a little pride in the sections they helped set up and the animatronics they built, and that definitely manifests in how we feel about customers messing with those things.”

7. Spirit Halloween employees would prefer you not use the aisle as a dressing room.

Some customers like to try on outfits in the aisle instead of the dressing room, a habit that predated the current pandemic. (Spirit Halloween fitting rooms are closed this season.) Employees would still prefer you not try to dress—or undress—in the middle of the store. “It's very common to find people, mostly kids, trying on costumes in aisles,” Kota says. “We [did] have multiple fitting rooms to try to stop this from happening, but once again, people would rather do things themselves sometimes.”

8. Spirit Halloween employees move a lot of licensed animatronics.

Animatronics are a popular item at Spirit Halloween.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

Among the most popular items in Spirit Halloween locations are the life-sized animatronics that provide a scary atmosphere for homes or parties. “Animatronics are one of our largest-selling items,” Kota says. “There's a certain group of people that love them and look forward to them annually. Some of our buyers buy them and use them for their haunted attractions. It's always nice to go to one and see a familiar face.”

While Spirit offers a number of original animatronic concepts—the Harvester of Souls being among the more popular—Kota says that customers usually gravitate toward licensed characters. “I've noticed that the most popular animatronics are our licensed ones. Pennywise [from 2017's It] and Sam [from 2007's Trick 'r Treat] have been huge sellers this year as was Michael Myers a few years ago. I've also noticed the ones that stay behind at the end of the season are almost always the swinging animatronics. I think they're interesting, but they don't sell as often as the others do.”

9. Spirit Halloween employees might sell you a used animatronic, but you need to get lucky.

Come the end of the season, Spirit Halloween locations often unload animatronics that were on display and no longer being manufactured. “Older animatronics, if I recall correctly, will stop being manufactured and then sold until it runs out,” Jayme says. “As for the displays, we do sell those at the end of the season. It's just a matter of putting your info on a waiting list.”

10. Spirit Halloween employees meet a lot of cosplayers.

Cosplayers are frequent shoppers at Spirit Halloween.Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It’s not just Halloween customers that Spirit Halloween stores service. According to Kota, cosplayers looking for that perfect accessory sometimes show up. “Spirit actually gets quite a bit of cosplayers and I personally think it's a great place to go for more specific items,” Kota says. “I'm sure we get even more cosplayers than I'm aware of since some customers like to talk about it and others don't say much about it.”

11. Spirit Halloween employees get a steep, steep discount once Halloween is over.

Between the standard employee discount and the after-Halloween fire sale available to customers, Derek says that he can go shopping in November and save a considerable amount of money. It’s one reason he keeps coming back. “It's hard to say no to an 80-percent discount during the November clearance sale,” he says. (The regular discount is 50 percent, and employees get an additional 30 percent.) “There's nothing like rewarding yourself after a busy season by spending $150 on, like, five or six things.”

12. Spirit Halloween employees sometimes get holiday shoppers.

Halloween means holiday shopping for some people.JJBers, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

For some customers, a Spirit Halloween store is a perfect place to start their holiday gift shopping. “I made a friend last year with a kid who comes in weekly to see if we have anything new in yet,” Kota says. “He's maybe about 7 years old and [he] and I go around the store almost every time he comes in and talk about new things and animatronics we have. His parents then secretly go around and buy him animatronics and props as Christmas presents. It's so nice to see his love for Halloween all year round. It reminds me of myself when I was his age.”