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.

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Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods
Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods

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Meet Ice Cream Scientist Dr. Maya Warren

Maya Warren
Maya Warren

Most people don’t think about the chemistry in their cone when enjoying a scoop of ice cream, but as a professional ice cream scientist, Dr. Maya Warren can’t stop thinking about it. A lot of complex science goes into every pint of ice cream, and it’s her job to share that knowledge with the people who make it—and to use that information to develop some innovative flavors of her own.

Unlike many people’s idea of a typical scientist, Warren isn’t stuck in a lab all day. Her role as senior director for international research and development for Cold Stone Creamery takes her to countries around the world. And after winning the 25th season of The Amazing Race in 2014, she’s now back in front of the camera to host Ice Cream Sundays with Dr. Maya on Instagram. In honor of National Ice Cream Month this July, we spoke with Dr. Warren about her sweet job.

How did you get involved in food science?

I fell in love with science at a really young age. I got Gak as a kid, you know the Nickelodeon stuff? And I remember wanting to make my own Gak. I remember getting a little kit and putting together the glue and all the coloring and whatever else I needed to make it. I also had make-your-own gummy candy sets. So I was always into making things myself.

I didn't really connect that to chemistry until later on in life. When I was in high school, I fell in love with chemistry. I decided at that point I should go to college to become a high school chemistry teacher. One day I was over at my best friend's house in college, and she had the TV on in her apartment. I remember watching the Food Network and there was a show on called Unwrapped, and they go in and show you how food is made on a manufacturing, production scale. In that particular episode, they went into a flavor chemistry lab. It was basically a wall full of vials with clear liquid inside them. They were about to flavor soda to make it taste like different parts of a traditional Thanksgiving meal. So you had green bean casserole-flavored soda, you had turkey and gravy-flavored soda, cranberry sauce soda. And I was like, "Oh my gosh, like how disgusting is this? But how cool is this! I could do this. I'm a chemist."

I love the science of food and how intriguing it is, and I had to ask myself, "Maya, what do you love?" And I was like, "I love ice cream! I’m going to become one of the world’s experts in frozen aerated deserts." I found a professor at UW Madison [where I earned my Ph.D. in food science], Dr. Richard Hartel, and he took me under his wing. Six and half years later, I’ve become an expert in ice cream and all its close cousins.

How did you arrive at your current position?

I didn't actually apply for the job. Six years ago, I was running The Amazing Race, the television show on CBS. After I was on it, a lot of publications reached out wanting to interview me. I did a couple of interviews and someone from Cold Stone found my interview. They noticed that I’m a scientist, and they were looking for someone with my background, so they reached out to me. I was actually writing my dissertation, and I was like, "I'm not looking for a job right now. I just want to go home and sleep."

I originally told myself I wasn't going to work for a year because I was so exhausted after graduate school and I needed some time off. But I ended up going to their office in Scottsdale for an interview. At that time, I still wasn't sure if was going to do it or not because I didn't want to move to Arizona. It's just so incredibly hot. I ended up being able to work something out with them where I didn't have to move Arizona. I came on board back in 2016. I started as a consultant at first because I didn't want to move. But then I proved I could make this work from afar.

What does your job at Cold Stone Creamery entail?

I'm the senior director for international research and development for Cold Stone Creamery. A lot of what I do is establishing dairies and building ice cream mixes for countries all across the globe. Dairy is a very expensive commodity. Milk fat is quite pricey. Cold Stone has locations all over the world, and they all need ice cream mixes. But sometimes bringing that ice cream from the United States into that country is extremely expensive, because of conflicts, because of taxes, different importation laws. A lot of what I do is helping those countries figure out how they can build their own dairies, or how can they work with local dairies to make ice cream mixes more affordable.

The other part of what I do is create new ice cream flavors for these places. I look at a local ingredient and say, "I see people in this country eating a lot of blank. Why don’t we turn that into ice cream? How would people feel about that?" I try to get these places to realize that ice cream is so much more than a scoop. In the States, we have ice cream bars, ice cream floats, ice cream sandwiches. But many countries don’t see ice cream like that. So getting these places to come on board with different ideas and platforms to grow their business is a big part of my job.

Maya Warren

What’s your favorite ice cream flavor you made on the job?

I made a product called honey cornbread and blackberry jam ice cream. Ice cream to me is a blank canvas. You can throw all kinds of paint at it—blue and red and yellow and orange and metallic and glitter and whatever else you want—and it becomes this masterpiece. That's how I look at ice cream.

Ice cream starts out with a white base that's full of milk fat and sugar and nonfat dry milk. It’s plain, it’s simple. For this flavor, I thought, "Why don’t I throw cornbread in ice cream mix?" I put in some honey, because that’s a good sweetener, and a little sea salt, because salt elevates taste, especially in sweeter desserts. And why don’t I use blackberry jam? When you’re eating it, you feel the gritty texture of cornbread, which is quite interesting. You get that pop of the berry flavor. There’s a complexity to the flavors, which is what I enjoy about what you can do with ice cream.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

One of the most rewarding things is being able to produce a product and see people eat it. The other part of it is being able to have a hand in helping people in different countries get on their feet. Ice cream isn’t a luxury for many people in America, but there are people in other countries that would look at it that way. Being able to introduce ice cream to these countries is fascinating to me. And being able to provide job opportunities for people, that sincerely touches my heart.

The last part is the fact that when I tell people I’m an ice cream scientist, it doesn’t matter how old the person is, they can’t believe it. I’m like, "I know, could you imagine doing what you love every day?" And that’s what I do. I love ice cream.

What are some misconceptions about being an ice cream scientist?

When I tell people what I do, they automatically think I just put flavors in ice cream. They don’t know that there’s a whole other part of it before you get to adding flavor. They don't think about the balancing of a mix, the chemistry that goes into ice cream, the microbiology part that goes into ice cream, the flavor science that goes into ice cream. There’s so much hardcore science that goes into being an ice cream scientist. Ice cream, believe it or not, is one of the most complex foods known to man (and woman). It is a solid, it’s a gas, and it’s also a liquid all in one. So the solid phase comes in via the ice crystals and partially coalesced fat globules. The gas phase comes in via the air cells. Ice cream usually ranges from 27 to 30 percent overrun, which is the measurement of aeration in ice cream. You also have your liquid phase. There’s a semi-liquid to component to ice cream that we don’t see, but there’s a little bit of liquid in there.

People don’t think about ice crystals and air cells when they think about ice cream. They really don’t think partially coalesced fat globules. But it’s really fun to connect the science of ice cream to the common knowledge people have about this product they eat so much.

If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing?

If I wasn’t an ice cream scientist, I think that I would have been a motivational speaker. When I was a kid, my parents would send me to camp, and I remember having a lot of motivational speakers that would come in and talk to us. I always wanted to do that as a kid. So it’s either between that or a sport medicine doctor, because that was the track I was on in college. So if I didn’t figure out food science, I probably would have gone back to sports medicine. But I’m glad I didn’t go down that path, because I think I have one of the coolest and sweetest jobs—pun intended—that exists on planet Earth.

You’ve been hosting Ice Cream Sundays on Instagram Live since May. What inspired this?

At the beginning of quarantine, I was like, "What am I going to do? I can't travel anywhere. What am I going to do with all this extra time?" I was on Instagram, and I started seeing people at the very beginning of this make all this bread. And I was like, "I need to start talking about ice cream more. Ice cream can’t be left out of this conversation."

I started making ice cream and posting here and there, and people would ask me about it, and I would ask them, "Do you have an ice cream maker?" I put a poll up and 70, 80 percent of people who replied did not have ice cream makers. So I was like, "How am I going to make people happy with ice cream if all I do is show photos and they can’t make it?" Then I decided to make a no-churn ice cream. That’s not how you make it in the industry, but it’s how you make it at home if you don’t have an ice cream machine. I think it was around May 3, I decided I was going to do an Instagram Live. I’m going to call it Ice Cream Sundays with Dr. Maya, and I’ll just see where it goes from there.

I did one, and from the beginning, people were so in love with it. Then I thought, "Whoa, I guess I should continue doing this." I’ve made a calendar. People really attend. People make the ice cream. People watch me on Live. I’ve always wanted to have a television show on ice cream. I figured, if I can’t do a show on ice cream right now on a major network, I might as well start a show on Instagram.

What advice do you give to young people interested in becoming ice cream scientists?

My advice is: If you want to do it, do it. Don’t forget to work hard, but have fun along the way. And if ice cream isn’t necessarily the realm for you, make sure whatever you do makes your heart flutter. My heart flutters when I think about ice cream. I am so intrigued with it. So if you find something that makes your heart flutter, no one can ever take away your desire for it. If it is ice cream, we can get down and dirty with it. I can tell them about the science behind it, the biology, the microbiology that goes into ice cream itself. But I just encourage people to follow their heart and have fun with whatever they do.

What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?

If we’re talking just general flavors, I love a good cookies and cream. I’m an Oreo fan. I also make a double butter candy pecan that is my absolute jam.