What Casting Directors Do

THE MIDDLEMAN pilot is a go, and my friend Javi is chronicling the experience of producing it on his blog. Today he begins with an excellent explanation of how the casting process begins for the key roles in the project.

the concept meeting is that moment when the show’s team decides on a common language for the types of actors who will play the roles. the sky is the limit: if saying that the perfect actor for a role is “a young rod steiger” gets everyone on the same page, then so be it — if only because it provides a guideline, for the ensuing search for talent, and it ensures that there is consensus as to the kind of actors on which to focus (it also allows anyone at the studio and network who thinks — hey, “young rod steiger” is wrong, how about a “young raymond burr” — to voice their opinion, which, of course, leads to the inevitable consensus of “ok, how about a young william conrad?”).

the casting agents — trained professionals that they are — inform these conceptual discussions (and bring them down to earth) by offering their own lists of actors whom they believe are right, who are available, and who may be disposed to doing the project.

understanding and respecting the artistry of a good casting agent is crucial to producing a series — their job is to not only find the agreed-upon type, but also to identify actors who are up to the challenges of the project, and to open up the producers’ eyes to talent that may not necessarily fit the concept but who bring other things to a role that are equally interesting.

There’s a reason why they are called "Casting Directors," because they are actually bringing their taste, experience, and unique creative pov to the project, the same way a director does. You aren’t hiring someone just to sift through pictures and resumes (I have worked with casting director like that…and it was hell). It also helps if you can establish a creative partnership with a casting director who understands how you think, how you view story, the acting styles you like, and your approach to character.

I’ve been fortunate to have worked for years with two of the best casting directors in the business — Victoria Burrows & Scot Boland (LORD OF THE RINGS, 21 JUMP STREET, CAST AWAY, the new RESIDENT EVIL movie) — on two TV series, several pilots, and most recently on the U.S. casting for the FAST TRACK pilot. Having a creative short-hand together makes things a lot easier. I can always count on them to bring in just the right people…but they will also bring in some unexpected actors who offer a very different take on the character than I had in mind. Some times those actors are interesting misfires, but more often than not, it’s those unexpected choices we end up going with.  It was Victoria and Scot who found Johnny Depp for 21 JUMP STREET, Kevin Spacey for WISE GUY, and Viggio Mortenson for LORD OF THE RINGS, so that should tell you something about their creative instincts.

For the lead in FAST TRACK, they brought in Erin Cahill. She was exactly the face, the voice, the attitude and the look I imagined when I was writing. Erin was so close to the picture in my head that it was a bit startling for me. I’m not surprised at all that Victoria and Scot found her. That’s why they are so good at what they do.

But I also remember a time on DIAGNOSIS MURDER, when they brought in an actor for a spin-off pilot who’s performance wasn’t what Bill Rabkin and I had in mind at all…but he was so compelling, so interesting, so unique, that we had to cast him. It was Neil McDonough, and he was by far the best thing about the pilot. He later did a multi-episode arc for us on MARTIAL LAW, then immediately went on to BAND OF BROTHERS, MINORITY REPORT and BOOMTOWN.

Who you hire as a casting director is, next to the director himself, the most important choice you will make when you begin your production.  If you don’t have the right actors, you don’t have a show…

5 thoughts on “What Casting Directors Do”

  1. This is interesting – question for you (and any casting directors who may be reading) – do they consider the need the audience has to tell the characters apart?
    I ask because I’ve got prosopagnosia (face blindness). I don’t recognise people easily, and can only do so on TV if characters are very visibly different.
    There have been several shows and films I’ve tried to watch but have given up part way through because the main characters looked alike to me. Maybe they wouldn’t have been to someone who wasn’t prosopagnosic, but I suspected even then it wouldn’t have been easy.
    One recent one which stuck in my mind because friends loved it to little minty balls was “Supernatural”. I could not watch it, because I really could not tell who the main characters were and when they were on screen alone, which one was which.
    So, is this something casting directors take into account?

  2. Though belated, I enjoyed reading this. I wonder if any East Coast actors (like me) would ever be considered to be cast in a project; that they could at least pay their bills and then go get a Latte at least afterwards.
    I as an older actor am feeling very frustrated with the process of being cast and moving forward with my acting career. Any thoughts?

  3. in an industry that lays stress only on blockbuster stars people forget the ‘eye’ that first spots them. the good casting directors are not very different from capable directors…both having the knack to spot talent in a a look, gesture, movement or a single word. it is a much neglected and highly instinctual job that takes into account the scipt, it possibilities, the resources and one’s own personal judgement about an actor…sometimes unknown or when casting against the grain. who knows 1 days we will have an oscar for casting in america and its equivalent in india.


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