The 23rd Hamptons International Film Festival welcomed three of the industry’s top casting directors to share secrets and to offer up tips during a panel entitled “The Art of Casting: Casting Society of America.” Moderated by the New York Vice President of the Casting Society of America Bernard Telsey, the panelists included Ellen Lewis, who has worked with Martin Scorsese for the past 25 years, Eve Battaglia, one of independent cinema’s most successful casting directors, and Richard Hicks, the President of the Casting Society who has working relationships with Christopher Guest, Ken Loach and more.
Over the course of the hour-long discussion, the casting directors provided no shortage of humorous casting stories and quick tips. The panelists opened up about the challenges and frustrations of working in this unique and integral industry job. Below are some of the panel’s must-read highlights straight from the casting directors themselves.
Ellen Lewis (“Goodfellas,” “Forrest Gump,” “13 Going On 30,” “Bridge of Spies”)
The challenge of casting “Bridge of Spies”: “It was slightly intimidating, I have to say, walking into the room, but it was a lot of fun. Steven had a very open mind, which is what you always want in a director…The challenge of the film was that half of it takes place in Germany. You start getting tapes in — because I was the filter to then present Steven with the ideas — and when you’re looking at people who are speaking in a language you don’t understand and you don’t have any context for who they are, it can be very confusing. It’s our job to narrow down choices for a director and look at the faces, look at the reading and see who fits into the texture of the film. We go through their auditions and also their pictures with the director so that you have faces that people will be able to distinguish and know who they are looking at.”
The pros of casting in the digital age: “The pro is that the outreach is much bigger because people can self-tape from all over the world really, depending on what it is we’re looking for.”
The cons of casting in the digital age: “Because of the internet, people aren’t meeting actors as much as they used to. Steven actually didn’t meet a lot of the actors until they got to set. The cons are that everybody within a creative team can now watch those auditions and casting is subjective. What you’ve done now is open this decision making to 15 people, where everyone has a different opinion. I know I’m extremely lucky because I still work primarily in film where the director, for the most part, is still the person who is making the creative choice, so that you have one voice that is making those decisions, which I believe in. I think the fact that everything can now be uploaded is not a great thing.”
Casting directors deserve an Academy Award: “We would like to get an Academy Award [for casting]. We would like to be recognized. A movie does not go on without our participation in it. We are the first ones on a film. Without the actors, there’s no need for anyone to wardrobe, do sound or anything. What we do is audition actors all day — it’s private, delicate, so vulnerable for people to come in and face the rejection they do. I think that’s why our recognition isn’t as big as it should be. It’s really a very special thing what goes on in that room and it’s our job to make the actor feel as comfortable as possible because we want you to do well. It’s crazy to me the SAG Awards don’t recognize casting directors in the Best Ensemble category. I don’t understand why casting directors aren’t there. I doubt the director or the writer did that on their own!”
Eve Battaglia (“Interview With A Vampire,” “Transamerica,” “Blue Caprice,” “Lullaby”)
Cast wherever you can: “I’ve done everything: Craigslist. I’ve stood in Washington Square Park with fliers, I’ve lurked in playgrounds. One of my first jobs, I was hanging outside of schools trying to find kids.”
Producers will always want big names: “Sometimes with these little films, producers have to get a star attached to bring in the money. For ‘When I Live My Life Over Again,’ Christopher Walken and Amber Heard — the project came to me with them attached. They were the calling cards because who doesn’t want to be Christopher Walken’s family? We have this great kid who plays Christopher Walken’s grandson. Bob really told me, ‘I want Christopher Walken’s grandson,’ which is code for eccentric, quirky, interesting. A lot of little kids in the business look like the boy next door or a perfect little sports kid, that’s not what he wanted.”
Diversity is a challenge, but correcting it starts with the screenplay: “If they’ve written an all white cast, you can usually open their minds to some of the roles. It’s getting easier now but it’s always been hard to have a blended family or interracial romance because the producers or directors may think that drives the story some way and that’s not the way they want to go. You end up getting the doctors, the shrink and the nurse with color. It’s a struggle we all work on all the time.”
Richard Hicks (“For Your Consideration,” “Lars and the Real Girl,” “Gravity,” “Zero Dark Thirty”)
Find actors who want to try something different: “‘Meadowland’ came to me with no one attached to it. So how do you solve that? One of angles I use in casting a project is looking at the list of actors who might be right, and finding someone who might have something to prove by doing this part. We have a lot of Hollywood actors who are looking to do something that’s artistically satisfying or do a part they might not have done before. When you’re doing a little independent movie, you don’t have money and you often don’t have an A-list director, so you need something that will draw that actor. Olivia Wilde hadn’t had a chance to prove how deep she is as an actress and how willing she was to go to a dark, sad place.”
The first person you cast is the most important: “Once we got Wilde, one of the next hires was Elisabeth Moss. The first few people you hire tell the other actors and help tell the world what this movie is going to be. When they know it’s an actor of quality — like Olivia and Elisabeth — they take note and read the script and are more inclined to do it than if you’ve made a mistake in that part. If you’re lucky, then it becomes a snowball that goes downhill and gathers actors without you doing much pushing.”
Don’t limit the search to lookalikes: “Physical resemblance helps, but you need to find actors who will create a parallel world that the audience will be willing to go with that version of it. It’s not an exact duplication because you can never exactly duplicate, but they take the essence of the character and explore it.”
Social media doesn’t matter, though it is considered: “It doesn’t mean anything that someone has one million Twitter follows except that they have one million Twitter followers, but it is becoming another metric used to feel comfortable about hiring this person and not that person. It’s all smoke and mirrors though. It’s a balancing act in the conversation and social media is becoming one of the things that’s talked about.”