Casting Tips for Directors

This is from a TV commercial's director's viewpoint. Modify to fit your needs.

Every actor, even if not right for the part should feel that he is getting the full opportunity to show his acting ability. If he's not at all right, you might not have given the correct instructions to the casting director. For actors who have not yet "made it", every casting session is their chance for success. Don't let them feel that they have failed. Their time is as valuable as yours is and the session is as important to their careers. Give them a chance even if they aren't quite right for the part.

The director's job is to find out what an actor can do. Can he give different interpretations? Is he so scared that nothing comes out from inside? It's best to select actors who can naturally give you the performance you want. The more you have to manipulate them on the set, the less believable their performance will be. I believe that the best performances come from within the actor. You won't have the time on a commercial set to train someone to act. Don't expect a better performance on the set than you see in the casting session. I'm sure that some actors and directors will disagree with me, but for commercials, often done in one day, I stand by my viewpoint.

In casting sessions I first try to make the actor comfortable. "Tell me in 30 seconds what John Actor is all about" "Who is your favorite actor?", "Why?", "What was his best role?" And then out of left field, "Who were you in your last life? "What would you do if you won the lottery?" Almost all actors like to talk about themselves. These questions should be rapid fire and you should look for quick thinking and appropriate answers.

Do the actor's expressions and body language communicate what they are saying? If they run too long, politely remind them "that's 30 seconds" and go to something else. Some have a rehearsed "bit". Off the wall questions shock them out of doing their prepared bit. I personally don't like gimmicks intended to make an actor memorable; coming back for forgotten things, shaking hands, passing out extra stuff. There is lot of tricks suggested in how to succeed in acting books. Many take time and some might hurt the actor's chances.

For silent parts, see if an actor can improvise, give them something not at all like the part you are trying to fill. The Screen Actors Guild has a rule against improvisation. You must give instructions of what you want. It is up to the actor to embellish the part, if they want. I ask people to try to sell a can opener, corkscrew or other item to a fellow actor in the session. Tell them that they can, IF THEY WISH, call the can opener something else. Next have them do a bit more relevant to the part. Be prepared to tell them what you want if you are not getting it. If the bit required on the shoot is a onetime realistic reaction, don't waste their one time best take in casting. Do something similar.

Read a line yourself only if you know exactly what you want. For short bits as in commercials, write lead-in lines if necessary that help set up the scene. If the first reading is perfect, tell them so and ask for something different to see if they have any range. If you don't like the reading, don't say so. Tell them it was great and try for a different reading. They may not have understood your instructions the first time.

Provide scripts with clear instructions and only what is necessary for each part. Clearly label each part. Make readable cue cards and invite people to read if necessary. Trying to remember a script with a few minutes practice may hinder a good reading. If someone needs glasses, invite them to use them. Hope-fully they will know the script by the time to shoot. If you like someone but are not sure yet, give him or her time to practice and look for improvement.

Often in casting you will find that a script is too long or difficult to read. Be prepared to rewrite on the spot or before the shoot.

Many actors will have trouble with script changes. Don't expect them to make easy changes on the spot. Numerous changes are hard on an actor. A few very experienced actors can make any number of changes with the right feeling. Don't bank on it though. Have a good working script that the actor has time to work on before the shoot. Don't give an actor a different script for casting if he has learned a different one while waiting. Let him try the one he has learned first. If he does well then let him try the new one. If he does well fine, if not but you like him, give him time alone to work on the new one and come back in a few minutes. Be careful to not release people that you are still not sure about, especially at the beginning of a session when you are establishing your own act and parameters.

If someone that you like is having trouble with lines, break up the script into pieces like you would do when shooting. Let them work on shorter pieces. If their performance gets better, good. If not, make sure that your instructions are clear to them. I find that assurances that they are doing well leads to better performances than saying it isn't right. I always say that I like part of a reading and work on just one element. For example "you have the meaning right on the money, now soften it and be more sincere" or "you are desperate, this is your last chance to find a solution to this problem".

Don't try to speed up readings until the interpretation is right. Working on readings takes time and call back schedules should allow for it. Improvement is what you want. The person that understands a script right off is often a good choice. Make sure that they can read it fast enough with meaning and that they can give more than one interpretation.

For commercials, time your readings to see if your script is too long so that you can get it shortened before you get to the set. Fight this battle. Even if a writer or lawyer can read a script in 29-1/2 seconds, it doesn't mean an actor can do it with meaning while he is doing a lot of other things.

I find it difficult to judge the first few people in for a casting session. Try your scene on the first ones. It takes a few people to get your routine down and your parameters established. You might even hold a few promising people at first if you are not sure of the interpretation that you are looking for. When releasing held talent, let groups go if they are competing for the same part so that no one feels that he has already lost out.

If someone has been called back and has almost made it but didn't, a call to their agent with an excuse is a nice touch. I have told people that their performance was right on but they lost to someone who looked much older. Or the "bad guys", the agency, changed the part.

The perfect look is a poor reason to select someone if they can't act. Their performance on the set will probably not be better because there is even more tension on the set.

Warn the others in the session that you care about the actors' feelings and that you don't want anyone to feel they have failed. Some thanks and encouragement on the way out is in order. I have the people running the session hold the next group for long enough to discuss the last group. Don't wait too long, opinions get mixed up and forgotten. Descriptions and names like, "big eyes" or "Goldie Hawn" help you remember. Make good notes.

Ask questions that are appropriate for every age group. Most kids 2 to 4 may watch Sesame Street. Kids this age don't know why they like something yet. After age 5 they are into TV shows, sports, school and friends. "Why" questions make them think. The same answer out of a later kid in a group tells you he's scared and not thinking for himself. Sometimes talented kids are overwhelmed by an aggressive kid in a group. Don't let one kid dominate a situation. Be firm if necessary. "Let's be fair to the rest and give them a chance." You can have a promising kid that seems intimidated come back with a later group.

Try to compare your choices with the client or agency to avoid calling back anyone that you or they have serious doubts about. I have found a lot of people are picked for the "perfect look" whom I felt couldn't act or perform the task. Yes, people do exaggerate about their skills. More about that later.

Don't waste the actor's time, your time and the gasoline.

Be kind, it's tough on the other side of the camera.

© Copyright 1999-2004 Ron Dexter. All Rights Reserved.