What is Good Casting?

March 15, 2017 / Features

By Alex Reeves

We ask a few of the industry’s best what it takes to find the right talent.

I’ve said “the casting is good” in many a High Five review. But what do I actually mean by that? I hadn’t really thought about it until recently.

Apparently I’m not alone here. Casting directors are used to being overlooked and misunderstood. There is still no Academy Award for casting, making it the only main title of credit without an Oscar category. And the BAFTAs are equally guilty of this oversight.

The inaugural Casting Directors Association Awards will announce its winners on Friday 17th March. The CDA Casting Awards 2017 are the first awards in Europe to celebrate this underappreciated art. With winners in each category judged by an independent panel of expert, industry judges, the awards hope to pave the way forward for appreciating this undervalued craft. The ceremony is taking place in Farringdon, London and will be hosted by comic actress and writer Sally Phillips, whose credits include Miranda, Smack the Pony, Radio 4’s Clare in the Community and the Bridget Jones films.

I decided to speak to some of the nominated casting directors to understand what makes good casting directors and why they should be celebrated.

Tree Petts is nominated for Best Casting of a UK Commercial (Worcester Bosch - The Long Day) and Best Casting of an International Commericial (Seat - Imaginary Friend). Also Chairperson of the CDA, she feels everyone can appreciate good casting because it’s so noticeable on film. “When you watch something as a lay person, you’re not looking at the background, the art department,” she says. “That infuses the feel. You’re looking at the casting. That’s what you immediately see – the actors.” No matter your technical knowledge of film, you can recognise good acting when you see it. And it’s casting directors who make sure the right actors get cast.

Shakyra Dowling, who is nominated in both the Short Film (The Nest) and Feature Film (Spaceship) categories, describes the magic of the moment when great casting happens. “The excitement is when magic happens in the casting suite,” she says. “You lock eyes with the director and you know that that this the right person. You know that you’ve found what you’ve been looking for.”

There’s a certain degree of intuition to casting that’s hard to explain, it seems. “A good casting director will read a script and have inspiration about who they’re going to talk about with the director,” says Shakyra. “It’s your job to ‘have a good eye.’ It’s talent spotting, I suppose – understanding who will work in a film.”

‘The eye’ is definitely a phrase casting directors like to use. “It’s basically seeing something in somebody that they may not even see themselves at the point and thinking ‘this person’s got something that we can work with,’” explains Tree. “Various people have ‘the eye’ in various walks of the entertainment industry. It’s about seeing something in somebody that can be developed.”

Casting directors pride themselves on finding talent that goes on to do great things. “Oh, God, I really love that,” says Tree. She remembers watching  a production of Othello many years ago. “There was a relative unknown on the stage who I felt blew Ewan McGregor off the stage. And his name was Tom Hiddleston. The person that cast him, I guess new out of drama school at that point, had seen something in him and that’s ‘the eye.’”

Shakyra demonstrated her ‘eye’ with the short she was nominated for, The Nest, for which she cast Amy Bowden. She saw something in her. “And it wasn’t just me,” she says, “because now she’s with one of the biggest agencies in the UK and is working constantly. That’s when you know.”

One of the other intuitive arts of a good casting director is providing the director with options he or she may not have considered. Like so many heads of department, their job is to provide the director with creative expertise. “A good casting director will put in a wildcard that doesn’t exactly fit the director’s brief, but actually from reading the treatment and script we think this person is really good,” says Tree. “And quite often they get the part. So even though the parameters are around what the director wants, you can open it up a bit.”

Diversity and representation are delicate issues among casting directors. They’re understandably wary of crowbarring diversity into a cast that feels unrealistic, but sometimes it can be an inspiration. Shakyra remembers reading a script with 36 male and only two female characters. “When I read it I said to the director ‘it’s not great on diversity. What do you think of changing this male character to a female?’ He found it so inspiring. He hadn’t even thought about it but loved the idea. So you have quite a lot of influence in making important decisions.”

The CDA will, in fact, be presenting a special Diversity Award, sponsored by Casting Networks, on Friday. Judging this special award will be a panel from UK Equity headed by their Equalities and Diversity Organiser, Hamida Ali.

But a casting director can only rely on his or her intuition so far. It has to be underpinned by knowledge. Amanda Tabak, who is nominated in the Best Street Casting Commercial (The Co-Op – Ask) and Short Film (Balcony) categories, remembers once having to cast a Chinese man in his 80s who plays drums. That’s quite a specific brief, but she managed to meet it by speaking to all the Chinese communities in London. Knowing where to look is key.

“When I started I was amassing knowledge,” says Amanda.  Now she has a huge reservoir of experience on where to find certain types of talent. “Someone will just intuitively spring to mind from the library of people in my brain that I’m sure is going to be right for it and, invariably, they are.”

Of course, there are go-to agencies with the best actors, but Tree insists that good casting is about unearthing those hidden gems. “I think it’s about keeping an open mind,” she says. “There are really good people that aren’t represented by the top agents. I think really good casting directors have to keep their eyes open. If I have to go through 2,000 suggestions to find 20 people to come into a casting, I will give myself that extra work just to open the field up.”

It’s also important to understand the director, too. No mean feat, as Shakyra knows. “They might say ‘a bit like Cillian Murphy but not. If you mixed him with Harrison Ford. That’s how I see this character.’ And I know exactly what they’re talking about,” she says. “We have to find that person.”

“I think it’s a combination of knowledge, gut feeling and organisation,” says Amanda. “You have to be super organised. If someone calls me up on Tuesday and wants to do a casting on Thursday, where I need to get 30 people to come in, and they’ve all got to bring something to the table.”

Casting directors are one of the many kinds of specialists a film director relies upon to make the best film possible. They aren’t technical specialists with an arcane piece of equipment that nobody else understands. Casting a subtle art, combining instinct, knowledge and a good helping of common sense. That’s probably why they’ve been somewhat overlooked by the filmmaking establishment. But this wrong will be righted and on Friday London will appreciate the greatest talents within the craft.

Comments (1)

  • Casting directors need to get their house in order and speak out about the poor treatment, rudeness, bullying and abuses that actors face during the casting process before they start backslapping.

    by P James on 2017 03 16

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