The role a casting director plays in television remains a mystery to some.
An integral part of any production, the casting director is responsible for finding the perfect actors for a project. Russell Boast and Rich Mento, casting directors and co-presidents of the Casting Society of America, describe their work as an "alchemy." Like any alchemical reaction, there are various elements that come into play.
In the case of case of casting, it's a combination of talent, networking, and proving new opportunities.
According to Boast, "casting is really about your relationships with creative producers, writers, directors, and your knowledge and relationships with actors in the talent pool. It's like throwing a party, bringing all those people into a room and saying, 'do you get on? Is this the right match for this particular project?'"
Mento agrees, saying, "It's finding the right actors, the right performers, for whatever piece is being produced. I ended up in the film business because of my relationships with a lot of artists and creative people."
How did you get your start in casting?
RB: I was born and raised in South Africa in a family of writers, painters, and musicians. For a very brief moment, I tried acting as a kid and then discovered that wasn't for me at all. [I found] that my place on the planet was to offer creative people jobs.
By the time I was in my late teens, I had built up a large database, for want of a better word, of actors and musicians. People started to reach out to me and say, "Hey, you don't know someone who's an opera singer?" And without knowing what the profession was, I started casting for people.
RM: I was on my way to law school, and I realized I had no interest in being a student any longer. A very good friend of mine was actually working in casting in New York and said, "Come up and see what I do, because you'd actually be really good at this." And I did. I fell in love with it and started working for a company in New York, working on Broadway musicals as a casting assistant.
Casting for me is, is simply about making the process easier for directors, producers, and for writers. It's our job to be the expert on talent, and [on] who's around, who wants to work, who can do the job, who might not be the most expected choice, who might be sort of off the beaten path.
My job is to know every actor, every person in the world who acts, or who may one day want to be an actor, know what they can and can't do, and then to use that knowledge to make the process easier for directors, writers, and producers.
When your friend pointed out that you would be good at casting, what quality do you think was noticed?
RM: Loving stories, theater, storytelling. Loving actors and the craft of acting. Enjoying being around artists and artistic types, and really having a very good memory, which is important to most anybody in casting.
That means quite an ability to network.
RM: I would say that's important for every area and facet of the entertainment industry. I think for casting, it's [about] loving actors and performance. It's watching movies and television, pushing pause when you don't know who that person[onscreen] is, looking them up, and trying to remember them for a project you're casting.
Or shooting yourself in the foot [for not thinking] of them for a project you've already cast.
RB: For me, it's the ability to use both sides of the brain. You get to utilize both of those components in terms of having a love for actors, giving them space to allow them to do their best work while negotiating with producers or directors. There may be a point where you may want to slip in a different choice or a different idea and stretch the area of thinking in terms of what they were envisioning for the role.
At what point are you engaged in a production? When are you called and how is it you would be specifically involved in a project?
RB: When it's a TV pilot or a TV show, we're one of the first people in the door. We're the first people that creative team meets with. We get to have the very first creative call, a conversation about what characters may look like; what the writers had intended for those characters.
Then, all the other parts of the puzzle start to fall in. It's the most exciting moment to sit in front of a team that have just been told you're good to go.
RM: I would hope that it's at the point that the creatives involved think they need some expert help.
How does it work if there's an actor already attached to a project? How do you go about casting around a central actor or character?
RM: From my experience, that person is a producer and is very involved in the creative process. It really is about embracing them and what they see the show to be, and then working around that vision. The casting process remains the same. It's just that I'm aware of another creative voice in the room.
RB: Once you have that first piece of casting, what the casting director hopefully does better than anybody is add insight into the alchemy of, "if we hire this person to play their daughter, then maybe that's not the right fit." You've got the first piece of the painting and you're casting the rest of the canvas around that one color.
You mentioned being brought in with a number of casting directors. How is the determination made for who will be responsible for casting? What sort of qualities set you apart from somebody?
RM: We are like actors. We go job-to-job. We interview. It's not quite the same as auditioning actors in terms of volume, but [it's production creatives seeing] three, four, or five other casting directors. We're hired for a lot of things. We're hired for our creativity or for our relationships or for our ability to strategize getting from point A to point B.
In the feature world, it's mostly a director's medium where you have a director and it's his or her vision getting to the screen. One would hope that their chosen heads of department are who they feel would be best help them along to tell the story the way they see it. We're an extension of the director's voice and it would be similar for a creative team.
Writers and producers who create shows want to work with people who see the shows the same way they do.
RB: Richard is a hundred percent on point on that. It really is about the vision that the casting director has and how that vision fits into how the team has received their show to look.
Personally, if I'm very deeply connected to the material in some way, I can take that connection in to the meeting with me. There's more to talk about than just the actors, which many times are the same actors who're going to be on the same lists when we go to those initial meetings.
What's today's landscape for getting into the casting industry? Is there a known path someone can take?
RM: We are essentially, but not always, a mentor relationship. You work for someone and then someone else, they teach you what they know, and you carry that on. But in terms of the landscape, I would say it's never been better. The same way it's never been better for actors.
There's so much getting made. There are so many stories being told on all different mediums. From when I started in the mid-90s, the number of working casting directors has exploded. Finding a job as a casting assistant was difficult when there were only four or five television networks. But now, there is so much getting made.
RB: This has been a very strong focus of mine and for the CSA. There was no formalized training for someone who wanted to pursue a career in casting. We started developing it about six years ago and it's running now. [It's] recently turned into a mentorship program where mentees of color get mentored by our members by giving them that first connection.
Now we make our members available to anyone just to give those future casting directors a leg up and an in to our business.
RM: The CSA both funds and runs our own training and education program for people interested in casting. I think there's one class at New York University and there's the Tepper Program at Syracuse, but there are very few formal ways to learn how to be a casting director. And CSA has stepped into that because we can and should be available and help to train the next generation of casting directors.
Tell me about how a bigger effort for diversity and representation has impacted casting.
RM: I take pride that casting, and casting directors have tried to be at the forefront of that conversation. I think part of our job is to give the choice that is unexpected. And in terms of diversity, for lack of a better word, I think we have been trying, pushing that conversation. I think it's putting the spotlight on the wide range of talented artists that are out there.
RB: We're in a unique position when we're in the room to have open conversations with creatives, in terms of the written role, and what layer we can put on that role, thinking a little more broadly about who that character could be, whether that character could be a person with a disability or a person of color who is not written as such.
There are challenges to that. Getting a creative team on the same page takes a lot of energy and a lot of time, but I certainly pride myself on the moments when I have to say, "what about using a wheelchair user for this role," and then seeing that come to fruition. That's probably one of the most joyous things the casting director can do, break those molds whenever possible.
We have a responsibility to the people that hire us, but we also have a responsibility to the artistic community to help present the world the way it is and take part in that conversation. It's always a balancing act for us.
Was there a time where you felt like the tide was shifting towards the positive, where you could more easily suggest somebody who might've been not considered before?
RB: I think it's happening right now. We've done a lot of outreach with a number of unrepresented groups and over the last five years, seeing a need and a desire to cast authentically and to cast the right team, and it's made that work a lot easier in my mind right now.
I always say, if you make the producers think that was their idea, then they say, "yes, it's the best idea that they've ever had." I've just seen a lot of success now. I think that so many doors have opened recently that were closed.
RM: I would say it's never been better than it is right now in terms of timing.
What are the challenges when casting for a production that's global and shooting in multiple locations?
RM: The Internet has changed the way I do business from when I started in the mid-90s. Now, my pool of actors from whom I can choose is almost unlimited. It's anybody in the world who's right for the role.
I think the challenge [is] we're not experts at talent in all markets. I think most casting directors can speak to a London market or to a New York market. As heads of the department, we put together the other casting directors who are more in tune with their locality and get everybody moving in the same direction.
RB: Back when Rich and I started, it was hard. Now, we have such an extensive network of casting directors that we know who are not from [the United States], but from different countries.
It's an exciting process to oversee when we are essentially the lead casting directors in Los Angeles, but then working with peers around the world or around the country, and having that creative set of eyes on their work to keep the picture intact.
As in the case with all facets of production, how has the way you worked changed due to COVID-19 restrictions? Do you foresee things returning to the way they were before?
RM: I don't think it will ever go back to the way it was. I hope it skews closer to the way it was, because \ there's nothing better than actors in a room acting with each other. That's where magic and chemistry can be most felt and most adjusted by directors.
But I think the realities of the world is ... hopefully it's some mixture of the [pre- and post-COVID-19 restrictions] and not simply what we're doing now. But I miss actors. I love the art of it. And it's difficult to watch a lot on camera [and not in person], but that's the world that we're in now.
RB: I got into this business because I wanted to be surrounded by creative people and be in the same room. The nuanced conversations that a casting director will have with the director before an actor comes into the room, or popping out to the waiting room and saying, "this is the tone in there and this is what we've heard." Those conversations that can happen in the same space and time are very difficult to have on Zoom calls.
I really think where so much of our craft and art comes together is in those moments where we can work with an actor, knowing what the creative team are going to say when they meet the actor for the first time. It has become a lot more challenging while we're working remotely.
I've found that we've actually had to go back to more meetings with actors. Watching an audition tape really doesn't give you a full sense of that actor, or what they're going to bring, or what the dynamic relationship is going to be between the creative team and the actor. It's so difficult to do that over Zoom.
I'm [hoping to go] back to the "old school" of doing the audition and getting on a call to see if we all like each other. We've lost that, which is such an important component of what we do creatively.
There are many stories about actors who get that perfect role, despite having an unsuccessful cold reading or not testing well.
RM: That's part of the magic. It's that unexpectedness of the characteristics of an actor meeting the characteristics of a particular role. That's what casting tries to be a part of and helping [to] push along the creative route. There are some really good actors who aren't great auditioners, and there's some really great auditioners who aren't great actors.
It's a bit of a Venn diagram, acting and auditioning overlap a little bit. This is skewing towards audition first, but there's no substitute for being in the room.
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