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Casting in Pre-Production

Actors quite literally bring your project to life, especially if it’s live action and not animation. From both a creative and business perspective, the cast brings real value. A good performance can elevate a mediocre script, while a bad performance can destroy a great story. And whether it’s true or not, financiers and distributors believe that a cast will draw an audience. In the end, having good chemistry with a cast means more to the end results than getting a big name or doing a favor for a powerful agent...or even a friend.

Photo: Pete Souza

Where to Find Actors

Okay, so maybe you’ll have no choice in casting your friends. Again, this should be completely out of budget necessity or absolute belief in your friends’ untapped talents, not because you owe them one for posting bail that one night you got arrested. Even if you don’t have the resources for a truly professional casting director and experienced actors, there are plenty of acting schools out there. A lot of these actors will be hungry to have something to put on their reel. If possible, ask their acting teachers about their talent and work ethic, unless of course the acting teachers are auditioning for the same roles. If everything else fails, you can always post a casting call on Craigslist. You might not get the best actors, but you could wind up with a reasonably unsoiled sofa. There are also some smaller trade magazines out there. To pre-screen the rush of applicants, you can ask for a demo reel or think of some other creative task that can prove their talent.

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Negotiating With Agents & Managers

On the other hand, if you do wind up with some professionals in your cast, you’ll also have to negotiate with their professional representation. Maybe you’ve seen enough “Entourage” episodes to think you know how agents and managers operate, but they will always ask for too much. Even if you have told them exactly how much you are able to spend, they will always ask for more. Because clearly you’ve stuffed 50% of your budget inside your mattress so you could underpay this one actor – and yes, that’s what agents will accuse you of doing. Always have a few backup choices in mind. If you start to give special treatment to one cast member from the moment you sign the contract, it will carry over into the production. And if you do have to sign a so-called most favored nations deal, you will need to hold to it.

Preparing to Audition Actors

Depending on how many actors you plan to audition, you might do this yourself or hire a casting director to thin the herd. Or you can just make your producer do the casting director’s job, since they’re already working as the art director and sound designer too. Ultimately, you want actors who understand each character as well as you do, which means you have to really know your characters. To do this, you and the writer can sketch out some quick biographies for each major role – in fact, the writer might have done this already during the process. Physical descriptions are important, but the character’s psychology will help the actors make the role convincing. Send some scenes to the actors you plan to audition that capture the emotional range of the characters. Maybe an actor can make you laugh with every line, but that only works if every line is supposed to make you laugh.

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The Audition

Despite the myth of “casting couch” power dynamics, the producers need the actors as much the actors need the roles. Treat anyone who auditions like a human being, even if you’re not sure they deserve such hospitality. Smile and politely nod – just imagine how you like to be treated when you go into meetings where you have to ask for something. For the sake of time, it’s a good idea to line up your auditions back to back. Yes, this puts the actors directly in contact with their competition, but they’re professionals who understand this comes with the territory. Also, be careful about actors who seem to kill it in the room. Record each audition, then go back and watch the tape. Is the audition as good as you remember it, or did the actor have some magnetic charisma in person that doesn’t seem to translate? And when you’ve narrowed the field down a bit, have the actors auditioning for different roles read scenes together. After all, you can’t miraculously hope for chemistry to appear on set…well, you can, but it doesn’t usually work that way.

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