Casting: What To Look For

Judith Weston

Ninety percent of the work of
directing actors is casting." At least that’s what directors
and producers often tell me. What I think they mean by this is
they like to get acting concerns out of their hair quickly so
they can be free to concentrate on the fun parts of directing,
like fancy crane shots and special effects. But this notion that
all their work vis a vis actors can be done in casting leads
them to look, in casting sessions, for a performance-for the "great
reading" where an actor "nails" a role.

A great reading (or great meeting,
if the actor doesn’t do readings) with an actor is like a great
one-night stand. If you’ve cast the person and then see them
on set or in rehearsal, then you’re in a relationship, and the
magic haze of the one-night-stand is dispelled. It’s the "dream
lover" approach to casting-as you were reading (or writing)
the script, you pictured an idea/ideal of the character in your
head, heard her voice and saw her movements with every line of
the script. But even if you find that dream lover for one night,
when you look at him or her in the light of day, you may find
that the dream was not so perfect after all.

An audition is not a performance.
It’s an opportunity to get information about whether you will
be able to get a good performance when the other elements of
the film are in place. Information, not performance, is what
the director should be concentrating on in casting.

What you need to look for in
casting is the actor’s ability, whether he’s right for the part,
whether you and he can work well together, and finally, making
sure you’re casting not individual roles, but relationships.

The actor’s ability.

Ability is talent plus skill.
That is, the cards fate has dealt the actor through birth and
experience added to whatever he has done to develop this natural
talent. It’s hard to separate which elements of an actor’s work
are due to talent and which to skill, and it doesn’t matter anyway.
If one doesn’t develop his raw talent by learning skills, then
the talent is not available.

Central to an actor’s ability
is that, when he speaks dialogue, he is talking to someone, about
something. Talking "to someone" means he listens to
the other actors, he is present "in the moment," he
is simple and honest-and he has given himself a history and need
to talk to the other character. (And that sense of history, need,
and listening must have moment-by-moment presence even if the
actor has no dialogue.) Talking "about something" means
he has made choices that "fill" the material, so that,
for example, if he has a line, "My sister was a chess champion
at age 16," he has made choices of issues/27/images or backstory that
support and give life and subtext to that statement.

A good actor is expressive in
his face, eyes, voice and body, and is sensorially alive. He
is also emotionally fearless and has a need to perform.

A very good actor will also know
how to make transitions cleanly, fully and believably, and how
to play opposites, that is, go against the obvious reading of
a line and thereby bring out a deeper emotional life or create
a surprise. Intelligence, imagination, taste, instincts, sense
of humor, and insight come into play in his work.

Whether he is right for
the part.

In order to know whether an actor
is "right for the part" you need to develop your ability
to perceive in actors whether they have emotionally what it takes
to play the role. In other words, does she comprehend and connect
to the character’s needs and experience and the transforming
event in the character’s life? This does not mean that the actor
has to have had the same experiences as the character, but it
will have something to do with her life experience as well as
with her intelligence, sensitivity, range, commitment and skill.

I’m talking here about something
different from merely labeling the actor’s "look" or "quality." It’s
an ability to intuit whether there will be something about the
character or the character’s experience that captures the imaginative
resources of the actor. If you are able to see something unique
in an actor that will bring unique life to a role, casting will
actually be fun rather than the nasty guessing game it now is
for most directors.

In other words, be clear about
any physical requirements for the role so you don’t waste your
time and the actors’ time-but don’t limit your casting ideas
to stereotypes. If you have done your Script Analysis homework
and made discoveries about the inner lives of the character,
you will be much better able to cast. And you will be better
able to find a casting director who is on the same wave length
as you.

Whether you can work well
together.

Bottom line, you need to cast
actors that can take direction from you. By this I don’t mean
actors who never question your ideas or never counter them with
ideas of their own-in fact I mean just the opposite. I mean that
you can communicate with each other, that you have a mutual respect,
and ideally that you mutually spark and challenge and support
each other’s creativity; that being in each other’s company helps
you both to have ideas, that you turn each other on, that you
both like to perform for each other.

Making sure you cast relationships
as well as roles.

To do this, you must first understand
the script, its emotional events and relationships that tell
the story. You won’t be able to cast well unless you prepare
well-unless you have investigated the subworld of the script.

In addition to solid preparation,
to cast well you need to have empathy and connection with actors.
You won’t be good at casting unless you’re interested in actors-unless
you love them and respect their process. MM

© Judith Weston. Judith
Weston’s book, Directing Actors, is available in many bookstores,
or by calling (800) 833-5738, or via Amazon.com.
She offers her unique Acting for Directors workshops, as well
as advanced workshops and private consultation for directors,
in Los Angeles and in special seminars around the world; she
also has ongoing classes for actors.

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