Many independent films, by choice or necessity, are populated by non-professional actors. For some moviemakers, the prospect of working with “amateurs” might be daunting, but in some circumstances a lack of training can create an even higher level of naturalness and authenticity.
When Garrett Bradley was casting her New Orleans-set feature drama, Below Dreams, she found that many the performers she liked most were non-actors, many of whom had come across her open casting call on Craigslist. Here, Bradley makes a case for abolishing the distinction between “actor” and “non-actor” in the first place, arguing that a person’s essential humanity is all that really matters to pull off an organic performance.
When people ask me what it was like to work with non-professional actors, my instinct is to say that it was no different than working with trained actors, ones who may have spent years in front of the camera. Of course that’s not completely true. What is important and, I think, non-negotiable are elements of trust and curiosity. These are fundamental and rest at the bottom of any healthy relationship.
In April of 2010, I drove to New Orleans from Los Angeles, where I had been in school at UCLA. I’d found a place to stay through couchsurfing.com and established a single-table office at Hey Cafe, a coffee shop on Magazine and Napoleon. At the time there was no producer in place—just me, myself and I. I was looking for three main actors to play a single mother and aspiring actress, an ex-con seeking a legal life, and a listless college graduate—all the same age, early to mid-20s.
I contacted local casting agents with no success. The script wasn’t resonating, the budget was too low and the interest was with larger Hollywood productions. To boot, I knew no one. My impatience grew. I felt the script was timely—The New York Times had just published an article, “What is it About These Twenty-Somethings?” which established a narrative about people my age that I felt wasn’t altogether true. Or rather, it was only half the story.
Content produced at the time was focused on the idea that the 20-something in America was defined by his or her socioeconomic privilege and surprising lack of opportunity in the workforce. The film I wanted to make wasn’t intended to eclipse this narrative (after all, it was partially true). Growing up in New York and going to private school, I understood that story, I saw that story, but it wasn’t, in my evaluation, the whole story.
I met many people my own age while traveling between New York and New Orleans on Greyhound buses. They had no idea what to do with themselves; they had never been promised anything. My goals were to focus on three people I had met in my travels, whose stories were both specific and universal, and to make a film about them as a way of diversifying and expanding the one-sided discussion on millennials. Below Dreams was about giving a voice to the majority—the 90 percent whose resilience goes unseen.
If I was going to make this movie without changing the script or waiting for an investor, I would have to make it on different terms, through a more difficult process. I turned to Craigslist as an alternative casting solution, and I didn’t limit the production to requiring trained actors. I put up casting calls around women’s clinics, federal buildings and college campuses, hoping to find my leads through this online community board and through my exploration of the city. Where would these characters be if they were living their everyday lives?
Every weekend for about six months I waited at Hey Cafe in the hope that people would filter in to audition for the role. I met hundreds of women who were single, aspiring actresses (or with a desire to play one), hundreds of ex-cons and college graduates.
When I met Leann Miller and Jamaine Johnson, they had no experience being on camera as lead actors. In fact, I was wary at first because their true lives were so closely related to the characters I had written. In some cases the trauma of struggle prevents you from being able to work through it, to reexperience it and express it. One has to have a light heart, a sense of hope and, more than anything, strength to persevere in order to reenact despair. Leann and Jamaine had this. And, just as important, they were curious and willing to go into unknown territory at the expense of their vulnerability. I felt they both had a distinct presence, which on camera translated so much more than anything I could of written.
Elliott Ehlers was the only trained actor on set. He had a flexibility about him and a rare connectedness with his body that I felt would create a perfect harmony of scenarios within the film.
I had separate relationships with each of the actors. My own background as an African-American woman and as a college graduate were all elements of who I am that allowed me to connect with who they were. That level of trust was established between the three of us in a deep way, which I think only helped the journey we found ourselves on.
Maybe a better way to approach the question “How to cast and work with non-actors” is to say that there is no such thing as a non-actor. I think anyone with an openness to themselves and their surroundings, in a safe environment and with selfless direction, has the potential to bring forth a performance that speaks to the cores of our humanity. MM
Below Dreams is currently playing in Los Angeles. The film opens in New York City on April 17, 2015 and will be released on iTunes and other VOD platforms on April 21, 2015. Top image of Below Dreams cast member Jamaine Johnson.