A Hollywood Director/Producer on Interviewing and Casting Actors

Erich Sherman is a friend and an accomplished director and producer in LA. He’s been around the movie business all his life, as had his father before him, Vincent Sherman.

Here is some amazing insight from his new blog:

Interviewing and Casting Actors

Most film directors will tell you that the single most important interaction they have with actors is during the casting process.

Unlike in theatre, movie actors usually have little time to prepare for their performances. You, as director, will likely have far less time than you want for rehearsal. Rehearsal is the most valuable just before you begin filmmaking. That, however, is the time when you are beset with endless administrative, financial and organizational issues to resolve.

You’ll be lucky to have a few days of readings before you start shooting. And, lest you long for the “good old days,” “Golden Age” directors will tell you that they often didn’t even meet their stars until the first day of principal photography.

So you can’t afford to make a mistake when doing your casting. You need to determine if the person you’re looking at best embodies the role you have in mind. Of course, looks, posture, voice, attitude, experience, price, schedule, and box office drawing power all play a part. But there are other intangibles, and as many casting methods as there are moviemakers.

It’s interesting that many directors (myself included) almost “know” if an actor is right for a role as the actor enters the audition room.  Since the result of the actor’s work is the embodiment (making visible) of the role, directors tend to go with their hunches.  More than half of the actors who’ve been cast for pictures with which I’ve been involved, have been chosen on this basis.

At the most formal end, you or your casting director will prepare “sides” (i.e., scenes extracted from the script that feature a given player) and send them to the actor or his agent. The actor is instructed to learn the scene and be prepared to play it.

A less formal approach is to have sides outside your casting room, available the day of the session. You instruct actors to arrive 15-30 minutes before their appointment to review their sides.  Here, you’re looking for a reading, not a performance.

Less formal still is to have the actor arrive with no prep. You explain the role, present the sides, and watch their truly “cold” (i.e., first time) reading.

Many directors don’t like to get too heavily into written words at the first casting session; they prefer to describe the role to the actor and watch an improvisation. The theory is that you want to select actors whose naural bent for the role is in the direction you already have in mind. This suggests that you’ll have far less coaching and correcting to do during the filming.

Some directors are so reliant on their “feel” for the role and the person who can embody it that they don’t even discuss the movie. They reserve the first session simply to meet the person, engage in a bit of small talk, and then, if the actor seems right, call them back for a more formal session later.

All this information is traditional. I would like to suggest that there are other criteria that should be evaluated. For example, the consumption of drugs and alcohol on or near a movie set is one of the most dangerous activities you could be confronted with. A movie set is a dangerous place–hot lights, electricity, wires, light stands with arms poking out, dollies with wheels and jib arms that can slice off body parts, and so on.

Since in many states you can’t ask a person about his substance use (invasion of privacy issues), your best bet is to state to the prospective talent that you’re intending to have a drug and alcohol-free set; will they have a problem with that?

Note the style of their response as much as the content of it. If you have any question, talk to people with whom your prospective actor has worked. Ask them about the actor’s discipline, professionalism, etc. What you hear may surprise you!

Another dangerous factor during filming is the opportunity for unwanted sexual harassment situations. Though movies are close-knit operations, ripe for new relationships,  you can’t afford to have roaring affairs that are ultimatley distracting to the work you’re trying to accomplish. Again, without any moral judgement, you can state to a prospective talent that you desire for them to stay professional in this regard.

Finally, there is the issue of actors who want to make creative contributions as you’re filming. During the audition you should ask:  if you saw an opportunity to improve a scene while we’re filming what would you do? The ideal answer for most direstors is:  what would you want me to do?  Or, “It’s not my job.”

The least desirable is: of course I’d tell you.  If they answer the latter, find out how they’d tell you. If they say they’d tell you right there on the set, you’ve got a serious problem. Once one actor makes an on-set recommendation, the floodgates open and every actor will start making recommendations.

This desire to “help” will significantly slow down your operation. Your script should be locked following your rehearsal readings and prior to the start of filming. After that, unless you ask, the actor’s job should be to deliver their lines.

All these points will be written into your short-form contract, the Deal Memo, which describes all the terms and conditions of your actor’s employment.

The “big happy family” concept of a film shoot is realized only when everyone understands what is needed from them. If you don’t cover these issues during the interview and the Deal Memo, they could come back to haunt you.