Roundtable: Casting directors

Leading casting directors discuss common misconceptions about their jobs and reveal how they found the right actors for leading roles in some of the year's biggest films.

What precisely do casting directors do? How do they satisfy the sometimes conflicting demands of studios and directors? The Hollywood Reporter's Stephen Galloway recently sat down with six of the business' top feature-film casting directors to discuss the challenges of their jobs and their work on some of the biggest movies of the year.

Participants were (pictured above, from left) Justine Baddeley and Kim Davis-Wagner (Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine," MGM/The Weinstein Co.'s "Bobby"); Victoria Thomas (Warners' "Blood Diamond"); Debra Zane (Paramount/DreamWorks' "Dreamgirls," Warners' "The Good German"); Ellen Lewis (Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Departed," Warner Independent Pictures' "Infamous"); and Mary Vernieu (Warners' "The Fountain," Paramount's "World Trade Center").

The Hollywood Reporter: What does a casting director's work entail?
Kim Davis-Wagner: What doesn't it entail! Our job entails everything from hiring name actors for the project to creating lists of talent, to finding everything from the stars, to the leads, to the supporting casts, to the day players, to the smallest parts -- and keeping everybody happy at the same time.

THR: What is the most misunderstood aspect of your job?
Mary Vernieu: Actors think casting directors are this ominous force, and we want to be helpful.
Debra Zane: Everybody has an opinion, but not everybody is sharing the vision of the director. While our job might be to keep everybody happy, it really is to direct the casting process for the director, and the more people you try to keep happy that are not the director, the more dangerous it becomes, and the more watered down the director's vision can become.
Victoria Thomas: There is this huge thing now where the marketing is just as important to the low-budget films as the highest-budget films, and that means trying to get a bankable name. That has always been a part of casting, but it seems to be even more so now.

THR: Do conflicts ever arise between the studio and the director?
Zane: Absolutely.
Justine Baddeley: But you've got to make sure that everybody feels they are part of it.
Ellen Lewis: The times when it is most satisfying are when you really are in sync with the director. It is almost like you are trying to crawl into their brain, and it is about fulfilling their vision, which is what everybody's role on a film is.

THR: At what stage in a film's production cycle are you hired?
Vernieu: You are hired at all different stages. Sometimes, you are hired when there are people attached, and sometimes, it is just a script where you are helping put together the whole movie.
Thomas: Typically, the casting department and the locations department are the earliest hires. (The filmmakers) are going to see if they can find talent and a location that will work out for their budget. In terms of preproduction, we are probably the first ones on, which is often why it is difficult for us to make our deals because then someone has to admit that they are making a movie.

THR: What's the first thing you do when you start work on a film?
Baddeley: You read the script, and when you are reading the script, you start to immediately visualize, "Ah, this is somebody I would love to see in this part!" But you have to create a list that is both your creative vision and also some larger names that would help to make the movie (a reality). I live and breathe these lists. It's not just some generic thing.
Lewis: It helps the director focus, actually. What you are trying to do with your opinion is really focus and narrow it down ...
Vernieu: ... and (to) think about who those people are in the script. An important part of the casting process is, they start to read people and figure out who the characters are. They might not know in the beginning, until they see people read. That's when you are really discovering who they are.

THR: Everyone says studios are spending less money on actors. Is that true?
Zane: It's really true. Even when I've worked on films with massive budgets, I can't really recall a time in the recent past where I've actually paid the bulk of the cast over scale plus ten. That's 80% or 90% of the cast! They are really getting crunched.
Lewis: This isn't our decision. Even when we are involved with working out the budget, we are not the ones saying, "This is what the great character actors should be getting." When we can, we fight for more, and I think we do all fight for more. A lot of the money is going above the line.
Thomas: It's like the rest of the industry. We are all being asked to cut and take hits.

THR: How does one become a casting director?
Vernieu: You work for one for a long time. It's an old-fashioned trade.
THR: If I am a director and I'm hiring a casting director, what questions should I ask?
Lewis: One of the most important things to ask -- and we would be asking you as well -- is, "What films do you like? What actors do you like? Maybe I'm not in sync with you; I might not actually want to work with you. Because if we don't agree ..."
Vernieu: The connection with your director is really important.

THR: What qualifications or skills does one need to be a casting director?
Zane: It is really important to keep an open mind and not refuse to see someone because they were on "Barney Miller" or something -- not to pigeonhole people.
Baddeley: I remember a perfect example of this. When John Ritter was in (1996's) "Sling Blade," I was an assistant at the time, and people were saying, "Can you believe they have John Ritter in this?" Because they all thought John Ritter was only this (sitcom) thing.
Zane: You need to have really an encyclopedic brain for actors ... which gets harder to do because the world gets bigger and bigger, and now there is a global market. When I was starting, you could name the English actors on two hands that you could add to your list, and now it's endless. You really are required to know the talent pools of every country.

THR: If I am an unknown actor, how do I find my way to you?
Thomas: Try to put yourself up for a small part in a movie and hope I am bringing in 50 people for the thing.
Lewis: Submissions from agents. We send out something called the breakdown, which goes to every agent and manager, and what we get are boxes and bags of pictures. It is our job to go through them and pull people we have never met before -- never seen before -- because every movie has different needs.
Vernieu: You try to meet as many people, read as many people as you can, because you never know.

THR: What about showcases? Are they useful?
Davis-Wagner: Our associate teaches some workshops, and it's really great for her as she is becoming a casting director. She is meeting actors, and also she is learning so much. She brings people to us.

THR: What are the ethics of being paid to go to these things?
Zane: It is completely unethical to have actors pay to be seen. When I am working, I am in the zone, and that's when I am looking. And I may be looking just for (a certain type of actor). I worked on "Dreamgirls" for most of last year, so if you were a white person, I didn't pay much attention to you!

THR: Jennifer Hudson, who played Effie White in that film, said 700 people auditioned for the part. Is that true?
Zane: Oh, more. We did open calls. That character was the biggest challenge of the whole cast. Everybody knew that when we went in. We worked in collaboration with Jay Binder's office in New York; he is a theater casting director who does a lot of musicals. He sent his staff on open calls in Washington, Detroit and Chicago, and my staff went to Atlanta and St. Louis. And that produced very little. In fact, I ran into a casting colleague right when I began the process, and I was very excited, and he said, "Uh, (Fox's) 'American Idol' has picked over all the people in this country." And I thought, "Oh no, is that true?" I was looking for a very young woman, heavyset, who can make the paint peel off the walls when she sings. The amazing thing about the process is how many people think they can sing -- which is terrifying!

THR: Did you get crazy tapes from people who wanted to audition?
Zane: I watched some hilarious auditions where people used (video cameras) to tape themselves. One young woman put her camera on the tripod and then stepped back so she couldn't see herself. And as she was taping, the tripod went like this (she imitates it sinking lower and lower), and at the end all you could see was the high bun on her hair!

THR: Mary, what's the biggest casting challenge you've had?
Vernieu: Finding the kids for (2001's) "Spy Kids" because you had to find kids that were going to be able to go through all three movies and grow up. We did open calls, looked all over. And it was a challenge, too, because they had to have some Latin in them -- Antonio Banderas was their dad. We saw thousands, and we did casting searches all over the country. You hire people in every state and put people on tape and fly in who you think is good.
Thomas: For me, (1997's) "Amistad" was pretty tough. We looked in Africa, sent (a casting director) to Sierra Leone. There are actors in Africa. There are African theater troupes in different parts of the continent, and she went out and saw them but maybe got one person from there. Most of the people we got were from London or the U.S. In the U.S., there are these Sierra Leonean associations in Dallas or Atlanta, and we contacted them, and people sent out their tapes, then we did open calls.

THR: Kim, how did you and Justine find Abigail Breslin for the part of Olive in "Little Miss Sunshine"?
Davis-Wagner: That was a film that kept trying to get set up and trying to get made for years, even though everybody loved the script. For the three years that we were on it -- we did our first lists in January 2002 -- we did open calls and searched every state in the country. The thing about that character was, it had very specific criteria. In addition to the challenge of finding a great young girl for such a key role, she also needed to be able to dance and was supposed to be a little bit chubby.

THR: How did you find Abigail?
Davis-Wagner: We had seen her in 2002's "Signs."

THR: Ellen, what was your biggest challenge in casting "The Departed"?
Lewis: It was the same challenge as on every film -- creating a real world. In "The Departed," obviously there is the police department as well as the Irish mobsters. We had an open call in South Boston, where we had a pretty great turnout -- probably 300-500 people. And the faces were unbelievable, like photographs. And we did a tremendous amount of local casting, so there are people in the film who were cops, and there are people who are working men in Boston, who would be at bars.

THR: What about the main roles?
Lewis: Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio were pretty much in. Marty (Scorsese) was a huge fan of Ray Winstone, so he was really anxious for Ray to be in the film. Martin Sheen was somebody he had known for a long time but never had an opportunity to work with. And Vera Farmiga is an actress I had known for a long time in New York. (She) put herself on tape, and as soon as I saw it, I brought it straight to Marty, and he was intrigued by her.

THR: Vickie, how difficult was it to cast "Blood Diamond"?
Thomas: One of the things that made this difficult was that it was put together very quickly. We didn't see a whole volume of people -- I don't think we saw more than 300 or 400. We had a casting director in South Africa who started getting people on tape for (director) Ed Zwick and I to take a look at. We also did casting in the United States and in London, and we were looking at extras as well as the main parts. We were casting on three different continents to try to get the cast. But the lead African actress, Benu Mabhena, we found in L.A. Just in terms of authenticity, we always wanted to find an African actress for that role, and I was surprised we found her here.

THR: How did you go about casting "World Trade Center," Mary?
Vernieu: The challenge was to make sure we stayed true to the real people and who they were. We tried to cast as close to how they looked as possible. It is always difficult when you are casting real people, but because of the event, it made it much more emotional for everyone -- the actors and us. You didn't really realize until you got into the room with the actors what that would be like. We'd be auditioning real firemen who were there, and when they got to certain scenes, they would break down. It was very sad. Anyone who was there at the real event, (director) Oliver Stone put in the movie. He flew them out to the set. But a lot of them didn't want to do it. It was really hard for them to be on that set because it was so real.

THR: What was the hardest thing about "Bobby"?
Baddeley: This was a very passionate project for Emilio Estevez. He was friends with Anthony Hopkins and Demi Moore, and Anthony had read it and seen what he saw and then jumped on. When you have got that kind of actor-magnet, it just gets going. He helped a lot with the film, and he set the tone for the kind of film we were making. I also believe he reached out to other actors. The hard thing for us was that there were so many actors. We had never worked on something with so many big actors. But with fabulous actor after fabulous actor, it suddenly became the toast of the town. The biggest problem was, there was no money. Financially, it had to be an even playing field.


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