One of the casting directors I interviewed for what was then called Back Stage West was Donna Ekholdt, then the vice president of talent development and casting for Big Ticket Television. We spent over 90 minutes together in her office at Sunset-Gower Studios for my “Casting Qs” interview. And I’ll never forget the way she talked about the role of the casting director as a “gourmet shopper.”

Here’s a bit from our 13-year-old interview:

We are gourmet shoppers. The chef hasn’t written the recipe yet and we’re out searching for ingredients. I need all A-quality ingredients. I can bring five options to the producer and director (who we’ll call the chefs). If the script calls for cinnamon and brown sugar, I’ll bring three flat-out cinnamons, one weird-ass exotic cinnamon (just off what the script calls for), and maybe one nutmeg. Now, if the chef goes with nutmeg instead of cinnamon, I need honey instead of brown sugar. Brown sugar is no longer part of that recipe. Sometimes you didn’t get the callback even though you were A-quality brown sugar because I need honey now. It’s a totally impersonal choice. It’s not a personal issue when you don’t get cast. It’s not a statement of the quality of your work. A specific combination of ingredients is required to balance the recipe. Some ingredients, I have to keep in my kitchen at all times. Some, I have to go out and search for. I have a diverse spice rack, but I don’t keep cumin on hand. It’s good to know where I can get it, though.

This analogy has been a part of the way my casting career was informed from the very beginning. I just love the “ingredients” analogy and, well, during a private coaching session the other day, I took it a little further.

As an actor, you are an ingredient, yes. The casting director is the shopper, given a list of ingredients required for a recipe (a recipe that can change while in-progress). Her job is to bring choices to the chef (usually the director) while always keeping in mind in precisely what kind of restaurant this meal will be prepared.

Here’s what I mean by that last bit: The producer is usually the owner of the restaurant (although sometimes the director and producer share chef and owner duties — this varies a great deal, joint to joint). If the restaurant is a mom-and-pop place, the recipe may change a lot while being made. At any moment, an ingredient could run short, the budget could require a replacement (say, dried basil instead of fresh, in that sauce), and diners may not experience the exact same dish each time they visit.

If the restaurant is a chain, of course, there’s network involvement. There’s a studio with a stake in the reputation of the dishes. This is where creativity often takes a backseat to consistency, in fact. So, it’s not that the chef (again, that director of yours) doesn’t WANT to use his favorite ingredient (that’s you), but there may be higher-ups who require that he follow a less exciting recipe so that everyone gets exactly what’s expected.

Makes sense about some of the shows that stay on the air, year after year, compared with the groundbreaking ones that are canceled before their first season is finished, right? If you went to Chili’s and their signature Baby Back Ribs recipe was slightly “off,” even if you actually enjoyed the new flavor, your confidence in that dish would erode. You wouldn’t be weirded out if the mom-and-pop rib shack had a zestier flavor one visit, but, just like for the big studio features, something OTHER than the proven formula could be catastrophic for a chain’s brand. While those new media projects can be filled with more edgy choices (creatively, in scripts, in casting) and still stick around a while due to local loyalty.

Let’s take a look at the other folks in your world, as you live your life as the best ingredient going: your representatives. Your agent, your manager, these folks are your sales reps. They are out there helping you get best shelf position in the market (the end-caps, rather than buried among a thousand other ingredients just like you, on the shelves). They may advise you about your logo design (your logo designer, of course, is one part headshot photographer, one part stylist, and a healthy helping of all the typing and branding work you’ve done before showing up to get headshots rolling). They may even contact ingredient buyers to make sure we’re aware that you exist… they may offer up samples (that’d be your reel footage or self-taped audition)!

You, as the ingredient being featured, need to align yourself with sales reps who have relationships with the buyers you’re hoping to attract. But outside all of this goodness, your biggest job is to be the best-ever WHATEVER ingredient you are, so there’s no question that you’re the go-to when that’s what’s needed. You get buzz. You’re talked about by diners all around town.

Don’t try to be every conceivable flavor out there at once (um, it’s not possible anyway) and trust when you aren’t chosen that it doesn’t always mean that you aren’t the best ingredient YOU are capable of being. It’s just a matter of logo design, free samples, shelf space, a sales rep who hustles to let the buyers know you exist, being an ingredient the buyer NEEDS to supply her chef with at exactly the right moment when the top reviewer is going to be in the restaurant to have a taste of that night’s menu… and then, beyond that, staying on the shelf to be utilized again and again, over time, no matter whether it’s in a mom-and-pop spot or the largest chain restaurant out there.

Phew! No big deal. Just be that best ingredient you can be, because THAT is something you control.

Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!

Originally published by Actors Access at Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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