Five Years in Casting

Five years ago Saturday, I clocked in on my first day of work as casting coordinator for AFRS (Another F’ing Reality Show) for Fox. Previously, I had cast a play here and there, I had interned in a few casting offices, and I had shadowed quite a few of my casting mentors as a part of the CD-interview process for my weekly column at Back Stage West. I had opened headshot envelopes, I had sorted headshots, I had filed headshots, I had purged files of sorted headshots. I had copied sides, I had handed out sides, I had retrieved discarded sides after sessions. I even got to sit in on those top-secret meetings between CDs and producers or ad agency reps, listening to them talk about actors in ways that surprised, appalled, and delighted me.

But it wasn’t until five years ago Saturday that I got to have my name on anything as a true, recorded “part” of the casting process. Yeah, it was for a reality show, and that meant I was wrangling recruiters in ten different cities and then clearing a hundred or so candidates through the risk management process (Hoo, boy! What a party all that paperwork is! Let me tell ya), working with them as they made it to the Los Angeles interviews and beyond. I was so excited, six weeks later, when my name first appeared in the credits for Mr. Personality, that I took a photo of the TV screen (bonus points for the fact that they were promoting a Michael Jackson tell-all at the same time).

After another few reality show experiences (read more about my decision to shift from the high-pay/low-creativity casting of reality TV to the low-pay/high-creativity casting of micro-budget indie films in a recent interview I did for Actors Life), I decided casting was definitely the job for me and began my SAG indie career with a $25,000 feature film called A Dull House. I worked on that film for six weeks, cast a dozen speaking roles, and earned a whopping $100. It was the copy, credit, meals stage of my casting career. I was in heaven.

Since then, I have cast 429 actors in union roles. Of those actors, 64 were minors. I’ve consulted on projects that have led to roles for another 49 actors. I have seen 86,831 role-specific submissions, called in 4387 actors for prereads, called back 633 actors, and made straight offers to 112 “name” actors along the way. A total of 411 actors have flaked on auditions with no notification whatsoever. Films I have cast have screened in 37 festivals worldwide. Four of the films I cast “died” before shooting (another two are still brewing, they promise me). I have Taft-Hartleyed three actors. Actors have earned as little as “deferred scale +10%” and as much as $10K per day on projects I have cast (and if an offer we currently have out on a film I’m casting is accepted, that “high end” number will bump up to about $100K per day). A total of 873 different agencies or management companies have submitted their actors on the 42 projects I have cast. One hundred and nine of those representatives have submitted on at least half of the breakdowns I’ve released in these five years, every time.

Favorite moments (well, maybe “favorite” isn’t the right word for some of these) include…

The gal who brought a knife into the audition with her. She was doing a dramatic monologue. Her story was that of what it’s like to be a cutter. As she spoke, she dragged the blade back and forth across her thigh until a trail of blood trickled down to the floor. We were all far too stunned to stop her… and way too terrified to ever call her in again. (Thus began the rules: no monologues. No props.)

The guy who ran laps and barked. Ah… devoted a portion of a previous column to him. Very special.

The young actor I brought in on a supporting role as a favor to his manager (he was new to LA and really didn’t have any credits) who so blew me away that I asked him to look at the lead role. He just happened to have downloaded the entire script (not just the sides for his little supporting role) and pulled it from his backpack, flagged and dog-eared and highlighted. He asked, “What scene?” And proceeded to nail it, get cast in the role (a role we were offering out to name actors; not auditioning at all), kick ass with it, win a series of film festival awards for it, and all of those other cool things that Hollywood dreams are built on.

The day I came home from ten hours of producer sessions on one project only to find the following three things waiting for me: the casting deal memo and script for the next film I would be casting, word that the lead actor in the film I had just wrapped casting on had dropped out of the project and I would need to recast… tonight, and flowers from an actor who signed with an agent due to a meeting I’d set up for her (after casting her on a previous project and learning about her abysmal luck with representation).

The gal who called from labor to tell me she wouldn’t be able to make it to her audition after all, but that if we were still seeing people next week, perhaps she could make it in then.

Giddily applying for CSA membership, gathering my amazing letters of recommendation, writing my essay, waiting until exactly two years after my “first full casting credit” to qualify, and then being heartbroken when I learned I was rejected, because in my hyphenate lifestyle, it’s assumed this is “just another phase and not really [my] career.”

Being named a Top Casting Director by the readers of Backstage in their “Best of Los Angeles” edition… ah, the paper that started it all for me, since it’s my “actor survival job” as a columnist at Back Stage West that led me to interviewing over 200 casting directors and then becoming one, myself.

And best of all? Getting to share this process with readers here each week, so hopefully actors everywhere can benefit from seeing what it is that I am learning every week as I do my job. Hopefully, a little bit of it helps everyone do his or her job a bit better next time too.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from my CSA application, written a little under three years ago. It still sums up my feelings pretty well.

During the session, there is nothing else. I love that. Having been an actor from age six to age thirty, I recall the bliss that is going into the room and owning the role, even for a moment. Whether I would ever be the actor cast, I would always embrace and enjoy those experiences in the room. Being invited in was always exciting. Being asked back for a callback was confirmation that I was castable. If I booked the role, I knew I’d been given a reward for auditioning well.

Having worked in casting since February 2003, I’ve learned first-hand about “the rest.” I’ve learned there is serving the budget, choosing the actors best for the network’s agenda, meeting with actors repped by agents whose “other talent” I need access to, serving the director’s vision, and taking good care of the actors who share their souls with us in the above-referenced sessions. I’ve learned that there are many visions to serve, in casting a project.

Here it is two and a half years since my first job in casting. I have now cast 13 feature films, I’ve worked in casting/risk management on four television series, and am currently casting my first AEA/99-seat stage play for Hudson Theatricals. I love every moment of my job. I enjoy receiving pitch calls from agents. I love negotiating terms for contracts. I’ve become a specialist in the SAG indie/low budget contracts (and I love working with actors and filmmakers at that level). And I find every day of my job to be blissfully fulfilled with new challenges and frustrations.

Wait. Did I just say I love the frustrations? Yes. I did. And I do. Because those frustrations serve the project. And that’s what I’m hired to do. I’ll come home from sessions and have to deal with actors who’ve fallen out of the project, agents who have a bigger deal to negotiate, producers with nepotism to serve. No, I won’t cast a feature film for $100 anymore (though I did enjoy being at that part of my journey), but I sincerely love getting to bring the most talented actors I know together with wonderful producers, directors, and writers, in the hopes of helping to build a vision that the rest of the world can enjoy.

All that said, I love the sessions. The sessions are the moments when actors own the roles and the director, producer, investor, network, or other interested party is seeing his or her vision LIVE. What bliss to have been taught “what I’m supposed to be when I grow up” by having interviewed people doing this job! I continue to give back exactly that. It’s why I continue to write about what casting is for me, thus far.

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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