For those of you who have read my first book, Casting Qs: A Collection of Casting Director Interviews, this will be a rerun. But I realized that in three years of writing The Actors Voice, I’ve not once talked about how to get into casting, should that be of interest to you. So, when I received an email from an actor looking for tips on how to transition into casting, I figured I’d roll this piece out.
Even if you’re not into casting for yourself, learning a little bit more about how others get their industry gigs should prove helpful. Of course, there is no one way to get any job in Hollywood, but in compiling the following information, I sought out advice from theatre, film, television, and commercial casting directors, in an attempt to round out the range of experiences they had, in becoming CDs.
Getting Started as a Casting Director
The best route in, though not necessarily the only route in, is through an internship. The time spent as an intern is valuable and exhausting, according to most casting directors. Judy Belshé-Toernblom earned $30 in her first year as an intern. “There is no better training you can get,” she insisted.
“The hardest part is getting that first job as an assistant,” CSA member Jan Glaser admitted.
A former actor, Elisa Goodman recalled observing other actors in her classes. “I remember thinking, ‘This one will never work,’ and ‘This one is interesting.'” Goodman started auditioning for Equity Waiver plays in LA and felt frustration over the lack of organization during the audition process. “I wrote a letter to [several theatres] and offered my services as a casting director. They jumped at the opportunity,” she explained.
Several casting directors likened the experience of interning in a casting office as going to casting college. “They don’t teach this in schools!” Sarah Halley Finn, CSA, exclaimed. She continued to explain the importance of the internship period. “People would look at that time and think, ‘Oh, I’m not getting paid.’ Well, you’re also not paying to get a Master’s Degree in what you want to do. Maybe someday there will be a course in how to become a casting director and they’ll cover how to do a commercial, how to handle pilot season, how to cast a film, how to release a breakdown, how to run a session, how to negotiate a deal. But, until then, the way to learn is to get a job as an intern. There is so much to learn just listening to the process while sitting on the floor going through pictures.”
Interns and assistants generally answer phones, open and sort submissions, sign in actors at sessions, provide sides, answer questions, run cameras during sessions, and run errands. More than that, interns learn. “It really is graduate school,” explained casting director-turned-agent Cathy Reinking of the internship period. “I really wanted to do it. I gave up a high-paying job to do it. You know after one week if you’re cut out for casting.”
Stephen Snyder recalled, during his three months as an intern, opening envelopes at first, and eventually running the camera during sessions and working on deals. “It was a very quick rise through the ranks, which is really unusual,” he said.
Marnie Saitta, CSA, explained that an entry-level position in a casting office allows an aspiring casting director to get respect for the casting process. “When you deal with actors coming in, agents on the phone, and the day-to-day work, you learn very fast,” she said.
“You learn first-hand how a specific office operates while you familiarize yourself with agencies, actors’ names, different types of scripts, and — most importantly — how to deal with heavy phone and submission loads,” explained CSA member Dean Fronk, of the intern position.
“When someone is looking for a job as a casting assistant, they should send their resume to both CSA and Breakdown Services,” said Mark Paladini, CSA.
In fact, Gary Marsh confirmed that Breakdown Services will gladly accept resumes from prospective casting assistants via email. “We put the resume out there. It’s not a fee service. We’re just helping casting directors who need assistants as well as helping assistants who need casting directors to know they exist,” Marsh explained.
I’ll also recommend that aspiring casting directors keep an eye on websites like EntertainmentCareers.net for internship opportunities, as well as maintaining contacts with folks in the industry who could give you head’s up about such things.
Julie Ashton recommended a more proactive approach. “You have to go for it. Call casting directors and ask, ‘Can I take you to lunch?’ It’s a competitive field and you need to be able to aggressively pursue it,” she said.
“Apply everywhere you would be proud to work. Devote as many hours per week as possible. Inevitably, the interns who spend 30 to 40 hours per week with us come out with the most knowledge,” Stuart Howard, CSA, explained.
Goodman recommended the internship program offered by the Television Academy. “They screen applicants about why they would want to [intern].”
“Find a casting director whose work you respect, send your resume, and try to get in the door,” Peter Golden, CSA, instructed. “The tricky part is finding a casting director who is generous enough to let you grow as you learn more. You need to spend time in sessions, talk with producers. A good mentor will know when this is appropriate.”
My experience was different in that I had interviewed a couple hundred casting directors for Backstage when Katy Wallin, CSA, called me up and asked me to be her casting coordinator for a reality show on FOX. I resisted, but the pay was outstanding and the commitment was five weeks, so I did it to fund the production of my second book, Self-Management for Actors. I was asked to stay on for an NBC show, but declined in order to take the time and write my next book. Then I was asked back for another FOX show. If it’s possible, I had even more fun casting that show than the first one. At the end of that eight-week contract, I was offered a job in production for the show, but declined.
Instead, I put together my meager first casting resume and submitted it to a filmmaker who had a “crew wanted” listing in Backstage for his $25,000 SAG Experimental feature film. I worked for six weeks, cast 10 speaking roles, and earned $100. (I don’t work that cheap anymore.) I was hooked. I began casting SAG indie films and decided that each project would have a bigger budget than the one before it. All that to say, you can become a casting director pretty dang quickly, if you’ve got a lot of industry experience, outstanding relationships, and the ability to apply what you know from acting (and, in my case, from writing about casting) to the day to day work.
Skills Required of a Casting Director
- great attitude
- willingness to serve
- calm demeanor
- ability to multitask
- tendency to be both left- and right-brained
- good handwriting
- passion for sessions
- willingness to work long hours (12 or more a day)
- willingness to attend theatre and screenings after work
- excellent memory
- patience for the grunt work
- ability to handle very heavy phones
- good sense of humor
- organizational skills
- outstanding communication
- great taste
- negotiating skills
- ability to leave your ego at the door
- love for reading stacks of scripts
- people skills
- ability to think clearly in chaotic situations
- ability to develop relationships in the industry
- love for actors
- great eyes and ears for what is going on
- respect for the process
- team spirit
- strong opinions
- love for coffee (“Coffee is the only constant,” said Billy DaMota.)
Moving Up as a Casting Director
The title of casting associate is one that comes with more experience and responsibility than an assistant has, but without the full responsibility of the project’s main casting director. “Some people give away that credit pretty freely,” explained Randi Hiller, CSA. “I never got it very freely. When I was an associate, I was negotiating deals and holding sessions with the director on my own. I think the time you spend as an assistant and an associate is incredibly important. You need to have such a database of actors who you can rely on. That database takes a long time to assemble and then you still don’t connect until you’ve met each actor and you know their work.”
Associates sometimes work on their own projects under the supervision of the casting director, according to Goodman. “They may make baby deals (Scale + 10%), preread actors, make lists, check quotes, speak with producers and directors, sit in on the sessions, read with actors, and scout for specific roles (especially children),” she detailed.
Reinking’s training as a theatre director aided her rise to associate. “It took me a couple of years. You need to find somebody who is willing to give you a big break. It’s so great to have someone who believes in you.” When Reinking was making that move through the ranks in TV, she would cast USC thesis projects while on hiatus. “November to April, we’re really busy. Otherwise, I’m out of a job. If you work in television, you have to have something else going on.”
There is a long apprenticeship period to becoming a casting director, according to Mark Teschner, CSA. “You have to learn good acting. You have to develop the ability to look at a script and conceptualize who could play what role. It’s a synthesis of talents,” he said.
“My apprenticeship never really ended,” said DaMota. “Even after I was promoted, I continued to soak up the casting process like a sponge.”
“Do a good job, make sure your employer is aware that you are doing a good job, and make sure your employer knows you wish to go further in this field,” listed Howard.
“The industry moves fast. An assistant can move on to bigger and better things all the time. If you are a level-headed individual who knows films, TV, and theatre, a busy casting office will grab you,” explained Fronk.
Terry Berland described elements specific to becoming a commercial casting director. “You have to learn all the elements — choosing talent, setting up sessions, protecting a client from fines and overages beyond their budget. You are only as good as your last job, and you have to come up with fresh new ideas for your clients,” she said.
According to Golden, a future casting director moves up through the ranks by seeing everything. “Watch one episode of every show, attend as much theatre as you can — Broadway, London, waiver theatre in LA, see every movie. You must get to know actors and their work,” Golden insisted.
Belshé-Toernblom described the most “honorable way” to move up: “Don’t take the connections of the person that took a chance on you and trained you.”
“A good casting director has a well-defined personal list of favorite actors and their credits and abilities. Your list becomes vital to you as a casting individual,” said CSA member Linda Phillips-Palo.
Saitta suggested taking an acting class. “Casting directors should study acting, get up in front of people, know what it is that actors are going through. It helps casting directors to be in tune with what the actors need to do and helps us speak their language,” she explained.
Being a Casting Director
An average day at the beginning of a feature film, according to Goodman entails phone calls, prereads, opening mail, putting actors on tape, setting up sessions. “During down time it would be cleaning, throwing out old headshots, date-stamping headshots to save, alphabetizing headshots so that we can find them in a hurry,” she listed.
Pay, of course, is a touchy subject. The rate of pay for casting directors is not standardized, but I did the best I could to get an idea of a range of pay for the profession. In general, assistants earn $400 to $650 per week. Associates earn $700 to $1000 per week depending on how much responsibility they have. Casting directors earn anywhere from $2500 to $80,000 to cast a feature film (and pay rate is sometimes calculated as a percentage of the budget for hiring actors). Theatre casting directors receive a fee to cast the play and a weekly salary for the run of the show (in case there are additional casting needs). Commercial casting directors earn $500 to $1000 per day of casting. No one I spoke with in television casting would go on record with a salary amount, but much depends on the network we’re talking about, how long the show has been on the air, and how big a hit it might have been last season.
When I asked casting directors about CSA, the Casting Society of America, I was met with vastly different opinions on the benefits and importance of membership. “On my card, it says CDWTA [Casting Director, Writer, Teacher, Actress]. I was a casting director before there was a CSA. I provide myself freedom and my own medical insurance and it’s two more initials than the CSA,” quipped Belshé-Toernblom.
“Besides the free Academy Players Directory and the terrific staff, CSA provides casting directors the opportunity to make a difference for the community of casting directors,” explained Paladini.
Teschner added, “CSA is a supportive body. It’s nice to encourage what it is to be a casting director.”
Commercial casting director Jeff Gerrard, went on record as president of the Commercial Casting Directors Association: “CCDA membership is open to all commercial casting directors with a minimum of two years casting for their own company with 80% of their income coming through commercial casting,” he detailed. According to its website, CSA membership requires two years’ experience, plus letters of recommendation and sole screen credit.
Casting Is NOT for You If…
- you don’t like people
- you don’t like redoing things
- you expect a regular paycheck
- you mind being unemployed
- you hope to hang out with celebrities
- you are an actor with even 1% desire to remain an actor
- you are not willing to pay your dues
- you are on a power trip
- you don’t watch TV, see movies, or attend theatre
- you desire the spotlight
- you have a tendency to bite off more than you can chew
- you expect weekends off
- you believe you’ll have a better chance at getting roles as an actor
- you second-guess your choices
The Rewards of Casting
As a former actor, Snyder summed up the joy of casting in terms of the actor’s experience. “Instead of doing one individual role per project as a performer who creates and explores the role, a casting director gets to help breathe life into 12 to 50 characters per project,” he mused.
“I have a sample reel just like an actor has a demo reel,” revealed Gerrard. “We go out there the same exact way an actor goes out there. And when things are slow, there is always paperwork to file with the guild and the ad agencies. And with independent films, the job continues months after it’s in the can sometimes.”
“Remember, if you’re doing your job well, someone else will shine. It can’t be all about you,” Golden said.
“What’s so wonderful about casting,” began Finn, “is that it combines so many elements of our industry: acting, directing, budgeting, negotiating, managing, all the business parts of it.”
I have to say, for me, it was awesome to find out I could combine the business and creative parts of my brain and earn a living helping bring amazing people together. I remember holding my breath when I would attend a screening of a project I had acted in, just before my first scene came up. I still hold my breath, but now I’m doing it throughout the entire film, because if I’ve done my job right, the relationships are believable and we all go on a journey with the characters. One of the biggest lessons for me has been that there is no right or wrong way to cast a project. Our job is to bring choices to those who then decide exactly what they want the finished product to look and feel like. Every day is different, and I love that!
“The rewards are emotional,” insisted Teschner. “The reason we all do this is because we enjoy the feeling that we found someone that the world now enjoys in the role.”
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Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000716.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.