Risk Assessment

I believe that one of the casting director’s primary duties is assessing risk on behalf of producers. Yes, we have this really cool job that involves reading a script, making a list of actors who are best-matched for each role (and that list includes our “wildest dreams” cast and goes all the way down to the new kid in town who mailed in a headshot last week that just happened to click for some reason), putting out a breakdown, receiving pitches and submissions, scheduling auditions, weeding through to the final callback level, and then excitedly making offers to the actors the producers choose to cast (followed by the painstaking process of finalizing contract points that cover sometimes obnoxiously minute details), but if you think about it, our job is mainly about risk assessment. Producers hire casting directors not only to help them find the best-matched actor for each role but also to help them predict the level of risk involved in each casting decision.

This concept didn’t exist for me when I was an actor. It didn’t even come to my attention while I interviewed a couple hundred casting directors as a columnist for Back Stage West. Not until I became a casting director myself (and probably somewhere after my second year of doing it) did I notice a distinct pattern in my interactions with producers. We’d be down to our final two actors in the decision-making process for a particular role and a filmmaker would put the question to me, “Who’s going to end up causing me more headaches?” And that’s where my job as the risk-assessment specialist (AKA casting director) would come into play at its most intense level. (Because, really, I had been assessing risk at several stages before this moment, but it’s this point-blank question that makes this part of my job very clear.) So, how does a CD assess risk and how can an actor appear to minimize the producer’s risk, when being assessed?

Your Resumé

I’m going to look at your resumé to get an idea of the work you’ve done in the past, your training, and special skills, of course. It’s the work you’ve done that is going to be most successful in helping me assess risk. If I am casting a film with a lot of green screen special effects and you have a recent credit that shows me you worked extensively with green screen technology, you’re a lower risk than someone who hasn’t done any green screen work. Casting directors working on multi-camera, live-audience sitcoms are looking for multi-camera, live-audience sitcom credits on your resumé. Does a class in this stuff count? It’s not bad… but it’s not as good as experience. Our risk is lower if someone else has already hired you to do what we’re looking to hire you to do.

If you have only ever worked at the co-star level on episodic television, getting that first top-of-show guest-star role is going to be tough. The producer who hires you to do that gig is taking a bigger risk on you than the next producer who hires you to do that. If you’ve never been the lead in a feature film, the first filmmaker to cast you in a leading role will help with your future risk assessment for roles of that size. While your resumé may seem (to you) to be a list of your work and training, to us, it’s a list of people who have taken a risk on you, thereby lowering our risk. If you’re looking to be perceived as an actor who can book those larger roles, start taking those smaller roles off your resumé. If you want to be seen as a romantic lead, remove some of the comedic character roles from your resumé. The more focus we see in the types of risks that have already been taken on you, the more likely we are to believe we’d be wise to bring you in. Obviously, if we already know your work, this point is moot, but still an actor’s resumé is the first place a casting director does a bit of risk assessment. Interns spend entire days pulling headshots out of submission bins based on criteria like: “has TelePrompTer experience.”

Your Reel

Your reel is going to answer questions for me that your headshot and resumé cannot. How does this actor sound? How is her comedic timing? How is his chemistry on-camera? How old does he read? What is her ethnicity range? Beyond that, your demo reel footage also helps with risk assessment in that anything we can see you doing that happens to be similar to something we will need you to do in this particular role is going to get you closer to an audition for it. This is all the more reason actors who have enough footage should consider creating reels that highlight specific types of roles. That way, each can be used to market a different type of “you” and make the level of risk involved in hiring you to do that type of work look smaller and smaller (i.e., “Wow! This actor has four action films on this reel! She’d be great for our high-voltage thriller.”)

In the Room

Obviously, most of the preparation is on your shoulders, but when you enter the room for an audition, the CD is assessing the risk involved in casting you based on how performance-ready you are. Do you appear to need a lot of direction? Are you coming off high-maintenance? Or did you show up with The Three C’s in place, ready to rock? If we’re casting a film with a very tight shooting schedule and we’ve been told that there will be no time for rehearsal, it’s going to be very important that you show us (at your audition) that you’ve already done all of the rehearsing you’re going to need to do for this project. That way, we can cast you and know we’ve saved ourselves the expense of an extra day or a dialogue coach.

In the Public Eye

How do you come off in public? Yeah, you may think you’re below the tabloid radar and paparazzi might not shout your name when you dash for your car, but you probably have a MySpace account, right? Are all of your photos of you, semi-conscious after doing body shots? Do all of your blog entries begin, “I was so wasted…”? Are you going to make me worry that you won’t make it to set on time if you had to “get your party on” the night before? (Oh, and if you think producers aren’t on MySpace, think again. I’ve enjoyed quite a bit of networking with dozens of my casting colleagues, every filmmaker I’ve cast for thus far in my career, tons of actors, and a bunch of agents and managers in my three months on MySpace. And even if your profile is set to “private,” there are Internet Archive services and cached pages that leave a trail of your online footprints.)

I’ve actually had a producer email me to say she liked an actor I brought in for auditions but, after going home and doing a web search on him, she became certain she didn’t want to work with him. Turns out he had blogged a pretty negative experience he had had on set once before (and even if he is 100% in the right in everything he blogged, it was enough to scare off this producer). What if she were to be his next victim? She wasn’t going to risk her reputation as a producer on this actor’s “right to blog” about personality conflicts. Heck, I’m one of the most open bloggers out there and I still play my industry relationship cards very close to the vest. It’s just good business sense! Assume that part of the risk assessment that’s going on these days (in any potential employment situation) includes a good Googling.

Risk vs. Reward

Much of this brings up the whole catch-22 actors face: trying to get that shot when no one will consider them until they’ve been given a shot. And there’s the whole concept of great risk yielding great rewards. Personally, I get very excited when I convince a producer to take a big risk, cast an unknown, and then have it pay off big. But think about the scale on which we’re dealing. Recommending a book to someone is easy. It’s a $20 purchase or free trip to the library and if the friend hates the book, no biggie. But recommending an expensive colorist who botches a hairstyle beyond repair and costs someone a booking is a bigger risk. Imagine if you recommended an accountant who ended up embezzling your friend’s $10,000. You’d be mortified! Okay, what if you recommended someone for a role in a $20M feature film and that actor ended up shutting down production for a month while in jail or rehab? Uh-oh. So, consider the level of recommendation you’re asking for on the part of the CD. Very little risk involved if we’re casting a day-player on a low-budget indie vs. a series regular role on a network pilot. Build on the little risks CDs are already taking on you.

In the end, a casting director’s word is only worth as much weight as the relationship between the CD and producer will carry. There are some producers to whom I can say, “Cast this actor,” and it’s a done deal. There are others to whom I can provide every possible bit of evidence that a particular actor is the right one to cast without it making any difference whatsoever in what the producers choose to do. Just like actors, CDs build a reputation by having done a great job on the last gig (and all the ones before that). The more often we are “right” in our risk assessment and recommendations, the more weight our opinion will carry. If we’ve gotten to this point and decided that you absolutely are worth the risk, we’ll go to bat for you in a way that’s more passionate than even your own agent may be willing to pitch you.


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 http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000454.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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