Key Casting and Auditions

Once the director is attached, casting choices can begin, well before the start of the formal casting process.

In anticipation of official casting, it’s back to the master lists, this time concentrating on the lead roles, but also keeping in mind well-written or showy smaller roles that can also attract a name and offer possibilities for the Best Supporting Actor or Actress categories, in both the Academy Awards and the various critical and independent film awards.

Agents are usually happy to assist in this process, making suggestions and sometimes offering ideas that might not have occurred to the producer or director. Prior to the start of formal casting, informal meetings can be arranged between key talent and the director. These are not accompanied by auditions, but represent a casual means of determining whether there is real interest by either party, and more importantly, whether there is some chemistry between the performer and the director.

No matter how well cast an actor may be for a part, if the director is not enthusiastic about the performer or the performance, it’s unlikely the necessary believability of the character will exist on screen. Just as actors who have to co-exist on screen need certain chemistry, so do a director and his or her cast.

There are legendary stories of abusive directors past and present who bully their actors, but they are rarely the choice of the best performers, who prefer to work with filmmakers who respect their mastery of their craft. There are also very successful directors whom actors loathe, and they still manage to cast their films with stars that make lots of money by working with these filmmakers. But money alone does not buy professional happiness, and the best experiences for both director and actor are genuinely collaborative.

As casting choices coalesce, moving with speed and purpose becomes essential. There is a definable pool of bankable actors and actresses on several levels both studio and independent, that makes financing more rather than less likely. The sooner that talent is packaged and attached and brought to the financier to complete the financing package, the more assuredly the path to production can be pursued.

Once a casting director can be hired, the process becomes much more comprehensive and productive. The casting director should have the resources to provide comprehensive ideas and suggestions for all the key roles. They should be aware of who is marketable, who the offbeat and creative choice is, and even who is available for the envisioned period of production. They should also have a good idea of what talent will cost.

A key decision early on is the degree to which the budget will have to be modified to accommodate the actors the director and producer want to cast. The latter want the best possible talent; the agent wants the most possible money; the financier wants to spend the least possible money. Therein lies the challenge for the producer, the casting director and the talent representation and for all the potential hurdles, casting deals usually are worked out.


Formal auditions are a necessity in the casting process, and are almost always recorded. Those present usually include the casting director and an assistant, the director, the producer(s), and sometimes a lead actor who has already been cast, and has agreed to read with potential co-stars. Otherwise, the casting director reads opposite the auditioning performer, with sometimes effective and sometimes appalling results.

There are performers who refuse to read, either due to status or nerves, and it’s best to respect those parameters, rather than try to force the issue. Some well-known actors find it demeaning to have to prove their cinematic worth, since they feel their work speaks for itself.

Others simply do not do well in the pressure-cooker environment of the audition, with five hostile-looking sets of eyes across a table in a cold and sterile office or stage. These may well do better in the collaborative and rehearsed atmosphere of the set, much as people who do not test well can still be highly intelligent and productive in pressure-filled situations.

A discussion of the screenplay between the director and the actor or actress can often be more productive than a reading with this type of actor, who can be made to feel comfortable and open by the director in a way quite different than the expectations demanded of a reading.

Having this meeting at the casting session also gives the casting director, producer and others involved in the final casting choices an insight into the possible relationship between director and actor.
Nationwide talent searches are sometimes both a casting necessity and a good publicity device, although they can be expensive and time-consuming. Casting resources are best spent in a focused and productive manner, concentrating on getting the best actors who are the most readily and easily available to meet or read with the director.

Some directors prefer what are called “cattle calls,” an endless parade of actors and actresses who each get about five to ten minutes to read a scene or segment of a scene, known as “sides,” before the next performer is ushered in. These auditions are perfunctory, often dispiriting for both the actor and those casting the film, but sometimes essential if a national search is taking place.

Other directors prefer to spend time working with actors they spark and respond to, and those casting sessions can take much longer, and be more involved and sometimes revealing about the character. These sessions can also demonstrate the potential chemistry between actor and director, and if the time and money are available, are well worth the investment. It is exciting to see an actor or actress make the character come alive in an audition, and there are times when it is obvious to all concerned that the right actor has been found for the role, and the casting for this particular character is done.

Then becomes the treacherous process of making offers and reaching a deal, which can have everything to do with competing offers, scheduling pitfalls, salary requirements and accompanying perquisites that were previously discussed such as housing, transportation and entourage, and billing. If the director wants the actor, and the actor wants the role, the deal can usually be worked out. If it can’t be, it’s often because someone doesn’t really want it to happen.

A determination should be made early on what talent should be cast out of major production centers, and which roles can be cast locally, on location.

It is obviously much less expensive to hire local talent, which does not have to be transported, housed and paid per diem. But the most important duty of the filmmakers is to cast the best actor possible for key roles, and the money spent on the better actor is usually worth the investment, if the budget so permits. All casting decisions have to be made within the economic reality that the budget demands.

The audition reading accomplishes several things at once. It gives the director an insight into the actor’s initial reading of the character, it tells the director how the actor performs in a situation of intense pressure (as any actor who has auditioned will testify) which is not dissimilar from the pressures that exist on set. Finally, it gives some indication of whether the camera likes or loves the actor’s physicality, or whether the performer comes off as flat or innately unattractive when photographed.

An offer may be conditional on a formal screen test, again with an already cast actor preferable opposite the auditioner. A screen test often requires full hair, makeup and wardrobe for both or multiple performers. Screen tests are not inexpensive, so they should be utilized only when a key casting decision is needed, or lingering doubts make a screen test the only way to make a clear-cut casting decision. The director always directs these tests, and the director of photography of the film, if available, is asked to shoot it.

Presumably the budget has already dictated what the casting will be with stars, sort-of-stars, well-known character actors, or unknown actors, who can be identified as anyone no one ever heard of. Every actor has a price, and the budget must be spread over the entire cast. A common practice as of late has been to spend 95% of the cast budget on the principal leads, and then hire actors for Screen Actors Guild scale in all of the supporting roles.

The good character has a lengthy and proud history in Hollywood, and as the Supporting Actor categories reminds us every year, the brilliant small turn, the vital best friend or co-worker, and the vivid character who may have only one scene but makes the utmost of it can add immeasurably to a film’s impact and success. There are many familiar actors who add immeasurably to the overall impact of the film, and the producer who budgets a little more for these parts will reap the benefits down the line.

A local casting director is usually hired to cast non-speaking or very small (one or two lines) roles, and if the budget permits, a separate individual hired to do extras casting, which is a time consuming and logistical nightmare all by itself, so an experienced and effective local extras casting person is a worthwhile expense.