How to Find Actors for Your Independent Film

Free tools & tips for connecting with talent - and treating them well.

 

“A great script is a great incentive.”

Lights Online Film School recently connected with Veronika Lee Daddona, the Supervising Casting Editor and Casting Specialist at Backstage, a preeminent casting resource that started as a print publication more than 50 years ago.

Backstage helps actors find career advice and casting information, and today, they also help indie filmmakers take control of the casting process by linking them directly with talent. We wanted to learn more about their role in the casting world – particularly in relation to indie film – as well as casting in general, because let’s face it: casting your mom in your production is usually not the best idea.

Thankfully, Veronika brings a wealth of firsthand experience to the table, from finding extras for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises to speaking at numerous casting panels and indie film workshops.

BackstageVeronikaInterview_Logo780

Hello, Veronika! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us today. Let’s frame our conversation with a quick overview of the basics: what’s involved in the casting process, and why is it important to indie and studio films alike?

I’d answer that question by asking you – what would The Graduate be without Dustin Hoffman in the lead role, or Top Gun without Tom Cruise?

I look at one of my favorite films of all time – the Swedish version of Let the Right One In. If you have seen that film, those kids conveyed the coldness and isolation of Scandinavia in their faces and body expressions. I don’t think many kids could have pulled off such an eerie and haunting script with such different material. Most of the people who have seen this horror film and any of the big budget films I mentioned firstly think of the actors attached to the project.

Of course, there are production people who think of the cinematography or script first, but for your average filmgoer, the actors bring the performance to life. These are the individuals who bring a script to life for the audience. It’s extremely important to find someone capable of expressing a project in the way you see fit.

From Let the Right One In | Sandrew Metronome and Magnet Releasing, 2008

I am always surprised to meet filmmakers, especially at the student level, who feel casting is the least important part of their decisions and put it off until the project is about ready to shoot. This even happens in some major television shows! If you want to ensure you get the best person, you need to have time to audition and make sure it’s a good fit – whether you are at the major budget level or at the early stages of your career.

You also want to make sure you have someone reliable and who can take direction and just in case have a back up, as well!

Well said! What casting jobs exist at the studio level, and what does each do? What about at the indie level?

Casting is a very competitive career at the studio level. A lot of studios have in-house casting directors who have direct relationships with agents and managers.

I’d say the indie level is more flexible. A lot of times indie filmmakers and their producers will cast directly, which is why I say Backstage is a valuable resource.

You usually can pay a specialized casting director to find your talent but that can get expensive. Casting is a lot of organization – no matter at what level. I especially feel for extras casting people, which I did a lot of, because no matter how big the budget, people may or may not show! This happens to principal and stunt casting as well.

Casting directors have this wonderful talent, that I think is undervalued a bit with the advent of new technologies, to remember faces and personalities and nuances. Casting directors hear people read for parts or come to an open call and they have this mental Rolodex of actors which ends up being invaluable to a filmmaker or producer.

You’ve already touched on this, but what makes a stellar casting director? When might an indie filmmaker bring a casting director on board? What are the advantages of involving a casting director?

Like I said, the ability to know faces and names and acting styles. The ability to project someone into a role. The bravery to fight for the right actor.

HBO did a great documentary called Casting By about casting director Marion Dougherty who worked with Scorsese and many others. Marion had this way of knowing who would be the best for the role and she would fight. Directors aren’t meeting actors every day but casting directors meet performers every day. Marion is also noted as one of the key players in creating the “New York Look” of 70s-80s films. You watch a show like Law and Order SVU or Sex and the City and those lead actors and those extras have that New York look that you can identify with 20 years later.

That’s a testament to the strength of a casting director.

Even now, when I don’t directly cast, I still meet people and think of what roles they would be good for or what type they would play.

As for an indie filmmaker, I’d say bring on a CD if you are absolutely not sure of what you want and/or don’t have the time to organize your auditions yourself. If you have extras in your scenes, get someone to book them and handle it because it is a LOT of work. Offer incentives if you aren’t paying for talent. A raffle for an Amazon giftcard or an iPad Mini – SOMETHING to get people to show up. It will save you a lot of headaches in the end!

Historically, how has Backstage interfaced with the film industry? How has casting in the film industry evolved over the years, and how has Backstage evolved accordingly?

Fifty years ago, if you wanted to be an actor, you HAD to come to NYC or LA. I believe I mentioned to you previously that a young Robert De Niro met Brian DePalma via a Backstage casting notice. When print was THE way of communication, casting directors and student filmmakers had to list their projects in the premiere industry trade publication, which was us at the time.

Now, obviously actors can work in other markets such as Atlanta, Chicago, Texas, Florida. But also, with the influx of technology, you can find talent online. The days of having to mail hardcopies of pix and resumes are almost over. I say almost because there are still a few veteran CDs out there who like headshots.

That being said, the beauty of Backstage is that it gives THE INDEPENDENT FILMMAKER the opportunity to cast. We aren’t just interested in big projects, which yes, we do get, but we value indie filmmakers. Not everyone is going to be cast as the lead in the next Michael Bay film, but you may be cast in a breakout film like It Follows.

You also never know who is the next big filmmaker. Our casting department is a relatively small team with varied experiences in film and TV production and casting. It genuinely makes us happy to link filmmakers with actors and to give that extra attention to those looking to find the best talent.

Awesome, Veronika. As you know, many indie filmmakers are strapped for cash. How might Backstage be able to help in this regard?

Because of our sincere belief in the spirit of independent film, we offer free casting to filmmakers and casting directors. Many of us on the Backstage casting team have worked and continue to work on indie film projects and we know what it’s like to work on a budget.

Backstage's home page.

Backstage’s home page.

Let’s say I’m an indie filmmaker eager to use Backstage – where do I start? What does the process entail from beginning to end?

It’s really easy to start finding talent for your project with us. All you need to do is visit www.backstage.com and click “Post a Job” in the top right corner. There you will be asked to enter your information and your breakdown. It’s very intuitive. Be descriptive!

At checkout, you enter the promocode LFSfree for free notices every time.

Great! Thanks to you and your team for supporting our students and readers.

Our pleasure! Your notice will go live right away and you can start searching for talent. I recommend communicating with them via our messaging system, getting sides to the talent you’d like to see read, and have them self-audition or schedule in person auditions ASAP.

I also recommend scheduling interviews in specific blocks of time at a reasonable place. Most filmmakers are shocked when actors aren’t willing to show up at their place of residence for an audition! We know the budgets are tight but be professional – see if a local university or office has a room to spare. It will help your actor read in a more relaxed atmosphere and demonstrate your own commitment to professionalism.

Totally. To explore the question of funding further here for a moment – the reality of many indie film projects is that there’s little pay available for actors (let alone anyone else)! What motivates an actor to say “yes” to a project? How can indie filmmakers create incentives that attract top talent?

A great script is a great incentive.

A lot of times I see filmmakers say in their breakdowns: “This is a great opportunity to be shot on a RED Camera!” That’s wonderful but most actors are not concerned with that. They want an opportunity to explore new territory and also exposure! If you have a large social media following, be sure to tell your applicants they will be promoted. As I previously mentioned, have an Amazon gift card available to raffle for extras or provide a travel stipend.

Even some of the most talented actors out there are struggling. Show them you care and you want to truly make them a part of your project and you should see a more positive response.

There’s an art to writing a casting call – what makes a good one? How can an indie filmmaker ensure their project stands out to actors on Backstage?

Be descriptive, but not from the perspective of a crew person. I don’t meet many actors invested in being shot with specific equipment, etc.

Be OPEN to who you are casting. I get so sad when I see a breakdown that reads “Alan: 5’10” approx., brown hair, green eyes.” Unless that is really 10,000% critical to your script, why so close minded? Obviously ethnic casting is a hot topic these days with the Oscars contention, etc. Why not leave your roles open to all ethnicities and see who you find? Not only does this make you a more responsible filmmaker, but it helps your roles reach a larger audience.

Also, include a good synopsis. We don’t need a full script paraphrasing.

Great advice. Once a casting call goes live and headshots start pouring in, what should indie filmmakers and/or their casting teams look for as they prescreen? How do you make good decisions about who to bring in and who to leave out? What guides you?

I am old school. I value communication above all. If you reach out to an actor and it takes him or her 3 days to respond, he or she is NOT your lead, that’s for sure. It’s every freelance working individual’s responsibility in 2016 to be in touch with job leads, whether in film or otherwise! If this person can’t respond to your casting inquiry, what makes you so sure he or she will confirm an audition and/or, even worse!, a call time?

Communication in the early stages says a lot about how a person will behave on set – I really believe that. If an actor thinks he or she is above responding in a timely fashion, he or she also believes they are above your project. Once auditions are scheduled, did they arrive on time? Were they prepared with the sides? Did they take direction well on even getting to the location? These are small clues but valuable.

I also find it most helpful that a person is willing and able to bring to the reading what YOU want, not what they feel is best. If you are open to suggestions, that’s one thing. But if you see something going a certain way, say so and give an actor time to present it to you in a way you see fit. If he or she can’t do that, they are not the one.

That feeds really well into our next question – how selective should one be when prescreening? Is there a rule of thumb governing how many actors one should bring in to audition?

I like to schedule blocks on time. So you might send an initial email that says: “I have the following times available for auditions – 1:15-1:30, 1:45-2 PM – please let me know what time works best.” Giving a tight window allows you to maximize the space you are in and having little breaks between readings allows you to make notes and reflect on what you just saw.

On that note, what does a typical day of casting look like at the indie level?

I’d say that differs for each project. Some indie filmmakers have been known to bring people to set last minute and others are doing readings a year in advance.

If using union actors, you will need to adhere to the rules of SAG-AFTRA and schedule appropriate work times and breaks and meals, etc. But even if you are utilizing nonunion talent without any union jurisdiction, you should be respectful of an actor’s time, especially if they are not being paid. Let him or her know if you plan early call times, if they need to come hair/makeup/camera ready. Be clear with them.

How long does an audition with an actor generally last? How much “directing” should an indie filmmaker do during an audition? What are some common mistakes indie filmmakers make when auditioning actors, and how can they be avoided?

It depends on who you ask. To me, you can get a sense of someone’s ability in 5 minutes. As a courtesy, you should give a second pass for a cold read, in my opinion. I think the worst thing you can do is ask about the actor personally – they are being hired to portray a character. On a job interview do you ask what someone did over the weekend or what he or she likes to do for fun? No! So why would you ask that in an audition?

What are callbacks, and why are they important? How, if at all, can Backstage help manage the callback process?

Callback auditions are useful for a few reasons. In general, callbacks are used by the casting director to get a second look at a performer. This meaning that they went through their original auditions (either an open call or appointments), and selected a few or numerous to invite in for another audition. This can be to get a better feel for the performer as a person or to work with the performer on a certain character trait, or go through some slight scene work to see how the performer handles direction.

Additionally, callbacks are often used to hold auditions in front of the creative team of the production which is being cast, be it the director, the writer, the producers, etc.

Casting Director Marion Dougherty | Casting By, HBO, 2012

Casting Director Marion Dougherty | Casting By, HBO, 2012

A casting director’s job is to bring the talent they feel fits the creative team’s vision for the roles provided, so after the initial auditions, the CD will whittle the talent field down to only those they feel strongly enough to bring in front of the creative team.

Backstage’s Application Management system lets filmmakers move applicants through a workflow that helps to keep the casting process organized from the initial submission, to auditions, callbacks, and even after casting is complete.

After the initial auditions, they can use the Auditions tab to remove the actors they didn’t like (sending them to the “No” folder) and send followup messages to the actors they liked, to invite them to the callbacks. And when they’ve chosen which actors they’d like to cast, they can move them to the “Cast” folder – and from there, they can easily send followup messages to their cast (to let them know that they’ve been cast, to provide them with call times before and during the production, etc.).

We’d love to hear about some of your firsthand casting experiences, Veronika! Any stories from the trenches you care to share? Words of wisdom for indie filmmakers preparing to cast their projects? What about for aspiring casting directors?

I really have so many stories that I hope to write a book one day – especially dealing with extras.

I have had to cast and have helped to cast so many insane roles that I never thought I would find, including a veteran with a real bionic arm (no lie!), three little people at 5 AM in the morning, a stand-in for a dog, a New York City local with a monster truck, 200 Middle Eastern men, butt photodoubles, and then some. I never believed I could do it and then magically, you end up pulling it off somehow.

How about a casting call for cats? | For Tales of Terror, 1961, Photos by Ralph Crane

How about a casting call for black cats? | For Tales of Terror, 1961, Photos by Ralph Crane

I’d have to say I like Steven Soderbergh’s way of shooting – no super early call times, reasonable shoot days that don’t go for 16 hours. And I definitely stand by what I said about treating actors right. I worked on a major show where the lead actor was truly treated badly – not given proper scheduling, etc. The actor quit in the middle of a season which is underheard of and left the showrunners, executive producers, casting, writers, EVERYONE scrambling. Now this actor is on one of the highest rated shows on television and I am sure is treated with respect!

The thing with film productions is you have to have the highest tolerance for ambiguity. Maybe it’s me catastrophizing, but I believe on a film shoot, be prepared for any and every worst case scenario. I have booked people for high paying stunt and principal roles and had them bail at the most inconvenient time, so always make sure you or your casting person has someone in your back pocket.

If you are aspiring to be a casting director or do anything involving the industry, be prepared to WORK HARD and be professional. I got started freelancing in Philadelphia and I think the only reason they kept me on was I didn’t spend the day taking pictures of the set when I thought no one was looking.

At the end of the day, it’s a job. You need to have a thick skin – whether you are working on majors or indies.

Thanks for sharing your perspective with us here at Lights, Veronika – clearly, casting is a vital step in the filmmaking process!

To start casting with Backstage, head on over to their website. To post a notice, click “Post a Job” in the top right corner and enter LFSfree at checkout for free postings.

 Michael Koehler, with


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