How to Work with Your Casting Director

The art of "painting with faces".

“There are no small parts.”

What do director Martin Scorsese’s films have in common with each other? What about The Coen Brothers’ films?

The more movies you watch by a director, the more you sense the similarities that unite them – after all, in the words of Jean Renoir, “a director makes only one movie in his life, then he breaks it up and makes it again.” Certainly, the films of both Scorsese and The Coen Brothers are distinguished by unique visuals, tones, and thematic concerns, but they also boast something that’s more difficult to identify: namely, stellar casts.

What would The Departed be without Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of an agonizing inner conflict? What would No Country for Old Men be without Javier Bardem’s chilling detachment?

We applaud actors and directors for their work onscreen – and rightly so! – but we also should recognize the casting director, who brings them together in the first place.

Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men | Miramax Films & Paramount Vantage, 2007

Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men | Miramax Films & Paramount Vantage, 2007

It wasn’t until 2013 that The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created a branch for casting directors, granting them representation on the board of governors and so making them equal to the other crafts. “The old guard at The Academy didn’t consider casting as an art,” said The Casting Society of America’s Kerry Barden. “I feel like this is all part of the process of making people aware of what we do.”

An extension of that effort brought Barden to 2016’s Tribeca Film Festival, where he moderated a panel discussion with two legendary casting directors which we had the opportunity to attend here at Lights Film School. Ellen Lewis has worked with Martin Scorsese for more than 25 years, from Goodfellas to The Departed to HBO’s Vinyl, along with countless other films, including Forrest Gump. In addition to No Country for Old Men and her many Coen Brothers collaborations, Ellen Chenoweth has cast Good Night, and Good Luck, Michael Clayton, and Doubt, to name only a few.

In other words, both Lewis and Chenoweth have influenced some of the top titles in Hollywood over the years.

But what, precisely, do they do as casting directors? How do they factor into the complex equation of film production? In answer to these and other questions, here are some highlights from the panel, synthesized, organized, and presented by our team to help you collaborate with a casting director and find the best actors for your film.

Ellen Chenoweth & Ellen Lewis at The Tribeca Film Festival

Ellen Lewis & Ellen Chenoweth at The Tribeca Film Festival

The Search for Truth (& Talent)

At risk of oversimplifying, the casting director assigns the roles in a film. They are responsible for matching characters to actors, according to the director’s vision.

“It’s always a little different,” Chenoweth said of the process. “You get kind of into the director’s world, into their head hopefully, and get a sense of what they’re going to respond to.”

Sometimes, a project already has actors attached. Other times, the director has an idea of who they might like to see in a role. Of course, it’s not uncommon to start entirely from scratch. “You read the script, obviously,” Chenoweth said. “And you just start talking about it [with the director]. Start making lists… I still kind of do it the old-fashioned way; sending breakdowns to agents and getting their ideas.” Both Chenoweth and Lewis also make a point of attending theatre productions to keep the pulse of new talent. Possibilities await in real life, too, where non-actors are discovered via cattle calls as well as directly in a film’s environs.

“I’ve cast movies like Casino, where I was in Las Vegas for about three months, and all these real people were coming in… They worked in gaming. A lot of the people in Casino are real people,” Lewis revealed. Years prior, for Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose, Lewis walked into a records store, flipped through some records, and found an artist she really liked. She called the artist’s phone number printed on the back of the record and arranged an audition, which led to Nick Apollo Forte assuming the lead role. “Ideas are everywhere,” Lewis summarized, reflecting on the “street casting” approach she learned from her mentor, Juliet Taylor.

Casino | Universal Pictures, 1995

Casino | Universal Pictures, 1995

With so many options in both actor and non-actor circles, how do you know when someone is right for a role?

“I see a movie as a big painting,” Lewis said of casting day players. “Painting with faces. As opposed to a play, where actors really need great skill, in movies, if somebody looks right and feels truthful and can deliver the line or the word, you can go with them… I want to be in the sessions, I want to hear the one word they have to say. There are no small parts.” Ultimately, for Lewis, casting is about finding truth – “Do I believe what you’re saying? Does it fit the world that you’re living in at that moment?”

This search for truth can take a nerve-racking amount of time. For example, casting Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men was a last-minute decision for Chenoweth and The Coen Brothers. Similarly, the stress of finding the right actor to play young Forrest in Forrest Gump brought Lewis to tears – “they were almost going to have to push the movie because we could not find that boy,” she recalled. “It’s hard when the whole movie depends on one thing,” Chenoweth added. “When the movie is the emotional center of [that character].”

Forrest Gump | Paramount Pictures, 1994

Forrest Gump | Paramount Pictures, 1994

Why You Should Create “Safe Spaces” for Your Cast & Crew

Thankfully, there are systems in place to help a casting director conduct their search for truth. The audition is an opportunity for an actor to get a feel for a role, and for the director and casting director to get a feel for them. “We get a pretty strong impression of someone right away,” Chenoweth said.

The specifics of an audition vary from project to project and director to director. Some directors want to sit in on a multitude of auditions; others prefer to review several recordings instead of attend auditions in person. Either way, it’s important for all parties present to approach auditions with an open mind. “I’ve definitely had situations going into something where we think we’re looking for a certain thing, and we end up with another thing as the process evolves,” Chenoweth said.

Barden chimed in with his own experience, here: “We’re always thinking of all the actors we know, whatever nationality, color, sex that they are. It’s our job to talk about that with the teams, even if that’s not what was written.”

For example, Lewis recalled casting Jonah Hill in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. “The film was not written funny,” she said. “It was Marty’s idea to do improv with people and go off book. It just made it all come alive.” “You really do have to roll with it,” stressed Chenoweth. “Every movie takes on a life of its own, I find. A little journey you take.”

Such openness and flexibility demand top-notch collaborators. Lewis described her experience of working with Scorsese as “safe” – “I can say anything; I can give any idea.” Here at Lights Film School, we’re big believers in creating safe spaces for one’s team, since doing so tends to bring out the best in people, both personally and professionally. When people feel free and respected, they’re more likely to bring their ideas to the table, opening the door to their departmental expertise as well as the potential of bold new ideas.

Of course, casting a film involves more than finding and auditioning talent. Oftentimes, the casting director will negotiate an actor’s salary. They’re also essential for a film’s planning. “I think people don’t realize how much detail is involved in what our job is,” Lewis said. “I really think a lot of our job is about anticipating what could go wrong in terms of scheduling. We work very closely with the line producer as well as the first assistant director.”

When production dates get moved around, the casting director relays the changes to an actor or actor’s agent so that everyone is on the same page. “It’s a lot about communication,” Lewis summarized. “Really clear communication.” Starting a film production is like switching on an extremely complex machine. Once underway, the machine is difficult to stop, so its operators must speak clearly and openly to ensure everything is functioning together.

Casting Director Juliet Taylor | The Hollywood Reporter, 2013

Casting Director Juliet Taylor | The Hollywood Reporter, 2013

The Most Important Component of Casting

Both Lewis and Chenoweth learned the language of film casting from their mentors. “I’m part of the lineage,” Lewis explained. “It’s an old-fashioned apprenticeship. That’s how you learn how to do this.” Eight and a half years of working for Juliet Taylor, herself the protege of legendary casting director Marion Dougherty, taught her everything she knows.

Of all of the lessons learned, one in particular stands out for the two women: kindness to actors. “I would never be able to do what an actor does,” Lewis admitted. “I would never be able to face rejection day after day. As I like to say, an actor’s goal in life has to be to go on as many job interviews as possible. My goal in life is to go on as few job interviews as possible. So, you know, it’s our job to make that experience comfortable and warm. We want you to do well; we’re looking to cast something. But only one person is going to get that part.”

Even so, Lewis and Chenoweth encourage actors to keep putting themselves out there. “You just got to keep doing what you’re doing,” Chenoweth said. “You just got to pound away at it. Sooner or later, somebody’s going to see you in something, and think of you in something that you’re right for. You just have to keep doing those student films and classes and little plays.”

For indie film directors hunting for casting directors, she recommended noting the casting credits of favorite films. Those casting directors may not be interested or available, but someone else in their “lineage” may be. “People who’ve worked for us have gone onto amazing careers,” Chenoweth said. “Somebody will have someone who’s about to break out and go out on their own that would want to do your film. You never know what that’s going to be.”

So knock on doors and nurture an open mind, filmmakers! You could be close to your next creative collaborator – and stellar cast.

 Michael Koehler, with

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