What You Need to Know About Indie Film Casting

A beginner's guide to finding the perfect actors for your film.

Actors are your allies.

So, you have a fantastic script. You’ve drawn up your budget, assembled your crew, locked your locations, selected your camera, and otherwise addressed a slew of pre-production considerations.

But there’s one thing missing – and it’s a big thing. The cast!

An actor’s performance can transform a film. The best actors can take words on the page, divine their meanings, and express them using the human form. Of course, you have to choose the right actor for the role, which requires an understanding of the casting process. Our goal here is to start to demystify that process, so that you can cast with confidence.

Most of what we’ll cover is informed by a unique blend of my own experience, first as the producer of several super-low-budget indie films, then as an assistant at a talent management boutique representing actors at every level, from just starting out to Oscar-nominated. As a producer, I managed every aspect of the casting process, from posting casting notices to holding auditions to offering roles. During my time in talent management, I helped field and manage offers made to actors for roles in both independent and Hollywood films.

Given my background and the fact that indie films run the gamut of budgets and scales, we’ll explore securing talent from several different angles today:

  • How do you find talent on a small scale?
  • How do you approach known or professional actors who are represented by agents and managers?
  • And what do actors look for in a project, anyway?

I. Casting Within Your Community

Before we discuss pursuing actors with agents and managers, let’s take a step back and acknowledge that not every filmmaker is ready to jump into a weighty production that would accommodate or even require established talent.

For example, if you’re living in a small town and making your first real project on a shoestring budget, it may not make sense to ask a famous actor to be in your movie.

Thankfully, there are other ways to build a cast. It’s quite possible that there are talented people in your community, regardless of how far from the epicenter of Hollywood it may be. People who have interest and even talent for performance are all around us. Nine times out of ten, it’s less a question of “are there any actors out there?” and more a matter of how you can connect with them.

Of course, every community is different, but here are some ideas for how you could get the word out about the project you’re casting:

  • Peg flyers to bulletin boards in, say, your local restaurants and coffeeshops (we’ll talk momentarily about what those fliers should say).
  • Put a post online via a website like Craigslist or Mandy.com. You also can use social media networks, including Facebook, to help get the word out. Services like Backstage can assist in some cities, too; currently they can post notices in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Miami, Las Vegas, and London.
  • Contact local theatre groups and pass along a casting notice to them.
  • Contact local schools, universities, or other educational groups that may have actors in them.
  • Ask your network! Be sure that the people around you know that you’re looking to collaborate with actors. You never know who knows someone who knows someone, so to speak.
  • If you want to get old school, you could place an ad in your local newspaper.

Create a Casting Notice

For all of these ideas, you’ll need a casting notice. When they cast a traditional studio project, a “breakdown” is released, which is essentially a document containing the following information:

• The project’s title.
• The core creative team (director, producer, casting director, etc.).
• Where the film is shooting.
• When the film is shooting (a span of days that the shoot will encompass).
• Whether the film is a short or a feature.
• Whether the film is using a union crew and actors.
• A logline and synopsis.
• A list of all characters who are being cast, along with their ages, genders, and ethnicities where appropriate, as well as a blurb about each character, who they are, what role they play in the film overall, and whether the role is considered a lead or supporting.

In Hollywood, breakdowns are released on Breakdown Express. Talent managers and agents create accounts and then use the site as a main resource to discover the projects that are casting and the casting directors to whom they can pitch their clients.

For the purposes of our discussion, a “casting notice” is a breakdown that wouldn’t necessarily be on Breakdown Express – ie., a project you’re casting on a more local level that doesn’t necessarily have the budget to, say, fly talent in from Los Angeles or New York.

Even so, a casting notice contains similar information to a full-on breakdown. It’s especially important to convey the film’s title and format, provide a brief introduction to what the film’s about, and list the characters to be cast along with pertinent details – age, gender, ethnicity, and the like – where appropriate.

You’ll also want to include instructions for how to contact you, what they should send you (usually a headshot and resume suffice), when they can expect to hear back from you, and how you intend to organize auditions.

Organize and Hold Auditions

It’s important to hold auditions when you’re considering actors who are unknowns to you – meaning, you haven’t seen them in anything before and aren’t sure if they’re right for the role.

Traditionally, auditions are held in one space, back-to-back. So as an indie film director, you’d basically be in a room all day, with actors coming in and out and auditioning for you for ten minutes at a time or so. You, or your casting director, would have called these actors in advance in order to schedule an audition time.

Here are some things to consider when arranging auditions:

  • It’s usually best to hold your auditions somewhere neutral, not personal – ie., not your house! Look for an accessible space you could reserve for free or rent. For example, could you secure a classroom at a school or university? A conference room in a library or another public building? Many larger cities tend to have dedicated audition and rehearsal spaces available, as well.
  • Again, an audition generally lasts around ten minutes. If you can tell right away that someone’s not right for the part, it’s still good etiquette to let them finish their audition. Conversely, it’s also totally fine to work with an actor in an audition if you discern a potential fit. Try to be encouraging, but it’s okay to ask an actor to try a line a different way than they initially delivered it. This has the added benefit of testing their range and how they respond to your direction. It’s a great way to gauge how well an actor takes notes and suss out whether your rapport feels comfortable and like it could foster a healthy spirit of creativity and collaboration.
  • Some independent productions ask actors to prepare a monologue for an audition. A monologue allows an actor to perform something that, presumably, they’re comfortable with and inspired by. In most Hollywood productions (and on many indies), actors are asked to prepare a selection from the script, known as “sides”. Sides are usually a 2-to-4 page excerpt that encapsulates a role. An actor works with sides for whichever character they’re auditioning for.
  • As a companion to the sides, actors are often sent the script in its entirely. Being able to read the screenplay affords the actor some perspective on what’s happening in the sides. It also helps them decide whether or not the project overall is something they’re interested in.
  • It’s good practice to let auditioning actors know how you intend to communicate throughout the auditioning process. Will you get back to everyone with either a “yes” or “no”? When do you plan to have the casting process complete? Set expectations and then deliver on them!

In today’s digital age, it’s also common for actors to audition virtually, especially when a project isn’t in their city. You could hold a Skype audition if you really wanted to, or you could ask an actor to record an audition and email it to you.

In Hollywood, this is called “putting an audition to tape” even though physical videotape isn’t involved anymore.

The Clouds of Sils Maria | IFC Films, 2014

II. Casting Well-Known Actors

Perhaps you’re thinking that casting within your community is all well and good, but what if you want to work with someone more established? Maybe even famous?

Sometimes, indie filmmakers have a particular actor in mind for a role. It’s very easy to assume, “Oh, that would be amazing, but there’s no way that they’d ever do it!” Don’t necessarily count yourself out. Many actors are eager to work on quality, inspiring projects. Every actor is different, but sometimes, assuming there’s room in their schedule and the project is doable, a well-known actor will take on a small indie project, largely based on the merit of the screenplay.

This is where we pause and take a moment to emphasize the value of a good screenplay. Its importance cannot be overstated. The screenplay is everything, especially when you’re trying to get talent attached to your project. The screenplay is your rallying call, your mission statement, your way of saying “This is what we’re going to do.”

“Independent short and feature-length films are a great way to gain experience as an actor and to grow professionally,” acting teacher Mae Ross explains. “Even celebrities act in lower-budget independent films, for such opportunities often pose interesting ‘out of the box’ characters and artistic challenges that aren’t always present in big-budget features. As an actor at any phase of your career, you should always strive to grow and to challenge yourself!”

A couple of recent examples of celebrities in indie films include Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin and Kristen Stewart in Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria. Her performance in the latter made her the first American actress to win France’s César award. Some hypothesize that Stewart took on indie roles as a way to help her build her image as a serious actress, after many had written her off following the Twlight franchise.

How to Make Contact

In any case, if there’s someone you’d like to cast in your film, you can reach out to their representation (so their agent or manager) and let them know you have a project you’d love for their client to consider. If you’re working with a casting director, then this is something that they could take the lead on, too.

It’s good practice to start with a phone call to the rep’s office. Their assistant can tell you what to do next. Speaking as someone who once was that assistant, I can tell you that most of the time, reps will ask you to email a script along with pertinent project details, including:

  • The film’s title, along with a logline and synopsis.
  • What role you want the actor to consider.
  • Who the director is (include a reel if you can).
  • Who wrote the script.
  • Who the producers are.
  • What the budget is.
  • When and where the film will shoot.
  • Approximately how many days the actor would be needed.

Don’t be afraid to include a line or two about why you want this specific actor to be in your film, and don’t shy away from expressing that you’re a fan of the actor. Of course, don’t go overboard! You can gush a little bit, but try to keep yourself in check and remain professional.

Further considerations for when you’re dealing with professional actors:

  • In the United States, you’ll need to determine whether or not your film is union. SAG-AFTRA has specific rules that govern what union actors can and can’t do when it comes to low and micro-budget films. These rules are always changing, so check their website or talk to a SAG-AFTRA rep for the most up-to-date information.
  • Keep in mind that established actors tend to have hectic schedules. You need to be transparent and organized about the dates you’ll be shooting and when you need the actor to be available, and you’ll have to stick to the schedule once it’s agreed upon.
  • If an actor has a manager, then you most likely will deal with their manager and the manager’s assistant a lot, particularly leading up to the film as you work out the scheduling. Managers handle that stuff on behalf of their clients. Don’t be surprised if you’re not dealing directly with the actor when arranging logistical details.
  • If you’re approaching an established actor for a role, they may not expect to audition. Instead, they may see your asking them to consider a role as an offer to actually play that role. If you expect the actor to read for you, then communicate that to their representative. Be prepared for a “No”, though, if you’re dealing with someone high profile, and know for yourself in advance of that conversation whether or not, for you, their willingness to audition is a dealbreaker.
  • If an actor isn’t open to auditioning for you, you don’t necessarily have to commit sight unseen. You could request a conversation with the actor before making an official offer, just to feel things out and get a better sense of what your rapport might be like.

The Pay or Play Agreement

There’s a type of agreement in the film world called “Pay or Play”, in which an actor signs onto a film, and if the film doesn’t get made when it’s supposed to, for whatever reason – the funding falls through, the director quits, whatever – the actor gets paid anyway.

“Essentially, pay or play is the commitment by a producer – a studio, network, production company, or individual – to pay the artist even if the producer later decides that the artist’s services won’t be required,” producer Dina Appleton explains. “In other words, whether or not the production goes forward, and whether or not the actor is ultimately required to render services, he or she will be paid the negotiated fee.”

In my experience, this type of agreement tends to happen when an actor has a lot going on and would have to say “No” to other films in order to accommodate the time they’ve set aside for yours. As with any contractual negotiations, if an actor or their representative requests a pay or play agreement, it’s wise to seek the counsel of an attorney before signing anything.

Casting Directors

Whether you’re making your first film or are already an established filmmaker, it’s a great idea to consider working with a casting director. A casting director handles casting notices, deals with initial conversations with actors’ representatives, and can provide valuable insights into who may be a good fit for a role.

On a super small project, you could enlist a friend or colleague to help you with the casting process and act as your casting director. When I was producing super-low-budget short films, I often assumed the role of casting director as an extension of my producerly duties! Alternatively, you could reach out to local theatre groups or acting schools and ask if anyone there could lend you a hand. Work your network and consider posting a job listing online, say, on Craigslist or Mandy.com. Craigslist has a dedicated film and television jobs section, and Mandy caters specifically to the entertainment industry.

For more insights into the role of the casting director, check out our discussion with film industry legends Ellen Lewis and Ellen Chenoweth.

III. It’s a Symbiotic Relationship

No matter what level you’re at in your work – and no matter what level the actors you collaborate with are at in their work – your relationship should be mutually beneficial. You should want each other to succeed.

You want to make a great film, and actors want to be in great films. If you give it your all, an actor will be inclined to give it their all, too. You both want to create something you can be proud of!

Christopher Lockhart, who in his career has been tasked with finding scripts that were suitable for high-profile clients, has this to say about how he chooses projects:

“A lot of it has to do with concept – ultimately, much of Hollywood moviemaking is concept-driven… I’m always looking for a script that’s a movie. This is the thing that I think many writers tend to overlook, which is that they’re writing screenplays, they’re not writing movies. And that’s why their scripts don’t become movies.”

And what is a “script that’s a movie?”

According to Lockhart, it’s something that’s “cinematic and dramatic,” where “you can read the logline and you can say, ‘I get it: I can see the movie right from the logline; I can see the poster; I can see the actor in it.’ A good logline, a good concept, makes me start to think about scenes and actually start running the movie in my head.”

Actors want to pour their blood, sweat, and tears into projects that will benefit them personally and professionally in the long run. Many want projects that are artistically inspiring. As the director, you must have a unique concept articulated in a killer screenplay, as well as the ability to communicate your vision and direct your team, cast and crew alike, around it.

In short, actors are your allies!

Treat them accordingly and carry this truth with you as you get the ball rolling on your own casting process.

 Lauren McGrail, with

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