22 Tips for Indie Film Casting Success

“Don’t strive to be famous. Strive to be great.”

Here at Lights, we’ve spent some time compiling a list of many of the casting ideas that have been shared with us by our filmmaking teachers, students, and filmmakers profiled on our blog.

Every filmmaker’s approach to casting is different. Some filmmakers find their actors through film festivals and contact the actors’ agents. For example, that’s what happened with the casting of Ben Briand’s runaway success, Apricot. Ben saw his lead in a film he was really impressed with and decided to contact her agent. However, because she was well established, he couldn’t ask her in for an audition; instead, he had to work on blind faith and study her previous work.

From Apricot | Moonwalk Films, 2010

From Apricot | Moonwalk Films, 2010

Simon Ellis is a Sundance award-winning filmmaker we caught up with on our blog. We asked him about his casting process, and he told us he found his actors through the recommendations of some filmmaking friends who’d just finished another feature. He also used open casting calls to scout for non-actors, and went to a youth acting workshop to scout for one of his lead roles. You can watch the actor’s performances in his short film, Soft.

For his debut feature film, EVER, Josh Beck used one of his best friends for the lead role and then used industry recommendations and casting calls to fill some of the other roles.

Director Jonathan Singer-Vine and his producer engaged in a community outreach initiative to help them cast their first feature. They wanted to create a hyper-realistic feeling and decided to work with mostly non-professional actors, resulting in their SXSW film, Licks. When we asked Jonathan about his approach to casting, he had this to say:

Word of mouth was everything when it came to casting Licks. We were calling and texting every friend and family member we knew. We were scrolling through every Facebook friend we had. And along with an online SF Casting call, we really started to put together a pool of people for which to audition.

These are just a few of the many casting success stories we’ve heard over the years. To synthesize and make them all accessible to you, we’ve created a list of 22 tips, presented as a sort of “open letter to actors”. We hope you find it helpful!

When You Apply Electronically

1. Include a Headshot

Make sure you have professional headshots on hand. They communicate that you take yourself and your acting career seriously. If you don’t take yourself seriously, why should we?

2. Use Reasonable Attachment Sizes

Chances are we’re sorting through hundreds of talent submissions for the role for which you’re applying. When we receive your message, we need to be able to reference your resume and headshot quickly to decide whether or not to call you in for an audition.

Of course, going through hundreds of messages takes time. Help make our job easier by keeping your headshot attachment under ~2MB. It’s not uncommon for filmmakers to delete emails burdened with, say, a 17MB photo of an actor.

3. Use Reasonable File Formats

Please send your resume and headshot in common file formats. Generally, a .pdf or even a .doc will do just fine.

4. Include Website Links

Include a link to your website so we can see more photos of you as well as read a detailed biography. The headshot you include in your initial email tends to be fairly generic so as to cast a wide net. This is a good starting point, but we’re looking for additional materials that will help us get a sense of your range.

For example, if your headshot is warm and smiling but we’re looking for someone who can play a cold and menacing character, we’ll want to see photos that suggest that. So, help us out by directing us to your website, where your full range is on display!

5. Direct Us to Your Demo Reel

Additional photos are helpful. Demo reels are even better, since they give us an opportunity to see your acting abilities in action. Bear in mind, however, that if the footage comprising your demo reel is not professionally produced – poor sound, poor cinematography, etc. – then the casting director might be distracted or otherwise doubt your competence.

As before: if you don’t take yourself seriously, why should we? Wherever possible, don’t let low production standards get in the way of your performance.

6. Let Us Know Who You Are

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Remember, we’re probably reading through hundreds of other applications, so don’t write us an exhaustive biography, but do give us a couple of recent highlights from your acting career that really stand out.

7. Personalize Your Application

Filmmakers work behind the camera, but we like to feel special, too! It’s quite possible we’ve been working on this project for a year or more before putting out the casting call. When you contact us, we don’t want to feel like we’re one of fifty productions to which you’ve submitted that day. We want to work with actors who are genuinely drawn to our story.

In your message, include a reference to our story – the synopsis, the characters – so that we know you actually read the casting call. It’s shocking how often actors fail to do this, and it makes us feel great when you take the time to show that you’ve familiarized yourself with our project.

On a related note, don’t be afraid to accept when a production is not for you. If our film doesn’t resonate, we won’t be offended. We encourage you to be selective about the filmmakers with whom you work, just as we’re selective about the actors with whom we work. You might say an audition works both ways – it’s for the actor to audition the filmmaker as much as it’s for the filmmaker to audition the actor.

A tip for fellow filmmakers at this juncture: create a casting call that actors will get excited about. Show them your work and go into an appropriate amount of detail about your production. Don’t just write, “Looking for male and female actors, 20-30 years old, for short film. Can’t pay but will give credit.” What is there in this for actors to get excited about?

8. Don’t Let Us Embarrass You

Remember, an audition works both ways. We’ve heard countless stories from actors who are embarrassed to show their friends and family their latest projects because they fail to live up to their creative and technical standards. Apply for acting gigs that live up to your expectations; that you truly believe in. This will help you to push your acting career in the direction you want it to go.

9. Understand Filters and Be Low Maintenance, Please

As discussed earlier, filmmakers consult many channels when sourcing actors. Film festivals help them see actors’ work onscreen; talking with talent agents helps them benefit from people who already have done the work of building a roster of high quality talent; teachers at acting schools can help to filter candidates by pointing filmmakers to the most promising and well-suited actors who are ready for work on a real film set.

Strangely enough, we’ve also found we can filter based on how an actor communicates with us via email. Actors who attach their materials in large and/or rare file formats – or who forget to attach their materials altogether – join those actors who email us multiple times inquiring where auditions are taking place when it’s clearly stated on the casting call, in the “trash” bin. We want to work with lower-touch actors who respect our time.

If and when you’re called in for an audition, consider these useful tips…

When You Audition for Us

10. Believe We’re Equals in a Forest

We’re storytellers, just like you.

When you walk into an audition room, recognize yourself as a friend and an equal. Don’t get shy or nervous around us. We’re only important because we have something you want (a role). If you took the role we had to offer away from us and put us in a forest where nobody knew us, we wouldn’t be significant at all. When you enter the audition room, just imagine you’re entering this forest.

11. Believe We Want to Work with You

Seriously, we do! If you’re in the audition, it’s because we’ve picked you out from hundreds of applicants who wanted the role. Any actor who makes it this far we see potential in. We want to give the role away. We don’t want to keep it for ourselves under lock and key. We want to be excited and surprised by your performance. We’re in your corner. We can’t stress this enough.

12. Don’t Take It Personally. It’s Not You, It’s Me

We’re casting roles, yes, but we’re doing it with an eye toward dynamic and relationships. We’re putting together a big puzzle, and the pieces need to fit together seamlessly. At the end of the day, our story is more important than we are, and it’s more important than your individual performance, too, no matter how good it may have been.

The truth is, on most audition days, if we’ve done a good job filtering applications in the email stage, then we likely will enjoy 90% of the actors who come in. Even so, 9 times out of 10 it’s still a “no” or at best a “maybe”. This becomes a “yes” only once we’ve looked at how each performance relates to every other performance we’ve seen. How would our actors look together? Would it look natural? Believable? do their ages line up in a logical way? We can’t case a 33 year old mom with a 22 year old son.

This is an obvious example, but it gets much more complex. The important thing is that you know that when we write or call you saying “Sorry, we’ve got to pass on you this time,” it doesn’t mean we disliked your performance. The truth is we see more talented actors then we have room for in our films. Not all of these performances will line up with our film’s tone or aesthetic, but that doesn’t make them any less great.

So, it’s not you, it’s us. Unlike most times you hear this in your life, we actually mean it. Sometimes the demands of our projects twist our arms.

13. Be Flexible. Environment Is Everything… But Not Today, Okay?

When we’re on set, our job as directors is to create the best possible environment for you, our actor. We want to create as convincing and immersive of a world for you as possible. However, we rarely provide this “real world” for you during an audition.

Auditions usually take place in a lifeless room we’ve rented from a local theatre company for something like $15/hour. Imagine a room with a faded, mass-produced Renoir painting, entitled “Figures on the Beach”, hanging above a dated IKEA couch. Now we’re asking you to act out a beach scene from your “tanning chair” (the IKEA couch. Oh yeah.)

You stare at the faded Renoir print trying to imagine you are actually there.

We ask “Do you have any questions?”, and your respond with a “No”. Then we ask “Are you ready?”, and you optimistically nod your head up and down as you squint into the Renoir trying to imagine yourself within the scene on the beach. You squint a little harder… And you feel like it’s starting to come to you.

We know these are not ideal casting circumstances. In fact, in an ideal world, we would love to hang out with you for a day or two and just follow you around to really get to know who you are. But asking you for that would be creepy. Really creepy. So we’re forced to do the whole we-sit-behind-the-table-and-you-act-in-front-of-us thing. Until one of us is creative enough to find a solution to this problem, we ask that you bear with us. There must be a better way. No?

14. Acknowledge Your Awesomeness – We Respect You

We hope this is clear by now, but we’ll say it again: we have a lot of respect for what you do.

Director Peter Sollett, the man behind the short film Five Feet High and Rising (an award-winner at Cannes, Sundance, Aspen, and SXSW, as well as the prequel to the feature Raising Victor Vargas), mentioned in an interview that many of his peers at NYU were creating films that were “measurable”. A teacher could look at these films and mathematically grade the camera movement, the lighting, the design, and so on. These were gradable films, and many of them were visually and technically very impressive.

However, what Peter felt these films lacked was “soul”, that immeasurable quality that draws us to cinema in the first place. As an actor, you’re the main ingredient in this “immeasurable” element.

Five Feet High and Rising is a testament to this. As filmmakers, we can train ourselves to make technically sound films, but if our actors don’t bring their souls with them to work, we’re creating just another pretty moving image.

15. Acknowledge Your Awesomeness – We Thank You

In the non-union world, you’ll more often than not come into an audition for free and at your own expense. We know you’ve taken the time to rehearse the sides with your friends and peers for hours, you’ve paid your own transportation costs to get to the audition, and you might have even had to swallow the opportunity costs by taking the day off work and missing out on those wages.

You might even work two jobs. Not because you want to or because you love the jobs, but because they offer you the type of flexibility that allows you to go to last minute auditions when they come up. And statistically, you know the odds are against you, yet you come in anyway.

We’d like to thank you for your sacrifices. They mean a lot to us.

16. Don’t Worry, We’re Not Mean Like We Are On TV

We’ll try our best to give you our undivided attention during the day of your audition. Audition days can be really draining for us, though. Generally speaking, we say the exact same thing to each candidate who enters the room. It’s really hard for us not to feel like robots.

On any given casting day, we could see 30-50 people. If you ever feel like we’re grumpy or disinterested, it’s probably just because we skipped lunch to see a candidate who missed their 10:15 AM audition, so we’re seeing them during our lunch break instead. We’ve also been sitting on our butt for the last seven hours, and our blood sugar levels are getting low. As the day progresses, we also find it increasingly more difficult to say the same thing for the 47th time with the spontaneity and enthusiasm that suggests this is the first time we’ve said it.

We’ll try hard to keep our energy levels up throughout the casting day, but if we seem a bit quiet or robotic, please don’t take it personally.

If you ever encounter filmmakers or casting agents who go out of their way to make you feel bad, then it’s not worth worrying about them or their production. Why would you want to work with mean-spirited people?

As mentioned above, when you walk in the door, we want you to play our character. “Maybe this is her” and “maybe this is him”, we think to ourselves. We’re in your corner. We have our fingers crossed for you.

In popular TV shows, directors and casting agents are often portrayed as an antagonistic force working against the goals of actors. Sitting behind their table with their legs crossed, leaning back, thumb and index fingers on their chins, staring unenthusiastically at the actor as she or he performs in front of the panel, only be be interrupted with an obnoxious “NEXT!” before the actor has even completed their lines. Such clichés are best left for the small screen.

In our experience, this portrayal is not how filmmakers act at all. As discussed, we know that actors who came to our audition likely did so for free. We’re thankful that you’ve taken the time to support our vision. Even if we don’t end up working with you on this project (because we probably won’t; remember, you’re always a “no” or a “maybe” at best), we still greatly appreciate what you do for us and for the creative community at large!

17. Make Us Believe

This is the most important part of the entire casting process. We want to believe in your performance. It sounds so simple, but it’s the hardest thing to do.

We want to feel what you’re doing is real. We don’t want something sentimental or clichéd. We believe what the great acting teacher Constantin Stanislavski promotes: We want you to play truthfully, even if it’s just adequate or feeble.

What we often see in auditions is actors who try to give more emotion than they generally have. But as Stanislavski points out, “You don’t have stores of emotion”. So if you over-act, you’re not giving your performance more emotion; instead, you’re destroying any prospect of emotion that might exist.

18. Learn from the Greats

Many of you will be taking acting classes, and that is great. It’s important to practice with your peers under a teacher’s helpful and constructive supervision.

However, books can play an important role in your education as an actor, too. You should be studying with the great acting teachers of the past.

Start with the book written by that legendary director of the Moscow Art Theatre already mentioned, Constantin Stanislavski. His book entitled An Actor Prepares should be mandatory reading for every actor. Don’t get the abridge version; get this version instead. It’s 708 pages, so it’s not something you’ll get through in an afternoon, but it’s a spectacular read.

In fact, it shouldn’t only be mandatory reading for actors, but filmmakers, as well. Stanislavski spends 708 pages teaching actors how to “play truthfully”, ensuring they are avoiding being insincere, contrived, or disingenuous. Something directors need to concern themselves deeply with, as well.

19. Don’t Underestimate the Commitment. Choosing You Could Make or Break Our Film – When We Say “Break”, We Mean Bankruptcy. No Pressure, Though

Making the decision to cast you in our film is huge.

We’ve likely already spent months or more writing the script, and we’ll probably spend another 30-60 days shooting the film, then some 8 months in post. After that, it’s off to the festivals for a year. So while your 2 callbacks, 4 days of rehearsals, and 15 days on set may seem like a lot, it’s not as large an investment of time compared to that which we’re putting in.

Dedicating two years of our life to a project is a major decision and not one we take lightly. Casting will make our break our film, which is why we take it so seriously.

20. Believe in Our Project (Translation: Introduce Us to Your Friends)

We want you to believe in our project enough to be a big part of it. Not just act in it, but talk about it and help us get the word out about the film!

We’re stronger as a team then we are individually, and if we all put some time and energy into our film, then we could have something really special on our hands.

Chances are, the actors in our films are probably cooler and more popular than we, the lowly filmmakers, are. When we combine our energies, we can do some great things. You don’t need to look far to see successful cases of this type of synergy at work.

Take, for example, the film For Lovers Only, a low-budget feature shot on the Canon 5D Mark II that made over $200,000 on iTunes, in part because one of the lead actors in the film tweeted to her fan base, which helped cause a bit of a groundswell under the film.

21. Have Depth

We spend countless hours educating ourselves on proper camera and directing techniques. We’ve spent a considerable amount of time educating ourselves on how to best communicate with writers, designers, location scouts, makeup artists, producers, acting agencies, and all of the other people and departments that are required to make a film.

We can communicate with each of the people within these specialties. When we talk to producers, we can probably communicate a budgetary concept in a decent amount of detail. Or when we’re talking to a makeup artist, we can probably talk about the mood we want the makeup to communicate.

However, generally speaking, producers and makeup artists can go deeper into their specialties then we can. Good directors will have a decent amount of depth in each subject, but often the specialists within each department will be able to go deeper into the concepts than the director.

The same holds true for acting. Directors can talk about character backstories, scene goals, stakes, spines, beats, verbs, intentions and motivations with actors, but for us, it’s a sort of intellectual exercise. The character only exists in our imaginations. Our goal is to find actors who can go deeper than us with this exploration and make our characters truly come to life.

22. Can I Ask One Small Favor? Please Be Great

We creatively torture ourselves daily to be great filmmakers. Not just on the weekends, but all of the time! We want you to love our work, and hopefully one day we’ll be good enough to inspire you to want to work with us.

We ask that you spend an equal amount of time developing your own craft in a quest to make yourself the best actor you can possibly be and make us want to work with you. Don’t strive to be famous… strive to be great.

We’ll end with a question that Stanislavski asks at the end of An Actor Prepares“:

Our art is often exploited for reasons totally foreign to it – for popularity, attention or to have outward success. Did you come here to serve art and to make sacrifices for it or to exploit it for your own personal ends?

We love you, actors!



If you’re a filmmaker and you have other audition advice for actors, please let them know by posting in the comments below! If you’re an actor and you have suggestions for filmmakers to help us make your audition experience better, please let us know by doing the same. Thank you! We hope you’ve found these tips helpful.


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