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7 Insider Tips on Successfully Casting Your Film
Succeed by Casting Great Actors
Written by John Badham
You can succeed as a director by casting great actors. This has saved more directors’ bacon than the Directors Guild wants you to know.
Casting does not always emanate from the script. In the ideal world it’s said that, “In the beginning, there was the Word, and the Word was God.” In the real world, the first question is, “Who the hell’s in it?” And that leads us to star power. Whether it’s a mega movie or an episode of “How I Met Your Mother,” the moguls of the moment will try their best to shoehorn in some celebrities regardless of whether they fit the parts.
At some point the director has to get down to the business of casting the other parts in the movie. Following are some tips on casting your film well… and once!
#1. Cast the lead character before casting the secondary roles.
All films and plays are like pyramids built from the top down, with the lead character or characters at the very apex. You cannot assemble the secondary roles until you know who is going to play the lead.
If Mel Gibson is cast as Hamlet, his performance will be different from Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation. That means that the Queen Mother Gertrude will need to be thought of in terms of either Branagh or Gibson. You can’t just say, “Let’s cast Glenn Close,” even if she is available and interested in the role. You have to see how she and Mel Gibson will interact and if there is any chemistry there.
Of course, you will be considering other actors for the secondary roles at the same time you are working on the leads. Just make your final choices once the leads are set.
#2. Cast people with different energy, tempo and rhythms.
We absolutely need the distinct differences between people to keep the scenes interesting, as seen by the dynamite combinations of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, or Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. It was these actors’ differences which created the chemistry that enchanted us on screen.
#3. Meet or read with your potential cast before the day of shooting.
You may never be able to get a major star to come in and read lines before your first day of shooting, but you should at least talk to him. Sit down with him and get to know each other. You have to know if he sees the role in the same way you do. If you’re not on the same page you’re not on the same stage. This is a critical, critical step in casting.
Meeting with your actors before a shoot allows you to see if they have changed since you last saw them. Are they older, balder, fatter, or thinner now? If you don’t look at them face-to-face you could expect anything to arrive on the set. Francis Ford Coppola hired his friend Marlon Brando to appear in Apocalypse Now. Coppola had totally revived Brando’s career by hiring him for The Godfather, in which Brando gave an astounding performance and was back on top of the acting world. Everyone was delighted when Coppola landed Brando for the role of Colonel Kurtz, even if he did have to pay him $3 million, in the days when that was a lot of money.
Flash forward to Coppola in the Philippines shooting Apocalypse Now under the worst of conditions. He had personally mortgaged everything to the hilt, including his house, to finance the movie and it is going very badly. His first leading man Harvey Keitel has left the picture; his replacement Martin Sheen has had a heart attack. Typhoons have destroyed the sets. Finally, Brando appears on location. Coppola is horrified. Brando weighed some 300 pounds and looked terrible.
Wait, it gets worse. Brando now tells Coppola that he thinks the character of Kurtz should never be seen and always be in the shadows. While Coppola digests this bombshell, Brando drops another one: he thinks that his own voice shouldn’t be used either. And when Coppola reasonably asked why they needed Brando at all, he just shrugged. It took a lot of discussion before Coppola brought Brando around to a reasonable position. As it is, in the final picture you can barely see or hear Kurtz. He is almost always in shadow.
Wouldn’t it have been better if they could have met and spoken in detail before Brando arrived? Coppola could have fired him once he arrived, but then he would have had to pay Brando the full salary.
The time you spend with an actor before you shoot is invaluable. It’s not about rehearsing the lines; it’s about bonding with the actor, establishing a trust and learning the way the actor’s psyche works. What does he like? What does he hate? What does he fear? Who does he respect? When you understand all this you will understand how to work with him.
#4. If you are casting children in your project, cast them “as-is.”
Whatever talent a child has is built into their personality at that time in their life. Find a child who exhibits openness and is not timid or shy. You can’t teach a child about the Stanislavsky Method, or how to do sense memory exercises.
What do you get for this “good casting” of a child actor? You get a human being who often lives in fantasy more easily than reality. Children may have all kinds of trouble relating to adults and the real world, but they have no trouble being creative.
In my film, My Brother’s Keeper, an 11-year-old child, Britt McKillip, was cast as the young Jeanne Tripplehorne, fiery and tough. We also needed another girl to be Jeanne’s daughter with a completely different personality, shy and withdrawn.
In the casting interviews we could see that Britt was so talented that we hired her to play both parts. I never told the producers what we were doing because they would have freaked. Only after they saw the movie – and still didn’t have a clue – did I tell them. And, yes, she was paid for both parts.
#5. When interviewing actors, always treat them civilly.
When an actor walks in to see you, you may be tired, you may have 25 other things on your mind, you may look at the actor and immediately know that he is wrong for the part. None of this matters! If you are a professional director, your focus and priority is that actor who just walked in the door. Get up from your chair, greet him warmly, shake his hand, tell him he looks nice, and tell him anything to put him at ease. You are facing a nervous wreck who has spent a lot of time creating a character for your film. Tell yourself: “Underneath all this could be hiding a fabulous idea.”
From any reading, even a bad one, you are getting a free rehearsal. Even a poor actor may have a good idea that you can use. Listen carefully for interesting choices that never occurred to you. You may see things in the scene you never saw before. You will often discover opportunities for added business, new dialogue and character insights. All that can come from someone who is not what you want.
When you get an insight from an actor, thank him and don’t hesitate to ask, “Would you mind if we use that idea?” He will be thrilled to be validated and have his ideas taken seriously. Even if he doesn’t get the part, he will feel good about the interview and about you. If somewhere down the line that actor becomes the star of a TV series and approves the directors, you could be very glad you had that meeting.
#6. Always check on how directable your actor is.
In an audition, it’s a good idea to ask the actor to try something again slightly differently and see how they respond. Give them something specifically different to play, something that is actable, an “as-if” direction. Examples: “Do it as if you are woozy on pain medication, but you don’t want the other person to know that,” or “Do it as if you are late for your train, and it’s the last one tonight.” Sometimes nothing happens, and sometimes you’ll see a miraculous transformation.
#7. Finally, in a pinch, think of what a “Dear Abby” might say.
Remember those age-old lessons on manners you learned as a child. As the director, you may be firm but polite. If you can put an actor at ease throughout your process, you will end up with a much better final project and reputation.
Author of two acclaimed books on filmmaking, “I’ll Be In My Trailer” & “John Badham on Directing,” John Badham, BA, MFA Yale University, DHL Columbia College, is a director and producer of theatrical films and television including Saturday Night Fever, WarGames, Short Circuit, Blue Thunder, Heroes, Criminal Minds, The Shield, Nikita, Psych. The Library of Congress selected Saturday Night Fever to be added to the National Registry of Films. His films have been nominated for five Academy Awards and two Emmy Awards. He has won three Saturn Awards from the Academy of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the Grand Prize from the Paris International Science Fiction Festival. His areas of expertise are working with actors, action, suspense and fantasy films. www.johnbadham.com