A little over a year since I purchased the rights to a short supernatural thriller, I’m finally in the creative chaos of pre-production; we shoot in just a couple of weeks. Right now I’m in the throes of casting the other role in the film and I never thought it would be so difficult. For a very short film with very little dialogue, it’s still an incredibly important decision as the tone and the success of the concept are intertwined with whomever we cast.
It’s been enlightening for me, to say the least, to have cast this film myself along with my director. As actors we often have beliefs and perceptions about what’s happening in the room, during and after we leave; now I can say that a lot of those beliefs are false and that if we prepare, are professional, do good work and aren’t total weirdos in the room- we will stand out in a sea of mediocrity.
To begin with, I had over 1,300 actors submit on this short film; some actors submitted themselves and a lot of agents and managers submitted their clients. I have to think that the concept, the character description and the creative team are what garnered such an overwhelming response. All most actors want is to tell an interesting story and to work with good people.
At some point I had to find a way to sort through the submissions as quickly and efficiently as possible which meant eliminating, right off the bat, any submission that didn’t have a reel attached. If I didn’t know the actor and couldn’t see their work, why would I risk bringing them in? I had one full day of casting with a maximum of thirty 15-minute slots and I didn’t want to waste my time.
So, actors, get a reel for the love of god. You’re missing out on so much if you don’t have one. I’m of the opinion that you should just get tape however possible- pay for a reel service, shoot something yourself, whatever… I just wanted to see the actor saying some words. And then you can replace that, later on, with something better. I hated reels with montages at the beginning because it made me think that the actor was trying to hide the fact that they couldn’t act. I could see how pretty they were from their photos; I didn’t need to see it in a reel. If a reel started with a close shot of the actor, I would watch. If it started with a wide shot, group shot or montage, I would stop it or forward through trying to find some dialogue or figure out who the hell I was supposed to be watching. And I love actors and reels so if I almost never watched the reel all the way through, you can probably assume that no one else is watching it either. The only time I’ve watched entire reels is during this process of seriously considering a few actors for the role; it helps to get a feel for range.
As for headshots- there are more bad headshots out there than I ever imagined. If an actor has a good, clear, photo that looks like him- it stands out. Most of them look like they were taken in someone’s backyard with a phone. I don’t know why. I think it’s worth it to pay a reputable photographer several hundred bucks to get a pro shot. It tells me that you’re an actor who is serious about what you do and that you’re not an amateur.
When I finally whittled down the 30 guys I wanted to see- which, by the way, congratulations to you if you made it that far- then came the tedious process of contacting and scheduling. I was amazed by actors who didn’t confirm appointments within the first 24 hours. I had to chase down a few and, more often the not, the actor’s reps were the real culprits. The actors who submitted themselves got their audition script and sides much earlier than those with reps. I think it pays to know if your reps are on top of their submissions or to follow up with them if you’re especially interested in a role. I also had agents pushing a bunch of clients at once who were in no way a fit for the role, or talking up their clients well beyond the actors’ actual abilities. It didn’t help matters in either case; I didn’t bring those actors in.
I also mentioned on social media a couple of times that my actor friends should submit and I was surprised that more didn’t. I brought in almost everyone who did and the odds of being seen by me, their friend, were much better than if they’d submitted on a breakdown where they didn’t know the team.
Actors also submitted several days after the breakdown went out and well past the submission deadline. I find that to be a waste of time for the actor because by that point I already had a full audition schedule and a good idea of who I was most interested in casting. Production moves quickly and you have to jump on board as soon as you can.
Sometimes actors think that auditions don’t really count, that only booking matters. But auditions count! Consider if you were one of 30 men who made it to an audition out of 1,300 submissions. That means you’re already good, you’re already plausible in the role, and you already have fans in the casting room. After this process I will never again take an audition for granted. It truly is a validation of the actor and your work, and also a hope that you will be the one. If you think you’re going into a room filled with judgement, it’s YOUR judgement about yourself. The casting room is waiting for you to be brilliant, exciting, interesting and unique; there’s no judgement about you going in. I actually felt like I was waiting for Christmas the day before auditions; I was so excited about meeting new actors and bringing in friends whose work I already admired.
As for the auditions- they were in some ways really fun and in some ways really tedious. I had a lot of actors running late and a couple who didn’t show up at all. Those things throw a wrench into an already tight schedule. Lateness was usually forgivable if the actor gave me a heads-up, had a good reason, and apologized in the room. But I found myself really put off by those who just showed up when they wanted to without a word of apology. We had already decided, before they came in the room, that they were not under consideration. On any film shoot time is of the essence; if you’re not early or on time to your audition, how I can possibly depend on you to be on time for work? It’s a risk I’m not willing to take. I was especially angered by those actors who expressed a great deal of interest in the role and who I felt I did a favor by bringing in, and then who turned out to be late or ill-prepared. One actor had no idea what he was supposed to be reading and it was mind-blowing. If you can’t read the audition e-mail all the way through and figure out what your sides are, why on earth would I entrust you with a project I care so deeply about? On the flip side, I was happy to see that most of the actors I knew beforehand were early, prepared and easy-going in the room. It made the audition a pleasure and it made us feel that we could relax.
When it came to reading for the role, I really responded to actors who had a strong point-of-view, who made clear choices and who didn’t take anything in the scene for granted. I know I feel this way myself sometimes, but a lot of actors think that casting has an idea of what they want and that the actor is there to figure it out and fulfill it. False. We don’t know. We have ideas but we’re counting on the actor to do their job and show us what that actually might look like. Your idea could be way more interesting than ours and, if it’s not, we’ll give you some help. But an actor is there for a reason- because a character cannot come to life without them and certainly a casting director’s idea of a character is not the same thing as a fully-realized flesh-and-blood human being standing in front of us. The actors who tried to fulfill some idea of the scene were boring and forgettable. The actors who made choices- even outlandish ones- stood out and were discussed at length as possibilities for the role. Don’t be afraid! If I’ve learned anything, it’s not to be afraid to do my job. It’s why we wanted to be actors in the first place.
So now it’s crunch time and it’s been days of back-and-forth over audition tapes and discussions about actors. There is so much more that goes into the casting process than we may realize. If an actor has made it to this point, it has almost nothing to do with talent. It has to do with look, age, tone, location (do you live in L.A. or do we have to fly you in?), physicality, your take on the role and how that will influence the direction of the film, how we get along with you, if there’s a true connection with the material and the rest of the creative team, etc., etc. I had a minor panic attack the other night when I realized that a decision was imminent and that, whomever we chose, there was really no turning back and the film would be changed forever with that decision. Last night I dreamed that my teeth were falling out- stress! But most of all, I genuinely adore good actors and it breaks my heart that I can’t cast each one. This film has been imagined and re-imagined in my mind many times, each time with a different actor. I look forward to deciding who will make this character come alive for good but, at this present moment, I have no idea who it’s going to be.
This past week two outside-the-Hollywood-box actresses made entertainment news headlines as critics and audiences debated their worth as women, artists and sexual creatures. Melissa McCarthy’s appearance was viciously and unfairly attacked in Rex Reed’s so-called “review” of her latest film, Identity Theft, and Lena Dunham stirred wild controversy as she dared to explore female fantasy, longing and loneliness in her latest episode of Girls. A forgettable film and an unconventional episode would not have made the news aside from the fact that both McCarthy and Dunham are physically overweight.
In McCarthy’s case, she has public opinion on her side. Anyone who knows her work understands that Reed’s comments are strictly about him- a sad illustration of his own self-loathing and hatred of other people. He doesn’t adhere to the standards of true film criticism. For him, it’s not about the film; it’s about tearing down a woman whom he believes doesn’t deserve to be where she is because of her appearance. McCarthy is not alone; Sarah Jessica Parker was also on the receiving end of his venom and probably many others but I never read Reed’s reviews because he’s simply an inferior critic and isn’t worth the time. The fact that McCarthy is one of the best and most critically acclaimed comediennes working right now doesn’t seem to occur to him. Her talent means nothing because it comes in a form he doesn’t like. Thankfully, audiences will have the last word here and McCarthy will continue to be a top box-office draw because she is simply too good for one unhappy little man to sabotage.
Now on to Lena… another groundbreaking artist whom I adore. This young woman grew up in an artistic and unconventional family and been writing scripts and creating avant-garde videos well beyond her years for quite some time. Her average, not-in-great-shape body has been a canvas and vehicle for much of that expression and in that self-exploration she is FEARLESS. Yes, she is writing with a 20-something year old voice that can be indulgent at times but she is also writing with insight and wisdom that is ageless at times.
Dunham started out making short films, experimental videos and one feature before she blew up HBO by creating, writing, directing and producing Girls. So it was a great treat for me to watch this week’s controversial episode where she crafts what is essentially an exquisite short film co-starring Patrick Wilson.
Why has one episode of this highly acclaimed and popular show stirred up so much controversy? Because Dunham dares to cast her physically average self opposite the classically handsome Wilson in an episode that explores sexual fantasy and a longing for happiness. Many people have said that they can’t buy into the premise; a man like Wilson could never be attracted to a woman like Dunham. Or that it wasn’t a realistic story anyway. Or that maybe they could buy it if the episode had starred any of the other female actresses on the show besides Dunham. But, no, in this world… even in a FANTASY world… Patrick Wilson could never, ever, ever want to have sex with Lena Dunham. And, once again, I think this response says far more about the viewer than it does about an actress who dares to be naked on screen, with a handsome co-star, weighing more than 110 pounds.
We’ll accept a show that partners the nerdiest, oldest, or crassest of men with the youngest, hottest and most unattainable of women but why is it not okay for a simply normal woman to partner with a handsome man? Why is that so mind-blowingly unacceptable? In biological terms, we are definitely attracted to the strongest, most attractive and physically fit specimen we can find- the better to reproduce and survive with. But biology doesn’t have to dictate all aspects of life and indeed it doesn’t.
I find it pretty illuminating that we are so threatened by a regular woman creating a thoughtful piece of art that draws on her own fantasies, desires, challenges and pain. It’s too real. We can’t handle it. And it is a work of art. Dunham didn’t direct this episode and I think that was wise. It is beautifully lit and shot. The music is gorgeous. The pace is sublime. Patrick Wilson is phenomenal, as usual, and right at home in this brave new world. Dunham is believable, vulnerable and walking a tightrope of risky, brave and dangerous acting. She may not possess Wilson’s acting range but she holds her own and absolutely deserves to share the screen – and the story – with him. Watching it, I was reminded of the French and Italian cinema that I so passionately love. I was reminded of Sofia Coppola’s explorations of quiet, inner worlds. I was reminded of my own past, my own pain and my own desires. I was deeply moved.
When we start condemning an artist’s imagination and vision as unrealistic or unworthy simply because it’s uncomfortable- I fear we have become nothing more than pedestrian censors of our own humanity. Thank God there are artists like McCarthy and Dunham… and Hattie McDaniel and Chris Burke and Barbra Streisand and Danny Devito and Kristin Chenoweth and Chris Farley and Tina Fey and Denzel Washington and Hilary Swank… who can pave the way for the rest of us.
I’m one of those people who gets really depressed in December as the years draws to an end and I think of all the things I wanted to accomplish, but didn’t, though not for a lack of trying. Sometimes I feel like a hamster on the wheel; I can see where I want to go but not always how to get there. Most of the time I deal with it and stay positive. Other times, like on my birthday or throughout the holiday season, I start getting mean about my progress or lack thereof. I hate the feeling of standing still. I hate knowing that I want to be working full-throttle when nothing – absolutely nothing – seems to be moving. I want to throw off the blanket of stillness that seems to wrap itself around the whole world; the things that die or get lost or move on without us. The season of hibernation and cocooning before the spring.
Finally, and usually around the Winter Solstice, I give in. I stop resisting nature’s rhythm and I surrender to the fact that what will be, will be. And then it will change and grow and move and evolve, just as everything always does. Last night I read this passage by my beloved Henry David Thoreau:
Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each. Let them be your only diet drink and botanical medicines.
Resign yourself to the influences of each… that hit me hard. Whatever season you find yourself in – whether it be aching grief or ecstatic joy or uncertain transition – resign yourself and drink it in. Be present. Only by experiencing our present circumstances fully can we move through them with grace. And notice that Thoreau advises us not to numb ourselves out during the process. Be fully awake, fully alive, fully immersed in whatever life is flowing through you right here, right now. Each season arrives with its own gifts. Sometimes we don’t recognize or understand the gift that life offers but I believe that it is always, unfailingly, the opportunity for transformation into something more than we have been until now. Someone new.