One primary thing can make or break a film: its cast. Improperly casting a film can be a disaster for a movie and cause embarrassment. So if you’ve always thought a casting director’s job is pretty easy, think again. If it was, there wouldn’t even be a need for a separate professional (and sometimes an assistant) responsible for casting in the first place. A casting director’s responsibilities extend beyond contacting actors and holding auditions as casting shapes the initial pre-production of just about any project. Ultimately, it is key to the success of any theatrical undertaking. While final casting decisions are ultimately made by producers, directors, or commercial clients, the focus offered to the production and choice of talent is guided by the professional casting director.
The Many Responsibilities of a Casting Director
Meet with the writers, producer, and director
In pre-production, casting directors must liaise with both the director, producer, and sometimes the writer to get an idea of the type of person that a given role calls for. Some of the frequent questions casting directors ask are “Do we need a ‘name’ actor for this role?” “Do we need to do a worldwide search?” “Should we hold open calls?”
Read and understand the script
Casting directors read scripts and collaborate with producers, directors, and writers to create breakdown notices. All of the information in the casting breakdown is based on the director and casting director’s reading of the script and the director’s interpretation of and vision for turning the script into a film.
Meet with the production accountant for information about the casting budget
Casting directors work closely with production accountants to prepare the casting budget. Depending on the genre, the marketplace may clamor for at least one, preferably two, recognized faces in the cast. To know the financial capabilities of the production in casting actors, the casting director inquires about the budget for the offers and contracts they’ll be sending out.
Generate a casting breakdown
Casting breakdowns are brief descriptions of the physical attributes, skills, and experience sought in actors to portray particular characters. These list the personalities, even specific mannerisms, and abilities—any details the script specifies about a particular role.
Come up with an initial idea list of potential actors for lead roles
Casting directors must have in-depth and up-to-date knowledge of new and existing acting talent. They need a vast knowledge of a huge range of actors and an extensive understanding of their abilities, as well as a thorough appreciation of changing talent trends within the film industry. Among the sources that casting directors tap for actors are agents they know, managers, their own files of headshots, personal recommendations, and actors they have seen perform in various venues like Off-Off Broadway. Sometimes casting directors go through their files and select talent from actors whose work they are familiar with, especially for main roles.
Contact agents and actors for availability and offers
Once casting directors create their own idea lists, they “check avails” or call actors or their agents to see if they are available and interested in taking on the project. If the idea from the casting director and a subsequent avail check is approved by the director and producers, the casting director sends out what is called an offer. The offer usually contains a letter to the actor or their representative explaining the role, a copy of the script, why the actor has been selected, the length of time commitment, the approximate start date of filming, the filming location, and the proposed salary offering. If the actor, for whatever reason, cannot accept the job, they respond to the offer with what is called a pass. If they accept the offer, the agent engages the casting director, and a deal memo is sent from casting director to the representative.
Make appointments for auditions or readings
Some casting directors invite the actors from their idea lists for interviews and auditions. These audition pieces are usually recorded, typically in the form of screen tests and then attached with their résumés, as well as head shots, and shared with the producers, directors, and/or studio executives. This may involve groups of actors both union (SAG-AFTRA) and nonunion, reading material from the work under consideration and paired off in various combinations of two, three, or more. With each of the actor’s overall motivational choices evaluated, the casting panel considers both the individual actor and the chemistry created from either one of the combinations. During the first round, the director can watch the auditions online. After that, the casting director sends top four choices for each role and set up callbacks. The director runs the show while the producers watch to see if they can work with the selected actors.
Distribute breakdown notices
With the aid of casting assistants, casting directors submit these breakdown notices to agents and talent agencies, often by utilizing an online casting service such as VoiceBank.net (for voiceover), CastingNetworks.com (primarily for commercial work), or BreakdownExpress.com (mostly for film and television). If auditions are “open” or it’s a non-union project, casting notices may go all over the internet, to blog sites and chat rooms, even Craigslist. Breakdowns might be printed in trade magazines and newspapers local to the audition site. Talent agents, managers, and in some cases, individual talent then submit for auditions based on the talent needs of the specific production being cast.
Filter through submissions and select talents
Casting directors then receive actors’ headshots and résumés, which they must sift through to select the most qualified actors and schedule them for auditions, often with the help of casting assistants. Once the principal casting director has filtered through all of the submissions and selected their desired talent, the agent will receive a callback with the audition information. Some casting directors will also send agents sides. Sides are small portions of the script that the director wants read at the audition.
Depending on the size and scope of a production, a casting director may hold an initial round of auditions and personally decide which actors to call back for the producer and director. If there is difficulty in finding a lead or supporting actor for the role, casting calls may go out into the general public at large, which is referred to as a cattle call. After each round of auditions, the casting director becomes responsible for notifying and scheduling selected actors for additional rounds of auditions, until a final casting decision is made.
Communicate with the director and producers
Casting directors are responsible for matching the ideal actor to each role, based on a number of factors, such as the actor’s experience, ability, reputation, availability and box office appeal. However, the decision of which actors to cast is ultimately up to directors or producers. Once the director and producers made their choice, the casting director books the roles.
Negotiate contracts and fees
Negotiation and organizational skills are also necessary in a casting director’s repertoire or agreeing actors’ fees and arranging the terms and conditions of their contracts. Once the director and producers have decided upon which actors to hire, the casting director then negotiates about money, schedules, and billing with the actors and/or their agents.
Many directors subscribe to the famous notion that 90% of directing is casting. They recognize that a film that is cast well will always be far more realistic and authentic than one cast in any other way. Don’t take it for granted.