Finally, I’m at a point in my directing career where folks can see signatures emerging in my work. Whenever people in the industry see my shows, there are certain comments I expect to hear… and chief among them is "Wow, you got really lucky with the cast!" When folks with a background in film start working with our ensemble, I get the same response from them. "Wow, what luck!"
Somewhere, someone is reading this and laughing.
No, you guys. Not luck.
I get these comments for two reasons. First, I’m very good at casting. My history in the theater goes back 20 years, and I have the benefit of a classical stage education. Working with actors is something I’ve been doing for far longer than I’ve been an adult. Spotting excellence in an actor isn’t about seeing talent. It’s about seeing craft, and the craft of acting is something I have developed a keen eye for.
Just as importantly, people in Hollywood tend to see my casting skills as an issue of luck because most folks in Hollywood don’t know what actors do. I haven’t been to film school myself, but I’ve observed a tendency in those who have to share certain preconceptions about actors. What’s more, it’s been my experience that these preconceived notions make my casting decisions look less like common sense and more like magic.
What follows is the lecture I so desperately want to give every single time it does:
1. ACTING IS A CRAFT. Do not cast the actor who has talent. Cast the actor who has 20 years of experience. If you are interested in working with new faces (or you don’t have the money to pay established performers), do not look for the actor with a pretty face and a winning attitude who wants to try their hand. Cast the actor who started performing when they were five years old, went to college, tried living in New York and eventually moved to Los Angeles after performing in forty or so stage productions. Experience is far more reliable than good intentions.
2. MODELS ARE NOT ACTORS. Modeling is a craft, as well – and it’s a very different one from acting. Regardless of their attitude, their disposition, or their individual skill sets, every actor has studied the art of taking action and exploring conflict. For more on this, check out my last Film Courage post here. For now, my point is simply that the craft of action is not required study for the successful model. Models do precisely what most folks THINK actors are doing: They embody an emotion, or they embody a moment. Some actors are good at this as well, but it doesn’t really affect their overall usefulness as an actor. All it does is inform their specific style. It’s ok to cast actors who have done modeling. Don’t cast models. While this might be obvious to most readers, the same goes for porn stars.
(Watch the video here)
Listen to Tennyson E. Stead tell his ‘Arriving in L.A. story here.’
3. ACTORS ARE PROFESSIONALS. Actors show up to call on time. Actors come prepared. If you ask an actor to be off-book, that actor will be off-book. Actors stick to their commitments, and actors always put the show first. If you ask an actor for something they cannot deliver, they will tell you upfront. If someone is calling themselves an actor and they do not do these things, they’re an amateur and not a professional. Rather than expect unprofessional behavior from your cast, I recommend just keeping amateurs out of your production altogether. Everyone’s on-set experience will be much better for it, and your production value will skyrocket.
4. CASTING IS NEVER A FAVOR. Casting someone who does not know their craft is never a risk worth taking. DO NOT PUT YOUR INVESTOR OR THEIR FAMILY IN YOUR FILM. Your investor will lose their money, and you will make a crappy movie. In addition, the performance problems your favor creates will reflect badly on the rest of the cast and crew. If you’re making casting decisions based on favors owed or promises made, you’re putting your relationships and your film in the hands of someone who is not prepared to succeed. Do not do that, and do not ever put yourself in a position where it is expected of you to do so.
5. DON’T CAST FOR THE RIGHT LOOK. Actors are not models, so don’t worry about how they will look in your cast photos. Cast an actor for how they execute the action of the story, and how that will cause conflict or strengthen the relationships between characters. Your character will wind up looking like the actor playing him or her, and your film will look great.
6. DON’T CAST FOR TYPE. Actors are people who explore conflict professionally. If you want to engage an actor completely, you need to give them conflict on every level. Always give an actor the role they are just slightly unprepared for, and they will throw themselves into the process of becoming the performer who can meet that challenge. That struggle and growth will infuse every frame you shoot, and the performance will shine. If you cast them for type, you’re casting them in a role they’ve already played. No challenge. No conflict. You’re asking them to phone it in. Getting the reward means taking the risk. Also… remember to respect and reward that risk. Cast actors you can support, and then support them.
Check out (from Quantum Theory) America Young’s
Film Courage article
‘Every Short Film is Too Long‘
7. CAST LEADS FROM THE THEATER. Not every actor speaks from their diaphragm, but those few big stars with long, evolving careers always do. Not every actor is good with eye contact when they listen, but big stars with long careers? Yep. Not every actor has movement training. Voice training. Crisp impulses. Quick reflexes. Good diction. At the same time, every actor wants to be George Clooney or Meryl Streep. It’s all about the fundamentals. Discard them at your peril.
8. ACTORS LOVE TO WORK. Give an actor a challenging task to perform and a point of view they aren’t quite comfortable with, and they’ll be coming back to you with everything from notebooks full of background research to scenes they worked on. Every actor works differently, but it’s all part of the creative process. When an actor finds a project that supports and challenges them, they will support and challenge you right back!
9. ACTORS WILL REWARD YOU. Finish the film and make it good, because a great cast is a family. Families forgive a lot, and they support one another. Theater has survived this way for a thousand years, at least. Film is no different. Cast well, and take care of your performers. Deserve their trust. In return, they will always – ALWAYS – be there for you.
10. AMATEURS WILL ALWAYS DEFEND MEDIOCRITY. DO NOT LISTEN. Two weeks ago, I had an aspiring actress try to convince me that I needed to fire America and Danielle – my leads on our upcoming science-fiction heist movie, Quantum Theory – because she wanted the roles for her and a friend. This girl was not impressed by the experience my cast brings to the table, or by everything my cast has done for me and my projects. Her failure to admire these qualities is reason enough to let her figure things out on her own… but that wasn’t the first thing I noticed about her. First, I noticed she wasn’t speaking from her diaphragm.
Check out more videos from this interview series
with Tennyson here!
If you’d like to find out more about me, my ensemble, and my stories, we welcome you to our online community at 8sidedforum.com and please, please support our upcoming feature, Quantum Theory. Quantum Theory is the story of two brilliant, goofy, passionate women of science who invent a technological means to alter and shape the very universe itself… until a defense contractor with unlimited resources steals it right out from under them. Their struggle to get it back will literally change the world. You can find out more at here and at Quantummovie.com.
Thank you for reading, one and all – and thank you for being a part of this community.
Tennyson E. Stead
Tennyson E. Stead is a writer, director, and producer of film and transmedia. In his childhood, he spent all his time building cardboard spaceships and rescuing his sister in them. These days he does basically the same thing.
For any production to realize its full creative and financial potential, every creative element must reflect the overall goals of the project. Every great collaborative work was produced by a team of talented people, united by a common intent.
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Check out Tennyson’s Film Courage article ‘Why Nothing In Film Has Changed in 1,000 Years & Why Anyone Who Say Different is Trying to Sell You Something.’
More great video interviews on the Film Courage