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Casting Directors: Behind the Scenes Power

  • John Thomas

We're all familiar with those famous faces of Hollywood - our favorite movie stars that appear in film after film. We may even look forward to the latest offering from our favorite director. But there are hundreds of other artists and technicians who work behind-the-scenes on these multi-million dollar productions. Each one contributes a specific skill or unusual talent which you may not necessarily see on the screen, but the film couldn't have been made without them. One of the most important is the casting director.

It's 9:00 a.m. at a small neighborhood theater in Los Angeles where auditions are being held for a new feature film. One-by-one, dozens of actors show up at ten-minute intervals to perform the same scene over and over again for the film's casting director, Marvin Paige.

"The casting director is responsible for finding the proper actors for the right roles," he explains. "It's in some way a clearinghouse, because you look at a lot of photographs and actors and find out what their backgrounds are and get to know them for their performances, and find out which ones are worth considering for the roles you're trying to cast."

Paige began his career more than 45 years ago by casting Audrey Hepburn in the award-winning film, "Breakfast at Tiffany's." His more recent credits include some of the "Star Trek" movies, and ten years as the casting director of the American daytime drama, General Hospital.

The casting director is hired by the producer at the very beginning of the production process, and Paige says he can help shape the film. "When you're looking at a role, you consult with your director and find out what interpretation he's looking for in the character, and then you try to go in that direction." He says there are situations where a casting director can suggest alternative approaches. "So, you can be creative with things when you're casting, you don't just stick totally to the book. You may want to say, 'Well, can this role be African-American? Can it be something else other than what's on the paper?'"

That intimate involvement gives the casting director an influence that few other members of the production team enjoy, making him or her the one very important person an actor or actress must impress before they even have a chance to meet the director or producer.

But Paige says a good impression doesn't necessarily lead to a good part… or any part at all. "I think all actors think they should always get the part that they're up for," he observes, noting "that doesn't always happen; there are so many other things that enter into it. There may be a certain quality that one actor has, that the other one doesn't. Sometimes there's a quality that may be stronger than the ability -- the better actor doesn't get the role."

Before the auditioning of actors can begin, the film's director, producer, and casting director need to carefully analyze the screenplay. "It always begins with the script," Paige says, "because you gotta have the written word on the page. Then you have to decide, which roles do you necessarily need stars for. And which stars are right for the roles."

Although compiling a list of big name actors may be important to the financial success of a film, the veteran casting director says the real work is selecting the dozens of not-so-famous actors to fill the smaller, supporting roles. "You go through photographs that may be sent in by the agents. Sometimes it entails a reading, sometimes it entails looking at a DVD of some of their work."

It's also important for the casting director to be able to spot trends, to know which actors are becoming more popular, and which ones are headed in the other direction. To do that, Marvin Paige needs to see a lot of movies and watch a lot of television. He goes to scores of live stage plays and frequently visits drama workshops, or talent showcases.

"When you're casting, if you've got a thousand submissions, there's no way you're gonna go through all of them for a particular part. You'll get submissions that are totally wrong from people who have no background, no credits, no training. That doesn't mean you totally eliminate new people." In time, Paige says, casting directors develop a sense that allows them to spot those rare, but still unknown actors who are destined to become stars.

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