The Art of Casting

April 18, 2013

Event Summary: The Mysterious Art of Casting, Auckland Writer’s Room, 30th October, 2012

The October Writer’s Room offered up a real Halloween treat with Casting Directors Tina Cleary and Miranda Rivers who travelled up from Wellington to ‘lift the veil’ from the mysterious art of casting.

Tina and Miranda can list an impressive line-up of successful casting projects (Tina Boy, Top of the Lake, Emperor (NZ) and Miranda The Hobbit, Avatar (NZ), Home by Christmas) and gave the capacity Writer’s Room audience some fascinating insights into the philosophy, practicality and reality of casting.

MC and Director Peter Burger began by asking Tina and Miranda how they started out in casting. Both began as actors and learned early on just what it’s like to front up for an audition. “It was such a learning curve,” said Tina. “If you’re lucky you can get on as a reader and that’s a foot in the door. Having the opportunity to read offers a great chance to learn the craft and work with some incredible actors. That’s how we got started.”

After a few years working for Cushla Roughton in Filled Roles Casting, they were thrown in the deep end with a huge casting job – sourcing extras for the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. “It was a huge jump for us, from short films and commercials to a major motion picture but the opportunity to work full time on a project was too good to turn down. Someone else came in to run the company and we took two years off to cast over 3,000 people.”

And it is truly a collaborative effort. “Sometimes we might progress a job individually but we always brainstorm and speak regularly throughout,” said Miranda. “Tina is my ‘go to’ person. We talk, share opinions and of course our successes with each other. We are lucky to have each other in this way.”

Peter asked what it is about the casting process that keeps them hooked from project to project and Tina said it’s the magic of being in the room when an actor totally transports you. “I find that addictive, it’s the ultimate engagement, that moment of suspending disbelief when you’re transported and feel you’re in the life and moment of the character. It blows me away every time. I am drawn to it and it keeps me passionate about the job. I also get a thrill from being a matchmaker, putting the right creative energies together.”

Miranda finds the satisfaction of finding the right person for the job is second to none. “When we see a great audition, it’s kind of like a jigsaw puzzle, when all the pieces are in sync, everyone feels the same way and can see the big picture.

Directors have their own individual approaches and habits. Miranda said that she and Tina have to be like ‘chameleons’, adapting to the different styles, visions and approaches to performance. “Working with different directors provides amazing opportunities,” said Tina, “because you learn something from everyone you work with.” Miranda added that as casting directors, they do have a process to follow but are flexible and adapt to each director. “For example Gaylene Preston is a very visual person. She needed to see faces, large print outs of everyone. That’s how she approached it. We had boards with faces and set about creating a family (for Home by Christmas), getting the right mix. Actors often think, ‘I am going for this role’ but in our mind it was, ‘are you right for this role within this family?’ They may have given their best performance but it might not have worked within the family group.”

The script signals the start of the process and when a great one comes across their desk, both admitted to that ‘surge of adrenaline!’ “I get so excited by a great script,” said Miranda. “There’s nothing quite like it. We read it, get a feel for it and the faces start coming. We brainstorm right away because those first thoughts, unaffected by the visions of others, are absolute gold.” There is also the necessary process of working out the length of the job and the budget for the work.

The script is then broken down into speaking and non-speaking roles. “I do a ‘dream cast’ then,” said Tina. “If we could have anyone in the world, who would we choose to fit those roles? Then I do a real search around to see who is available. You trust the process but can still dream big! It allows you to flesh out the characters.”

“It’s a process of elimination,” said Miranda. “You begin here and then it whittles down to who is available and ready to walk in the door for this project. The right people do start to appear. You have to believe in that.”

Our process in the audition room is the same for any project whether it is a short film or a big budget production. “Our dedication and approach to the audition process is exactly the same,” said Miranda, regardless of budget. It’s about the connection with that actor in that room and trying to encourage a beautiful performance. The difference is time. The bigger productions allow more time for the talent search and auditions but whether big or small films we encourage actors to be really prepared in what they present to a director because they are so busy.”

The audition/casting process can sometimes help with script development and be beneficial for writer/directors. “They can keep evolving the script during the process,” said Tina. “Sometimes there will be a line or part of a scene, that just doesn’t work and even the most amazing actors will trip over it every time.” Miranda added that it’s reassuring for those auditioning to hear that everyone has struggled with a particular line. The script is usually being worked on the floor for the first time, it goes from the page and into the flesh.  It’s an exciting time for writers & directors seeing the words they’ve been staring at for a long time finally coming to life as it goes from words on paper to real characters lives taking shape in front of you.

Casting briefs are important for the actors as they help to communicate the writer’s vision and provide important and much needed character information for the actor. And on the subject of characters, both encouraged writers to create more roles for women. “We are very passionate about that,” said Miranda. “Please take more risks with your lead characters – make them women!”

Peter asked whether there were ever roles they simply could not cast. “Sometimes you’ll have a role with 60 contenders and it’s fine,” said Tina. “Then you’ll have a role you can’t seem to find anyone for. Sometimes it’s a process specific to the project and sometimes it is just tricky. Often it’s a case where the actor who can realise the role just isn’t available for shoot dates.

Miranda said that budgets can have a bearing on this too. “Both small and big budgets have their challenges and casting in the community rather than casting actors can be very time consuming. With a small budget you don’t have the resources to go out looking. On King Kong we had to cast the tribe on Skull Island. As it was a unique brief and we could be open in our approach, we ended up casting a lot of Sudanese people, amongst other ethnicities , within the diverse group of extras.  We located a community, found an interpreter and spent a few months training and rehearsing with the group. They all have incredible stories of life in Sudan which they shared with the crew and I feel privileged to have been witness to that. Working with the tribe on that film was one of the most rewarding experiences I’d ever had. It also taught me never believe in the word ‘no.’ I always believe there is a solution to cast something but it comes down to time and resources or how much energy you can put into it.”

The women were asked how they create a positive audition atmosphere, helping actors do their best, especially when time can be in short supply. “The number of people you can see in a day is limited,” said Tina, “and we always try to do our best in a situation where we have very tight time frames. Ideally you want to work in an environment that is not too stressful. I come from the school of ‘encouraging performance’ so I try to create an environment where hopefully people can be themselves, I think less pressure is better, especially when working with children. I enjoy the recall process. That’s when we can put the director in the room with the actor – and something happens then. For example, Jane Campion’s way of working, which was inspiring to me, was to engage with the actor right away, finding out their approach to the character and the story.  It’s an immediate way for her to get inside their heads and hearts, to find out where they are coming from, and to have a creative discussion; an approach that can make everyone feel present and engaged right from the start. But on other projects it can be very different, where the director may only give actors one take to nail it.

Miranda said a country as small as New Zealand can pose casting challenges. “There is a limited pool of actors here. We put forward the ones that we feel are right for the job and then we have the wild card, someone that we’re not quite sure about, or someone new, because we want to always be open to ‘being surprised’. You cannot have any preconceptions about what someone will do. You always have to be open to that project and who could walk in the door. It’s an incredible feeling when we find someone new!”

Both women agreed that keeping the approach honest and open to possibilities is integral to the audition process. “We will have someone come in who is so nervous that they are profusely sweating and can’t look you in the eye and you’ll be having serious doubts about having booked them and then on ‘action’ they hit the ground running and are amazing!’ said Tina, “often when you are able to give actors time and opportunity, they can create magic and that always has its rewards.  Sometimes through the process we are still uncovering what the character’s essence is. We have to trust the ‘accidental discoveries’ and not sign things off in our heads prior to the casting process.”

Miranda said they may have someone in mind for a role but that actor may not be the one who “blows us away”. “That’s the joy of keeping it real and fresh each time. That wild card might come in and own that role. It can be very hard to explain exactly what creates the ‘X Factor’ magic.”

The story behind the casting of the lead character in Taika Waititi’s Boy provided a good example of the ‘X Factor magic’. Tina had travelled the country periodically over a couple of years, had seen over 800 children, and a child had been chosen to play the lead role when the young ‘wild card’, James Rolleston, emerged. James was felt to be so appropriate for the lead role that Taika re-cast one day before shooting began. “James was the ‘accidental’ find and by keeping him in the mix, (we talked about keeping him in initial rehearsals as one of ‘boys’ mates), and that gave Taika the opportunity to get to know him and make the brave call to recast. Manihera Rangiwai a who was originally cast as ‘Boy’ is a fine actor too and still appears in the film. To be honest we were torn with X factor magic on that film, we were so lucky to find such amazing young actors.



When asked how producers can help to create a good environment for casting, Tina replied that building trust on both sides is a great place to start. “Producers who are experienced trust and support the casting process.  I’ve worked on some films where there is a culture of fear and don’t f….up pressure which I’ve found inhibits collaboration.   In my experience, the best creative producers give you freedom to best follow your intuition.  They are available to talk through tricky decisions, have faith in your ability to lead the casting process and fully support their director’s vision.”

Peter opened up the floor for questions and the first queried whether an actor should audition if he or she felt completely wrong for the role. “If you are chosen to audition then we already believe you may be right for it,” said Miranda. “This is your moment. You’ve already got an audition over all those who didn’t, so come in and surprise us. You could be the wild card! If you’re there, ready to go, don’t worry about all that stuff – just nail it.”

Another question asked about recalls and Tina said that actors are generally more nervous at this time. “They start thinking about paying their rent or mortgage. You want to say ‘hey relax they love your work that’s why you’re here’. The recalls that go well are those where the actor comes in thinking, ‘they dig what I’ve done and this is just about us getting in the same room together.’ I can understand the nerves, because you are tantalizingly close but maybe give yourselves the freedom to think, ‘I’ve got the job is this is my first day on set.’ So it’s about creating great work rather than being nervous of failing or too eager to please.“ Show the director that he or she can work with you – and the more you can relax at recalls the better.”

Miranda suggested walking into a recall open and ready to listen. “Know that what you did in the first audition was great and the director wants to see that again, more of it and will be wanting to know if we can all play together. Don’t talk too much, just sit back and listen to people who are there to advise and guide you.” “There may be five or six people involved in the decision-making and getting consensus can take a while.” Major motion pictures can have both domestic and international casting directors. Each tend to work within their own territories although some internationals will cast offshore and domestic may do the same from time to time.

Is it advisable to ad lib within an audition? “There are different schools of operating when it comes to that,” said Tina. “I would say improvise and make it work but always do a take that is tight to script. I find that actors do improvise all the time so within reason why not embrace that? As an actor myself, I like to be given that opportunity. We are dealing with scripts that have been carefully honed after years in development and we always respect that when working with the script on the floor.’ Miranda suggested asking the casting director on the day if ad lib would be appropriate.

When asked if an actor’s resume can make a difference, the answer was ‘yes indeed’. “I need to know on a CV whether you’ve been on set and can perform,” said Tina. “I also recommend creating a show reel because that can be shown to any Director where ever they are in the world.” Miranda said that typecasting is a real fear for an actor so she encourages participation in short films and other smaller projects as a way of showing diversity, even for seasoned actors. “It doesn’t have to be a huge commitment and of course may not pay but it can give yourself an opportunity to present it on your CV, then we can say to a director, ‘Hey have you seen this short – it’s a great example of what this person can do.'”

Having a script before an audition to help with preparation would be helpful – but is it possible? We will always give the actor access to as much information as we can – audition scenes, directors treatments, synopsis and research links where appropriate.  It’s often not possible to provide a full script due to confidentiality.  Roles can get chopped, or sometimes there are issues still to be resolved with access to music or content – each production is different. Peter said one option could be the placement of a script with an agent – the script would stay in their office and actors could read it there.

Tina and Miranda provided insights, information, encouragement and a large dose of reassurance about the casting process and their diligence, dedication and passion shone through. “When we feel passionate about someone we will absolutely fight for them and go hard for someone we believe is right, “said Miranda. “But we always know our role is to serve the director’s vision. We are the channel for bringing the actor to the director and when we’re all in sync it’s pretty bloody exciting!


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