We’re all “actors”. We conjure smiles at board meetings, tell freaked out people not to worry when they should worry, and do our damnedest to prove to mothers that we’re too sick to go to school. But throw something unnatural in the mix – a camera – and people stiffen up. Hell, they can’t even walk or take a seat without looking like a robot.
Actors on the other hand, truly trained in the craft, are chameleons that can bring characters from the page to life on the screen.
This is why casting day is so vital.
When I arrived at the New Jersey Film School, I was given a seat to the right of Bill, the director, with Chris Messineo to his left. The table closest to Chris was comprised of Kelly (assistant director), Mark (behind the scenes filmographer) and Keisha (script supervisor, who is also responsible for continuity – more about that at a later time). To my right sat Randy (cinematographer), Rolando (camera) and Ganesh (sound). Collectively, we looked like some sort of tribunal ready to determine the fate of those before us. Then again, we were.
Thanks to Hurricane Sandy, power had been knocked out of the area for a week, which meant Chris only had a mere seven days to let actresses know about casting for TOO MANY PREDATORS. This also meant that the 1,000 responses we had hoped for became 450. During that time, Chris dove in deep and cut the list to 24 hopefuls. The task, sadly, had become simpler thanks again to Sandy. New Jersey Transit had been shut down, which deprived New York based actresses from crossing over to the station just five minutes away. At first, I was disappointed, but there was nothing to complain about – especially with 100 dead, thousands of homes destroyed or damaged, and Breezy Point having been wiped off the face of the Earth. It was clear we’d find someone who may lack extensive television and film experience, but who could use the short to help them get to such venues – and that was promising, as well as exciting.
I had casted for the short film STABLE with writer/director Paul Williams. (See the link to your right under “Crash Files”.) In that instance, we had to cast two men for the main roles. During casting, I had hoped to be wowed to the point where my heart skipped a beat, and we had found that early on in Jeffrey A. Wisniewski, who had rocked us. Later, Joseph DiMartino, a retired New York City firefighter who had braved the hell of 9/11, made our other choice clear. That day, we had seen some forty men. All of them had other jobs, and most of them had been trying to “make it” in the business for some time. Each credit, even with a small film, could help prove their value as an actor. As cruel as it sounds, actors are a dime a dozen. So are painters, sculptors, dancers, etc. – and writers like me. This is the state of the arts, and anyone in the game knows it. But if you know thyself and have the passion, you’ll continue to do what you love and press on.
Each audition is an interview. And every actor knows how painful it can be running all over the place in the hopes of landing a job for that all important credit (one actress had driven two hours just to get to our audition). This is why I hate the process. Sure, I want to find the right people for the respective parts, but to do so, people have to be told that they didn’t make the grade. This doesn’t mean they are bad actors, or that they aren’t beautiful enough – it simply means that today just wasn’t their day.
At 6:30 PM, we began. The first two actresses took their seats, were given one of the two characters, and read. Then, after a short break, they switched roles. We’d thank them, they’d leave to the lounge, then we’d bring in the next two. Afterwards, we called every actress back to read again, this time with direction, to see what she could bring to the characters. Each actress read at least three times, and some as many as six.
When an actress/actor comes into a room, I could care less about looks. Yes, that sounds nuts, considering they’ve handed in headshots with resumes, but a photographer’s camera can lie, and sometimes the shots do not bring out the beauty or depth of the performer. Instead, I rely on what I’ve seen in the business world and from years of teaching: body language. Are they confident? If so, this will shine through in their performance. Those who are nervous or ill-prepared seem to hold themselves back. Plus, the way they move dictates comfort level and how they’ll usually handle themselves all the time.
Right from the beginning, however, one actress caught my attention, and I immediately checked her off for the character of Marissa. This particular woman breathed in the character completely and exhaled her with some intense and very convincing emotion.
Although I’m the screenwriter and producer, I’m not making the decision alone. There is a director after all, and this is a class project. I was only there at the kind invitation of Chris, and since the school is his livelihood, he’d have the final say. Oh, and because he runs a production company, has received several awards for the films he’s directed and – you get the idea. Still, my gut said that this actress was Marissa. And although Randy, Rolando and Ganesh agreed, Chris and Bill felt she was better suited for the other character of Claudia. This was another reason for more auditions where the actress was allowed to read again. We wanted to make sure we were right. In short order, the nine of us had given the actress the nod for Marissa – and this is where I had made a mistake…
As actresses came and went, Bill took copious amounts of notes of their performances. He isn’t just the director, but a dedicated student. From speaking with him, two things are clear: Bill’s humble, and he doesn’t want to screw up the film. Knowing he’s conscientious is a relief. This doesn’t mean decisions and production will be delayed, but he pays attention to detail and other people’s input. He’s an active listener, and it’s clear he respects everyone around him. Now that’s a leader.
So stupid me, the realist, tells him that another actress could come along, read Marissa as well, and leave us in a tough spot to make a decision. That’s exactly what happened. When Bill turned to me after that other actress had left for a moment, it seemed as if someone had stolen his puppy. “Why did you have to say anything?” I had jinxed the casting! What the hell to do? The original actress was long gone, but we had taped every read, which meant if it came down to indecisiveness on our part, we could review and vote. But Chris jumped in and pointed out why our original choice worked best. It came down to the tired phrase of “splitting hairs”, but I saw this happen many times when hiring people, so the harsh reality was clearly understood.
But we had a problem: No one had nailed down the complexity of Claudia.
Finally, near the end, an actress sat down and delivered. As Jeff had done with STABLE, my heart skipped a beat and I swooned. Without direction, this one actress completely owned Claudia, handling the nuances and rhythm of the character with aplomb. Her performance as Claudia left me breathless, where the other actress’s performance as Marissa had left me appropriately on edge.
Now, after four hours of casting, we have our two actresses (names and information forthcoming), a complete crew (more on them soon), a location, and a script – and a phenomenal, well-crafted storyboard thanks to Randy and his superior drawing skills. The only thing we need now to make it all work is cardboard boxes. Lots of boxes. I hope I can dig some out of the dumpster at my local supermarket because I’ve come up empty.
The shooting of TOO MANY PREDATORS will take place this coming Sunday…