Spotlight on Casting Directors

Updated: TV Tonight poses the questions to 4 of the country's top Casting Directors. Video: Studio 10 discussion.

2014-09-08_1958They are the custodians of our acting roles and as a result our storytelling too.

They are some of the country’s top Casting Directors and TV Tonight posed some serious questions to them.

The Casting Directors are:

Jane Norris, Mullinars Casting (JN).
Anousha Zarkesh, Anousha Zarkesh Casting (AN)
Kirsty McGregor, McGregor Casting (KM)
Greg Apps, Greg Apps Casting (GA)

1. When and how did you become a Casting Director?
JN: I think it was 1997 I joined Mullinars in Melbourne. I was actually working in the real world in the recruitment industry but my parents were actors so I kind of had a foot in both worlds. One of the casting directors at Mullinars was leaving to become an actors agent and they approached me to replace her.

AZ: About 25 years ago, started as a Casting Assistant job without really knowing what the job entailed. Luckily I was brought up in the theatre and was aware of many actors and had a love of theatre, film and TV. It was the perfect mix for me.

KM: I was an actor for 20 years (I started when I was 6) and in my late 20’s I just realised I didn’t want to lead a life that so related to the way I looked. My agent, the wonderful Robyn Gardiner suggested I might enjoy casting… and she was right. I hadn’t thought of it, and I owe a lot to her insight.

GA: I answered an ad in the paper for the casting director of ABC Melbourne. At the time I was a jobbing actor, and apparently no one with casting experience applied for the job. We are talking 1982, so I guess it was a fledgling industry. These days, if someone wants to become a casting director, I do not recommend simply looking at the Jobs column in the paper!


2. What have been some of your favourite television projects to cast and why?
JN: The highlights are probably twofold in terms of great experiences casting interesting roles and actors but also working with fantastic directors and producers. The Slap was one of my casting highlights, an intricate casting job and I was very proud of the outcome. This year I have just completed the series Gallipoli for Channel 9. Casting that project took longer than the actual Gallipoli campaign! It was epic with over a hundred cast, a visionary director Glendyn Ivin and the ultimate in creative producers: John Edwards, Robert Connolly and Imogen Banks.

AZ: Rake for its comedy, irony and clever writing. Redfern Now for its cutting edge, wonderful story lines and amazing actors being discovered by mainstream audience. INXS: Never Tear Us Apart for its sheer fun – love the band.

KM: That’s like choosing a favourite child! I have had some really truly wonderful experiences working in TV. Devil’s Playground, a mini series for Matchbox will air soon on Foxtel. An amazing cast (if I can say so!), and working with the Matchbox team was great. We’ve just starting shooting The Kettering Incident with Porchlight Films which stars Elizabeth Debicki and Matt Le Nevez which I’m really excited about. Great great great people to work with and an excellent storyline that should have viewers glued. Of past work – Top Of The Lake with Jane Campion for See Saw Films is a highlight. I learned a lot from Jane and also I got to cast Peter Mullan, who is one of my all time favourite actors! Casting is also recognised at the Emmy Awards and I was lucky enough to score a nomination last year. My parents were SO proud! We are hoping the AACTAs and Logies will one day follow suit and recognise casting directors for their contribution to the projects being celebrated.

GA: In the 80s and 90s, creative decisions were mostly in the hands of the program ‘makers’. Gradually, this power shifted to network drama heads and then to the head of the network. So my favourite casting experiences were from long ago. Certainly the first two series of Round the Twist were a great opportunity to look at lots of up and coming kids. I had a similar experience casting Power Rangers for about seven years. Each year I would do a national search for the next crop of 18 – 20 years who could SHAZZAM-POP-POW save the world. More recently, I have enjoyed working with Matchbox on Remote Area Nurse for SBS, My Place for the ABC, and the just completed Deadline Gallipoli for Foxtel.


3. Tell us about how you approach a new project. What are the things you are looking for?
JN: When casting a TV project, the first conversation is with the producers, director and possibly the network about their vision for the show. I try and facilitate their dream cast but also at the same time challenge some of their mindsets about actors and introduce them to new faces.

AZ: Depends on each job and what we are looking for. I try to facilitate the director/producer/writers vision of the project. Each TV job is different and exciting. Hopefully find a cohesive group of actors who gel together and make the words lift of the page.

KM: Too hard to answer! Every project is so different. Working out the vision of the creative team and figuring out how best to achieve it.

GA: I try to find how to give a show a look and feel that is unique to this program. The long term complaint from many people (especially actors!) is that we see the same faces on our screens again and again. I hope I am working towards correcting that imbalance.


4. What is the biggest mistake actors make when you are considering them for a role and how can they avoid it?
JN: Acting and auditioning involves common sense, but thats easy for me to say standing on the other side of the camera! I think if you’ve done the prep before you’ve walked into the audition room, then you’ve just got to trust your instincts in the moment. Listening is key, listening to the director/casting director and also to the person saying the lines opposite you. No actor likes auditioning, it’s the hardest part about the job but if you can find a way to make it real in those 10 minutes, that’s a good place to start.

AZ: Actors don’t really make mistakes often. They should prepare well, know the “tone” of the show they are auditioning for, make brave and interesting choices and go for it. A lot of actors forget to watch Australian TV show and films to see who they are competing with, know the directors work and tone of the show. Its amazing how many people in our business don’t watch Australian films or TV – they are always quoting US / UK shows.

KM: I’d rather give them some positive advice. Try treating the audition as a rehearsal, rather than the chore getting in the way of you getting the job. For the time you’re doing it, whether with the casting director or the director – the audition IS the job. Its the moment you get to play that role. Enjoy it!

GA: Actors strive to show how good an actor they are. So they aim for depth, passion and intensity. These are the hallmarks of a thinking passionate actor. In fact, the qualities that are in shortest supply are appeal, warmth, charm. Above all, we must LIKE the on screen character. An actors peers may recognise supreme performance ability, but I believe an audience is simply asking ‘do I like them?’


5. Are we at risk of seeing the same lead actors fronting our TV shows?
JN: I don’t think that criticism is just unique to TV, the same could be said for MainStage theatre companies, musical theatre and film and there is a reason for it – audiences love those faces and want to watch them on stage/tv etc. The reality is that networks need to sell a show to an audience and the easiest way to do that is with a familiar face. However in saying that I think its a fine balance between the same old faces and interesting new ones and getting this balance right makes for a great show, which is what we are all trying to achieve behind the scenes. Audiences are the true test of whether we’ve got this balance right or not.

AZ: Sometimes. Again it depends on the show, the network and producers. There is a lot of pressure from investors/networks to put “marquee” names in shows so they can market the program and make sales overseas. But most of the time we have the freedom to find “new” actors. From ‘CD’s” point of view, we know these actors very well and hoping they will eventually get a break in a successful show or film. It happens more often than you think.

KM: Well if they’re excellent I WANT to see them. I love casting new people for an audience to discover, like Elizabeth Debicki in The Kettering Incident. But as a viewer – I love curling up on the couch with a show Claudia Karvan or Don Hany is in. They are in a position to choose and produce quality work so I know I will likely love it. I think we have the best of both worlds.

GA: Yes. The rise of shows like Game of Thrones, True Blood, Breaking Bad is testament to the fact that viewers do not tune in to watch Actor X. They tune in because they are drawn to these characters. If you cast a truly well known actor in role, then the program maker has lost a little bit of the ownership of the character. We do not see the character. We see the actor.


6. Do our screens reflect our diverse society or how could we better achieve change? Does the media focus too much on this?
JN: Over the past 5 years, I think there has been a positive shift in diversity on our screens and I am happy the media is talking about it. I believe our screens must reflect the real world, the world we live in. If they don’t then the industry loses its relevancy to audiences.

AZ: Its changing – its been very slow in the past to reflect “real” Australia, in my opinion, but there has been a shift in recent years. Writers / Producers from diverse cultural backgrounds have finally got their work produced and screened and with that comes the diverse range of talent on screen. I still think we need to see more, but it will happen organically. Ultimately these changes come with the “powers that be” and shift in cultural attitudes.

KM: This is a large, important and constant question. I would love to see more diversity in our shows… but it seems that the people attracted to acting in Australia are quite white and middle class. When we try to fill roles with non caucasian actors there are far fewer people to choose from who may actually be right for the role. We need more people of ‘diversity’ to become actors! I am currently casting two films both which require people of non caucasian background and we have had to also look into the community to do general auditions with non actors as there are so few people to actually audition in the first place. And of those people we still need people who are good enough – not just people who want to do it. I find the people who are wonderful tend to work consistently. To name a few, Deborah Mailman, Firass Dirani, Bert La Bonte, Leah Purcell, Aaron Pedersen, plus recent graduates Meyne Wyatt, Uli Latukefu, Remy Hii , Shareena Clanton… these actors are in constant demand. I was doing a film with Jeremy Sims and he decided he’d like an Aboriginal woman in one of the roles (which could have been played by anyone)… we tried to cast this way and all the experienced actors were already working on other projects. Which is FANTASTIC. But not great for us!

GA: On screen characters do not truly reflect society. They reflect the audience’s viewing habits. In the same way that viewers ask ‘do I like this character?’, they also do not necessarily want to tune in to see real life. They want to escape from their world. The media may point at drama casting not being a true reflection of society, but reality casting is further removed from true society. To change casting decisions, firstly we need to change viewers habits.

8 Responses

  1. @Pertinax -Drama is about story but those stories need to have some grounding in reality if they are supposed to draw on the real word. I can accept Summer Bay is manly a white community or that the Rafters, as a family are all white but when All Saints was on it was ridiculous. Had these people never been in a hospital? I’ve worked in one. Let me tell you most of the doctors, nurses and staff aren’t white.
    It may as well be sic-fi.

  2. Drama isn’t about recreating reality, its about stories. Which may say something about being human but nothing what-so-ever about a specific reality.

    Drama is usually more real than Reality TV though.

  3. Interesting report, David.
    Great to see Top of The Lake and the brilliant Peter Mullan get a mention by Kirsty McGregor as one of her favourite shows/actors to cast.
    Peter’s performance in TOTL was mesmerising.

  4. Another great article, David. Agree with Billy C that diversity in casting is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. When the vast majority of roles in TV dramas, “reality” shows, and ads are filled by white people, it must act as a bit of a disincentive for non-white people who might aspire to be actors.

  5. The issue of cultural diversity is I think quite important. Not from the point of view of being token or “giving people a chance” more that a lot of Australian drama just doesn’t reflect reality. Take a look at the census figures for Melbourne and Sydney, heck look out the window next time you’re on a bus. 18% of Melbourne and Sydney have Asian Ancestry. Australian drama is some sort of European fantasy land. There seems to be a chicken and egg argument going on here. If you want people to watch your shows reflect reality. Take a look at reality tv which rates and is much more representative. Obviously not really the casting directors fault. I don’t accept an argument that people would rather watch white people though.

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