Six Angry Women: Casting and Trust

Sorry for the long delay in posting, it’s been a long nine days of casting and rehearsals. After an exhaustive search, I’ve found my six angry women, all local Chicago actors with a ton of talent.

Being that I’m going at this with a micro budget of less than $40k, it’s pretty much been a three man show so far. My production manager, Anthony Del Percio, who is a brilliant filmmaker based here in Chicago, has been handling logistics and has been working with my DP Faroukh Mistry on putting together a camera package and all the requisite gear for a full feature shoot. Despite our budget, we’re not going DSLRs and consumer light kits on this - it’s a full-blown production and we have no intention of skimping on production values. We’re striking mutually beneficial deals and making friends along the way. It’s been remarkable what we’ve been able to pull together so far.

I’m acting as my own casting director and have been criss-crossing across town to meet with actors. As I’ve written on this blog before, I don’t believe in doing cold readings with actors - I think it’s unfair and puts unproductive pressure on both of us. I’ve seen all of these actors perform on stage so I’ve got a pretty good idea about their presence, the timbre of their voices and what they’re capable of. I try to sit down for one to two hours with each actor and just talk to them. I want to find out what makes them tick and see how open they are to the concept, to their craft and to me as a director. This is business about trust, and if an actor and I have difficulty communicating then it will not be a fruitful collaboration.

Some of the actresses I met were fairly closed because of the nature of the part and the film. Many were afraid of playing a racist woman on film. I had to remind them that I truly felt the members of this jury weren’t racist, that none of them walked into that jury room with the mindset of “I’m going to fuck that black kid over.” It’s likely that the pressures of the trial and the jury deliberations brought out their inherent fears, fears which are most likely rooted in a prejudice that comes from misinformation or personal traumas.

I wanted to see how each actress would respond to that, given the part would require them to really dig deep and ask tough questions. It’s too easy to play a racist. It’s too easy to play a fearmonger or scaredy-cat. It’s tough to play a real woman with real feelings and secrets. By means of questions you can tell if an actor is intrigued and excited by the idea or apprehensive about it. As a director you have to read your actors and trust your gut. Given that I don’t have a script for this film, I’m counting on my instincts with this casting process, and I feel confident I’ve got the right bunch.

I also had to have actresses who were great writers themselves, and part of my line of questioning was to determine their process. Again, it’s too easy to just ask if they write, because everyone says yes. But it’s more about the process of writing, of their approach to creating a character, of where they find the soul of the character and how it matches up to plot and environment. I propose different scenarios to each actor - “We’ve determined that regret is a big part of this character, how do you demonstrate regret in a crowded room?” My actors are not “writing” a response on paper, but we’ll go through the creation of a scene using that seed. It’s a fun and fascinating process, and as aforementioned it requires openness and communication. If your actors trust you, then they’re more willing to take risks.

It begs the question: how does one go about building trust, especially in such a short time? The answer is simple: empathy and sincerity. As a director you have to be sincere with your actors. I follow a protocol when I meet a new actor, and when I say protocol it’s not a cold list of rules to go through one-by-one. I do these things because I sincerely mean it.

The first is to always, always thank your actor for coming out to meet and audition. It takes a lot of preparation and travel for actors to audition, and they’re putting themselves up on a plate for you to dissect them. That’s asking a lot of someone and is daunting, so be genuinely thankful for their participation in such a grueling process. The next part of the protocol is to just talk to your actors. Chit-chat. Talk about the weather, the commute, something that’s happening around you, whatever. This will put both of you at ease and let some of the tension out of the room. It’s also establishing your communication with them. In order to get to the root of any character you have to be able to talk freely.

Which makes the next part of the protocol very important - you must show empathy. This means you must share a bit of yourself with your actors in the process of discussing the part. You don’t have to reveal all your dark and personal secrets, but you should share your feelings and thoughts with them. An actor - or any collaborator for that matter - will be more willing to dig deeper and share ideas / thoughts / emotions when you demonstrate that you’re willing to do the same. I talk freely about experiences that have shaped my desire to make this film, my fears and doubts, my admission that I’m just as curious as anyone else to know what this film is going to end up looking like. And it’s not lip service - I honestly feel these things and want to share them, because it helps me process all that’s around me as well.

In this sense, my auditions are really just two sounding boards listening to one another. My actors are all figuring me out just as I’m trying to figure them out. There is no power struggle here, we both need each other to make this thing work. The audition is a level playing ground, which is why I hate traditional casting with a table separating me from the actors in a cold room. That’s an awful way to get to know someone.

But sometimes a cold reading of lines in a room with a table is necessary when casting supporting roles and smaller parts. I reserve my custom casting process for my lead actors, but it doesn’t mean I’m any less personable with my supporting actors. Even from behind a table I thank them for coming, I shake their hands, I chit-chat with them to put them and myself at ease. I don’t have the time to go through a full process with each actor, but at minimum I devote 30-40m per actor. It’s exhausting work for me, but if it means getting the perfect cast, then it’s well worth it.

Plato once said that we must “be kind, for everyone is fighting a battle.” Actors are not there to take our frustrations and insecurities out upon. I’ve seen this too many times and it disgusts me. It all stems from the opinion that many directors have of actors, which is that they are property, they are just tools, pieces of meat to manipulate to make a picture. Where the director is the seat of power that all actors and crew must bow down to. This is nonsense. Your actors are the directors of performance, you have to entrust them with your vision, and when you do that they will listen to your direction with utmost care and respect. You are equally important to each other, and that mindset has to be upfront and clear from the second they walk through that audition room door. Doesn’t matter what style you have as a director, an actor will only give you respect when you respect them. This applies not only to film, but to life as well. If you show an actor respect and they turn around and disrespect you, then there’s no place for them in your collaboration. Talk to them, find the root of the problem, and if a solution is not there, then fire them. But that’s a tough and expensive process, so it’s best to get it right at the audition level. Cast with your heart, not your eyes.

Now begins my one-on-one rehearsals with my actresses, where we focus only on character. We’re not even discussing the film. Just character. I’ll get more into to this process in my next post.