New York–based Calleri Casting, comprised of casting directors James Calleri, Paul Davis, and Erica Jensen, casts for theater, film, and television. This year, the office won four Artios Awards for outstanding achievement in casting, for Broadway’s “Venus in Fur,” Classic Stage Company’s “The Cherry Orchard” Off-Broadway, the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s regional production of “A Doll's House,” and the short film “High Maintenance.”
Calleri, Davis, and Jensen tell Backstage how they got started in casting, the ways film and TV auditions are different from theater, and why they love working with actors.
How did you become casting directors?
James Calleri: I studied acting and directing. First I went to liberal arts college, Trinity University, and then earned my MFA from UC Irvine. I studied with some of the best—Jerzy Grotowski and Robert Cohen (with whom I later co-authored the book ‘Acting Professionally: Raw Facts for Actors’). I started at The Gersh Agency when arriving in N.Y., assisting a great agent, but it wasn’t near creative enough for me. Two great casting directors gave me my first jobs—Daniel Swee and Alexa Fogel. And then my big break was Tim Sanford hiring me to be the casting director at Playwrights Horizons. I made that my home for 10 seasons before setting up shop as Calleri Casting with Erica and Paul.
Paul Davis: I studied musical theater in college. James Calleri, while getting his MFA, was my acting teacher and remained a good friend. After a job dancing on a cruise ship, I moved to NYC—thanks to Calleri telling me that the city’s bark was worse than its bite—pursued performing for a few years (i.e., temped nine months of the year and did bad dinner theater the other three) and then started circulating my résumé around town and was lucky enough to land my first assistant job on the revival of ‘Annie Get Your Gun.’
Erica Jensen: I was working on my MFA in Acting at Illinois State University and had to do an internship at a theater company in order to graduate. I accepted an internship at Playwrights Horizons where I met James, who was their casting director at the time. When my internship ended, I pursued acting as planned, and found a summer gig doing educational children’s theater at the Central Park Zoo. (Yes, the zoo. It paid the bills.) And I auditioned a lot. Somewhere along the line James and Alaine Alldaffer were hired to work on the television show “Ed” and needed an assistant. Fortunately, they offered me the job. And I've been working in casting for 14 years.
Davis: We all used to be actors. We know how difficult it is. I love what I do, and celebrate that Erica and James are my colleagues and best friends.
How do you choose your projects?
Davis: What I love about the Calleri office is that we take on an eclectic mix of projects that come to us from various sources—directors, actors, producers with whom we’ve worked and enjoyed the collaboration.
Calleri: Erica, Paul and I now have a motto of just trying to work with good people. We like to have a good time. We want to work on things we love, with people we respect. It’s not always easy. A lot of it is about relationships. A lot of our accounts are people we’ve worked with for many, many years. So it’s about trust and respect, and knowing how to cast for a certain producer or company, whether its theater, film, or TV. We really pride ourselves in working in all three mediums and doing it well. It keeps it interesting for us. Any given week it’s a wide range. It can be watching actors fly off the walls for ‘Fuerza Bruta,’ to casting an indie film, to auditions for Chekov.
How is a film or TV audition different from theater?
Calleri: I like people memorized for TV and film. Every second they are down in the page is a second we lose them on screen. The actors that book the jobs are the ones that know the material. We had one producer say, ‘Don’t learn the lines unless I'm paying you to learn the lines,’ and I appreciated that, but found he was the anomaly. Preparation is key.
Davis: For TV, it’s all about the storytelling rhythm of the given show. The audition sides give the actor most everything they need to know. Beware too many backstory questions. Preparation is very much about knowing TV—the differences between half-hour and hour, network and cable, comedy and drama, and procedurals. For a play, we always give actors the full script in advance of the audition. And if you don’t get it, ask. Knowing the world of the play, the structure of the plot, and nuanced relationships of the characters is key.
What are your pet peeves in the audition room?
Calleri: I don’t like actors that talk too much. I’m a big believer in letting the work speak for itself.
Jensen: And actors who reveal that they did not read the script or have never seen the TV show. That is very embarrassing for everyone. Don’t do that!
Davis: It drives me crazy when an actor diffuses focus away from the project we’re casting by offering unsolicited invitations to their current show or Xeroxed copies of a recent review, or handing out their business card because they also happen to be a licensed real estate broker. This happened in a final callback situation, and did not go over well.
What have you learned from working with so many actors?
Calleri: Most are a bit crazy. You probably have to be a little to want to do it.
Davis: Good actors remind me why I fell in love with this in the first place. Their inventiveness, imagination, and roll-with-the-punches good-naturedness is golden.
Do you feel a sense of pride when an actor you’ve cast wins an award for their performance?
Jensen: Absolutely! And I'm not shy about taking credit!
Calleri: Of course. How can you not? Paul and Erica brought Nina Arianda in to meet me after they saw her in a play at NYU. Soon after that we brought her in to audition for ‘Venus in Fur’ in a role that was proving impossible to cast. We had gone through many stars, which didn't work. Nina just came in and took that job. It belonged to no one else. There was no question. It was a total game change. It proves that surrounding yourself with good people is key. Paul and Erica have been with me some 15 years. I take pride in their great taste and judgment. Seeing this remarkable kismet of a one-of-a-kind talent with a role to match is very sweet.
Davis: We all wept tears of joy when Nina Arianda won the Tony for ‘Venus in Fur.’
Calleri Casting’s current projects include a new feature film from “Another Earth” writer-director Mike Cahill, Classic Stage Company’s Off-Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion,” and the Long Wharf Theatre and Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre’s upcoming seasons. Calleri Casting is also working with playwright David Ives and director Walter Bobbie (the team behind “Venus in Fur”) for the fourth time for a new play reading, and will begin casting its third season for the Williamstown Theatre Festival in early 2013.