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Interview

7 Career Tips from Casting Director John Frank Levey

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7 Career Tips from Casting Director John Frank Levey
Photo Source: John Lorenz

Emmy-Award-winning casting director, John Frank Levey is best known for his casting credits ("ER," "The West Wing," "Southland"), but he started his career as a theater director with the NEA fellowship at the Mark Taper Forum. After directing a number of productions at the Forum, South Coast Rep, and various other L.A. venues, he jokes "a bad review and a child" turned his focus to casting. He was looking for a job, and a producer friend was able to help him find work in casting. It seemed like a natural fit since casting directors need to be able to collaborate with writers, directors, and producers on creative issues as well as budgetary matters. "So my background in the theater has given me an opportunity to know how to speak all of those languages so I can negotiate deals," Levery explains. "And I can understand directors' concepts and writers' intentions and I can speak the language of actors as well."  He relies on that in his casting work every day.

While Levey has no intentions of leaving casting behind, he's stepping back into his director role to bring "Lake Anne," a dark, emotional story about love gone wrong, to the Road Theater. The play runs from Sept. 20-Nov. 9. "It's sort of a play about the space between what we intend out of our love and what actually happens," he says. "And that's a story that intrigues me greatly, because it's a story that I think we can all identify with. The space between what we had hoped to have happened in a loving situation and what ends up happening can be extremely painful and very different."

Levey shares some of the wisdom he's gleaned from years of working with actors as a director and casting director.

Find work you believe in.
Despite being busy with his successful casting career, Levey is happy to return to the theater when the right project comes up. Sam Anderson, the artistic director at the Road Theater, reached out to Levey to direct something. Being a fan of Marthe Rachel Gold's work, Levey sent several of her scripts to Anderson, and they settled on "Lake Anne." Directing can be challenging because the director is ultimately responsible for all decisions for every aspect of the show, so being passionate about the project is important. "[Directing is] an issue of energy and stamina and I undertake it with a great deal of sense of responsibility... I care about [the project] and am passionate about my work and trying to encourage everybody else to go to their most creative and passionate place."

Creativity is its own reward.
Even professional theater productions with good budgets for producing the show usually don't pay a lot. So those involved are there because they love the creative process, not the money. "So my feeling is that everybody's creativity has to be responded to and respected since that's what everybody's going to get out of it," says Levey. "And we've done a lot of work together. We've had a wonderful time working on this dark and sad play."

Think outside the box.
Levey also employed his casting expertise on "Lake Anne." Several of the roles were cast from the theater's company of actors, but because two of the characters are ballet dancers he needed to find actors that could do the dancing the roles required. "That was challenging. And that's why we widened that out to outside the company," he explains.

Collaboration is key.
Going into the production with a great working relationship with both the writer and the artistic director is always helpful, but Levey loves the collaborative nature of the theater in general. He worked closely with Gold to remain true to her vision, but the actors, designers, and theater personnel all added something to the production. "It's very much like a relay race, and you pass the baton around and everybody gets to run their lap and bring their creativity to the process, but I'm certainly orchestrating the production in every respect," says Levey.

Have fun and relax.
When casting a project, Levey stresses that he always tries to do whatever he can to make the actor feel comfortable in the room. "Intimidating people never leads to anything good for anybody," he says. While he and Melanie [Burgess] will provide their feedback in the room, they also try to have fun. "We like to play around with actors and have them play around with the material, and we all learn something about each other and ourselves," he explains. "But mostly I try to set an environment where everybody gets to do their best work and feel relaxed and confident. Protected."

Love what you do.
"Everything doesn't have to be hard to be meaningful. You can find a way to do it and do it with some ease and some grace and that way you get to do it more and you don't exhaust yourself," he says. Levey's love and respect for actors brings out the best in them. "Actors are miracles," he says. "I can't do it. It looks a lot easier than it is." Levey says actors are important "because telling the stories of love and war and elation and celebration and disaster - it's a great way for people to communicate with each other and share our experiences and learn and grow."

Respect the craft.
Levey advises actors to respect the storytelling art by caring deeply about what they are doing and giving it all they've got. "An actor is so unique because you know a piano player has a reliable 88 keys if it's in tune. An actor only has him or herself to draw on as the instrument and him or herself to draw on as the player and that is why actors are so unique because they're both the instrument and the player," says Levey. "And they are the sum total of what's available for them to use to create the roles they play. So they have a responsibility to keep growing as people so that they can keep growing as artists. It's not enough just to be adorable."

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