With the exception of trying out for school plays, 17-year-old Robin De Jesus, a native of Norwalk, Conn., had never been on a full-fledged audition before he went to an open call for Camp, a low-budget independent film that opens in theatres this week and tells the refreshingly sweet story of a kids' theatre camp where talented young actors, dancers, and singers convene each summer to do what they love most. At the time of the Camp audition, De Jesus had recently graduated high school and was planning to pursue a career as an opera singer.
"I was actually working at a theatre camp with children in Greenwich, and one of the parents was on Broadway in Aida and heard about this audition and told the director of the camp, and he gave her a breakdown of the characters," shared De Jesus, who is now 19 and pursuing acting opportunities in New York City. "She sent two of us that fit the breakdown to this open call. It was almost like American Idol in some weird way. I remember seeing really tall, skinny girls in pigtails trying to look younger. Five callbacks later I got it."
De Jesus wound up with a lead role as Michael, a gay teenager who finds acceptance in the world of Camp Ovation, a haven for otherwise misunderstood kids with a passion for performing. Camp's writer/director Todd Graff based his movie's setting on Stagedoor Manor, a real theatre camp in upstate New York that Graff attended as a teenager, both as a camper and later as a counselor to a then 8-year-old Robert Downey Jr. Other famous alumni of Stagedoor include Jennifer Jason Leigh, with whom Graff went to camp, Natalie Portman, Jon Cryer, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Helen Slater. As Graff pointed out, Stagedoor is a great place to start networking—no joke.
"Beyond the fact that it transforms you in terms of your growth as a kid who is into theatre, the networking that goes on there is insane. So many people who go there go on to have all these careers in [show business]. In a substantial way, it gets your foot in the door," said Graff, who is best known as an actor in Broadway's Baby and in films like The Abyss, Five Corners, Dominick & Eugene, Strange Days, and Death to Smoochy. He has also worked as a screenwriter on Used People, Angie, The Preacher's Wife, Coyote Ugly, and Dangerous Minds, among other films.
While not as green as De Jesus, 16-year-old Baltimore, Md., resident Joanna Chilcoat had also never auditioned for a feature film before landing a principal role in Camp as Ellen, an ugly ducking at home but a swan at Camp Ovation. Chilcoat, who has worked in Baltimore theatre since age 9, heard about an open call for Camp from a Baltimore dance instructor who happened to be a good friend of Graff's. Since the film's debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Chilcoat and De Jesus have found representation with Nancy Carson of the Carson/Adler Agency in New York. Both are pursuing acting, though Chilcoat, now 17, is planning to start college this fall.
It's certainly rare for an unknown to land a lead role in a movie. Still, there have been quite a few cases in recent years: Michelle Rodriguez in Girlfight, Real Women Have Curves' America Ferrera, Derek Luke in Antwone Fisher, Victor Rasuk and Judy Marte of Raising Victor Vargas, Whale Rider's Keisha Castle-Hughes, and Nikki Reed, who's about to debut in Thirteen.
Graff, a first-time director based in New York, knew he wanted all unknowns for his cast—save for a precious cameo by composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who generously granted Graff permission to use three of his songs in Camp. Sondheim's participation and stamp of approval also helped Graff convince other famous composers and lyricists, such as Henry Krieger (Dreamgirls), and Burt Bacharach and Hal David (Promises, Promises), to donate music. Even the Rolling Stones pitched in, permitting Graff to use "Wild Horses."
While getting the music was essential to the success of Camp, the film would be nothing without its talented young actors. As Graff explained about his approach to casting, he didn't want young professionals who were slick and polished. Like the characters he wrote, he wanted raw talent and real kids.
"It wasn't necessarily important to me that they had never done film work; it just kind of worked out that way," said the writer/director. "I had 22 days to make the movie, and there was going to be no time for the kids to unlearn 2,000 bad habits they got from every manager and agent and Annie road company that they might have done if they were professional showbiz kids. It seemed key to the success of the piece that I buy the naturalness of the kids."
Graff sought the help of New York-based casting directors Bernie Telsey and Victoria Pettibone, who have a stellar reputation for finding diamonds in the rough. In addition to casting the current hit Broadway musicals Hairspray, Aida, and Saturday Night Fever, Telsey and Pettibone cast Rent, which, like Camp, featured a number of unknowns. The casting company also worked on the Gus Van Sant film Finding Forrester, for which Pettibone tapped Rob Brown, then a high school student with no acting experience, to play the lead opposite Sean Connery.
Camp was cast twice, first by Telsey as a workshop production, which Danny De Vito's Jersey Films hoped to turn into a feature film. However, like many film projects in development, the initial financing for Camp never materialized, and it wasn't until four years later that the project gained a second wind, thanks to Jersey Films partnering with Killer Films, the company that produced such notable pictures as Boys Don't Cry, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Far From Heaven. Killer Films convinced IFC Films, which had released the hits Y Tu Mama Tambien and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, to finance and distribute Camp. By the time the film finally went into pre-production, many of the young actors who had been a part of the original workshop production of Camp were too old for the parts. Telsey, who was now working with Pettibone (she had joined Telsey's company immediately before Telsey was casting the workshop of Camp and was not heavily involved in that), had to pretty much start from scratch.
As Pettibone told Back Stage West, "Four years later when it really was happening, Todd came to us again. It all happened very, very fast. We got the call in May, and we needed to be fully cast by early July, which basically gave us a month to do it, which is not a lot of time and especially not a lot of time to look for kids who are not members of SAG, as this was a non-SAG movie. So that was particularly challenging, but we just went for it. We really believed in the project.
"I think what excited us, first of all, was just knowing how passionate Todd was about the project," continued Pettibone. "I think the best things we ever work on are when the creators are enthusiastic and passionate about what they are doing. And it was a really exciting challenge to find these kids. I do the casting for a lot of less traditional projects in the office that deal with things like finding young kids or working with new, raw talent, and that is what really what excites me about casting."
Likewise, Graff based his casting choices on the potential of an actor, not on the immediate result.
"I've never directed a film before, so I didn't really know the way you're supposed to do it," admitted Graff, who held long, involved "Chorus Line-y" auditions to see how they could respond to pressure, instruction, and direction. He needed to know that they could be triple-threats, and he needed to connect with them. "I could only follow my gut, and I knew that I needed to fall in love with the kids and they needed to be able to sing, dance, and act. I needed to fall in love with their vulnerability. I needed to buy them as these kids who are somewhat at risk in their lives and who are just happy as pigs in shit at the camp.
"Robin De Jesus, for example, had never been on an audition in his life," Graff continued. "He came in and sang R. Kelly's 'I Believe I Can Fly,' a cappella—not the greatest choice of an audition song, particularly a cappella, when you don't know what you're doing and you're singing it in G and you probably want to sing it in E flat. But there was something about him that made my heart melt seeing him go for it. You knew that he could sing; he just made a crazy choice. So you put the song back down in E flat and you say, 'Let's try it with the piano,' and suddenly he's kind of in the ballpark."
Outside the Box
In addition to having to cast outside the usual breakdowns that are distributed to agencies, Telsey and Pettibone faced the problem that most schools had closed for summer vacation.
Said Pettibone, "We didn't have access to the schools, which is usually a great way to get through to kids. So I had interns taking fliers and going to summer camps and swimming pools and dance competitions that happen in the summertime, and we started getting kids that way. I contacted a lot of summer camps, but unfortunately that was difficult because a lot of camps can't send their kids away from camp to go on an audition, although some of the performing arts programs that happen in the summer were very helpful. A lot of it was word of mouth."
Added Graff, "Bernie and Victoria thought outside the box. They couldn't do the usual thing where they put out a breakdown and agents could read the breakdown and submit clients. They couldn't go through agents. So they had to do things like plaster New York City with fliers on lampposts announcing open calls. They went to a radio station in New York and traded premiere tickets to a different IFC film in return for that radio station announcing our open call on the radio. The next morning there were 200 kids. We didn't happen to use any of those kids, but we did cast two kids, Julie Kleiner and Caitlan Van Zandt, from Stagedoor.
Pettibone and Telsey also were able to pull headshots they had collected from many of the previous open calls they had held for Rent, Aida, or Hairspray, and called actors who they thought might be appropriate for Camp's campers.
"I was able to go through our files and cast a number of people who ended up on the pile of 'too young for Hairspray' or 'too young for Rent, but really good,'" said Pettibone. "We really look out for talent all the time, and we are always thinking of the larger picture, because if somebody isn't right for the project that we are looking for at the moment, they may be very valuable to something we are working on in the future. That is why our office works so well, because we pool our resources. So even though Hairspray is not my project—although I am involved in what is going on in Hairspray and have a hand in that—I'm able to go to those resources or any of the other shows that we see very young but very talented people for."
That's how Pettibone cast Camp's Alana Allen, who plays Jill, a blonde bombshell often cast as the lead in Camp Ovation's productions who's not well-liked by many her fellow campers. Shared Pettibone, "Alana came in for Rent, auditioned a couple of years ago, and I wrote next to her notes, 'See again in number of years.'"
Daniel Letterle, who plays one of Camp's leads, Vlad, the sole heterosexual male camper in Ovation's bunch, had auditioned for a remake of the movie Fame, which ended up not getting made but which Pettibone worked on. Soon after Fame got scrapped, Pettibone started work on Camp.
Said the casting director, "I had been seeing a lot of young kids for Fame who were SAG or non-SAG. It didn't matter at the time. Daniel was one of the people who came in for that project and who I really liked, and when I went back to my notes, I found him and he was not a member of SAG, which was critical [to Camp's casting]. So I brought him in again, and he was just perfect."
For Letterle, it was the lucky break he had been wishing for. "I was pounding the pavement for a long time. I had been in New York for six years, and I traveled through Europe as a dancer and a singer," said Letterle, now 24. Since making Camp, he's signed with Endeavor and is being repped by agents Stephanie Ritz in New York and Joe Brandon in Los Angeles.
Open to Open Calls
A few actors, including Sasha Allen and Anna Kendrick, were a part of Camp's original workshop production and made it into the film. However, Allen almost didn't get cast because Pettibone had outdated contact information for her. Pettibone recommends that actors put as many contact numbers as possible on their resumés so that they don't lose out on a future role. As it turned out Allen happened to walk into an agent's office who knew about the casting for Camp and who formerly worked at Bernard Telsey Casting.
Noted the casting director, "I can't tell you how many times I've gone through my files and I call somebody, and the one number they left on their resumé is out of service. Leave your parents' permanent home number or something that's not going to change, or an e-mail even. I used to never do e-mail, but now I track down people that way. At the very least have yourself listed in the phone book."
Pettibone does not recommend that actors send general submissions to her company's office. She feels it's a waste of the actor's time and money. Instead, she tells actors to be on the lookout for the many open calls her office holds for specific productions they're casting. Those calls are frequently listed in Back Stage and Back Stage West (and on BackStage.com). Pettibone said she usually comes out to Los Angeles once or twice a year, depending on what projects she's working on. In the case of Camp, she was not able to hold an open call in L.A., although Jersey Films held some L.A. auditions, during which actor Vince Rimoldi was called back and wound up with a substantial role in the film.
Above all, Pettibone urges actors to not dismiss open calls. As demonstrated by Camp, Bernard Telsey Casting remembers potential talent for future projects. Currently the company is casting Broadway productions of The Little Shop of Horrors and Wicked, as well as pre-Broadway theatrical projects such as Taboo ("the Boy George musical," said Pettibone) and Never Gonna Dance. Her office is also working on the Universal film The Rucker, directed by Malcolm Lee, and the upcoming NBC series Whoopi, starring Whoopi Goldberg. Bernard Telsey Casting also cast the show's pilot. Pettibone said her office is also holding ongoing auditions for productions of Hairspray, Rent, and Aida, and also casts commercials.
"Go to open calls," emphasized Pettibone. "It may feel like it's a waste of time, because you go to a lot of them before you get one, but that's OK. You never know what somebody's going to remember you for in the future."
As for Graff, he said he's retired from acting—save for the occasional "goof," in which he'll get asked to play a small role as a favor for a friend. He's concentrating on his screenwriting and directing. He recently wrote a script about Beatles' manager Brian Epstein, for which Jude Law is currently attached. BSW