Casting is a collaborative process, according to Ellie Kanner. She knows many actors feel the casting director is their enemy, but that's really not the case at all. To her, casting is all about teamwork, and a CD's job includes both suggesting people to the producers and directors and guiding the decision-making process that the producers and directors go through. Kanner believes that every casting director wants the actor to get the job. And her recent leap into directing could mean that Kanner is casting you to star in her next project.
First Casting Job: Kanner started out as an agent with Irvin Arthur Associates, where she specialized in representing comedic actors. "My boss' friend was producing a play called Marvin & Mel at a theatre in the Midwest and asked me to cast it in 1986," Kanner said. Her next casting job was for Roger Nygard's short Warped. Kanner soon realized that she was not a salesperson. A sales mentality is required in agenting, and she realized that casting was her preferred line of work.
Road to This Position: Kanner began meeting with development people who encouraged her to follow this new path. "Fern Champion and Pamela Basker were looking for an assistant," Kanner recalled. "I worked for them for a year, doing pilots, films, everything. I learned so much in that year." Next, Kanner was an assistant at Lorimar (now part of Warner Bros.) and was soon promoted by Barbara Miller. "I did the pilot for Friends, for The Drew Carey Show, and, with Geraldine Leder, Lois and Clark."
Eventually, Kanner partnered up with her then-assistant Lorna Johnson, with whom she cast features, pilots, and episodic television, including Dawson's Creek. She then began a shift into directing. "I loved working with the actors and going to the set," Kanner recalled.
"Robby Benson mentored me. He had me on the set as his informal assistant when he directed episodes of The Naked Truth, and I learned quite a lot. He encouraged me to direct something—anything—and I decided on a multicamera, 10-minute pilot presentation that came out of a pilot my husband had written for HBO Independent Productions. I got these great actors, we shot the presentation in about two hours, and suddenly I had a reel." Alas, Kanner discovered that no one really cared about that reel, so she continued by directing a few plays at the HBO Workspace while still casting with Johnson.
Recently her feature-length directorial debut, Face to Face, was the opening-night film at the Taos Talking Pictures Festival and has distribution deals pending. "Lorna helped cast it," Kanner said. "Directing this film was the most incredible experience of my professional career. It was Scott Baio's screenplay about fathers and sons, and he wanted a director to give the female perspective."
Coolest Casting Gig: Without a doubt, Kanner was thrilled by the process of casting something she would also direct, so Face to Face is her favorite thus far. "I'm just so happy with how it all turned out." The cast she and Johnson assembled included Dean Stockwell, Joe Viterelli, Alex Rocco, Thomas Calabro, Carlo Imperato, Meat Loaf Aday, Julie Bowen, Ellen Travolta, Jonathan Banks, and, of course, Scott Baio.
Advice for Actors: Use your VCR. "Tape every show currently in production," she said. You will be aware, when called to audition for any show—other than a pilot, of course—of the show's pacing, its style, and the type of performances expected of its actors.
Also, you might want to read her book, Next! An Actor's Guide to Auditioning. Kanner co-authored it with Paul G. Bens in 1998, so she acknowledged the material may be somewhat dated. "But go to Samuel French," she advised. "It has lots of books that every actor should read."
Additionally, actors need to "let it go," Kanner advised. "I know an actor who rips up his copy of the sides after each audition, as sort of a ceremony to the end of the process. You have no control of whether you get the part. Just do your homework, connect during the audition, and then move on."
Actors must keep in mind that every CD is different. "We all have our own opinions and our list of pet peeves," Kanner said. "Figure out what works for you and use common sense."
What She'd Change About the Casting Process: If Kanner had a magic wand, she'd want to see everyone prepared, taking their jobs seriously, and treating one another well. "It would be a nicer process that way," she said. "I mean, it's never easy. Never, ever. No matter what, it's always difficult, but the process could be nicer."
Opinions on Alternative Submission Methods: "I'm not used to [Internet casting], but that's just me," Kanner revealed. "But you must have a demo reel." Bad tape is worse than no tape, however, so unless your tape is of broadcast quality, with good writing and talented actors playing with you, don't use it. "Remember that the tape could be the last thing a producer sees on you," Kanner warned.
Current Projects: Kanner just finished directing 50 episodes of the live-action Internet series Rachel's Room for Sony Screenblast, which will launch in August, and she's already committed to directing another film. She has come up with a clever way to keep directing without giving up casting. "I am set to direct an episode of Stephen King's The Dead Zone on UPN, if it gets picked up. And I've also been promised an episode of a one-hour Lifetime series."
Best Way To Get Seen by Her: Through your agent or manager. "Showcases are good, if they're put together well by a group of actors who are connected and can get industry people to the shows. Renting a theatre to put something up is a good way to go," she said. Kanner also attends plays and one-person shows. "Go do it!" she insisted. "Who's stopping you from joining theatre companies and being in class? Learn from the people you're most impressed with, and ask everybody for help. We're so afraid to do that.
"Additionally, when watching a show that you've decided you want to be on, send a note to the casting director for that show, explaining why you think you'd be right for a role on it. It may work. There are no guarantees, but if, at that one time, your photo gets in front of me when I need your type, it was worth doing," Kanner said.
Most Gratifying Part of the Job: "Working with the actors. Watching their final performance and knowing I had a part in helping them get the job." BSW
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Casting Qs is a biweekly column by Bonnie Gillespie focusing on the casters behind the projects. Suggestions for Qs are welcome via e-mail at CastingQs@yahoo.com.