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Hail to the Chief

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Like many casting directors have done, Richard Hicks started as an actor. He has risen relatively quickly in his current profession, compiling a long and varied list of credits in little more than 10 years in the field--three with his own company--and he was elected president of the Casting Society of America in 2003. Part of that momentum is undoubtedly due to his longer history as an actor, an investment with which he still identifies closely.

Aspiring to the stage since age 12 or 13, he acted in high school before attending the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and then the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, where he studied on scholarship for three years. He returned to the U.S. without any contacts, so--from his parents' house in Dayton, Ohio--he submitted himself to regional theatres across the country. He landed his first job at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where he performed in mostly classical plays for three years, spending his off-times in New York. He continued in regional theatre, working as a reader for auditions along the way, which gave him his first look inside the casting process. As time went on, he became frustrated with the actor's life.

"As I got older I didn't deal well with not working," says Hicks. "I felt like a loser so much of the time--not knowing that there were so many things I couldn't control anyway, that if I had spent less time worrying and more time focusing on doing a good job in the room, something might have been different. At the time I couldn't see that. I just knew that the work I was getting was less and less satisfying to me. So, at about 29 or 30, I stopped."

After a stint as an agent's assistant, Hicks returned to acting, taking a couple of theatre jobs and then moving to Los Angeles around 1993. "I was doing, like, one line on Ellen, and a bad Waiver play.... It just wasn't happening for me," he says. "And then this job came along with Ronnie Yeskel, who had just cast Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. So, all of a sudden, I found myself working in a casting office for one of the best casting directors in town and one of the most gracious to actors."

Hicks started as Yeskel's assistant, became her associate, and then her partner; together they cast the first three seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Hicks set up his own shop in 2002, and he has cast a wide range of projects since. A recent sampling: the film Shall We Dance?; the upcoming You Are Going to Prison, "a very funny, smart, dark movie" directed by Bob Odenkirk; for the stage, the West Coast premiere of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt; and for television, pilot-casting for Showtime's The L Word, the science-fiction hit The 4400, and two pilots this season, one of which has been picked up. Among past film projects, he is particularly proud of his work on A Mighty Wind, Igby Goes Down, Bread and Roses, and Waking the Dead.

Although he still identifies with actors, CSA President Hicks has also forged strong ties with his casting colleagues--a community he once regarded with an actor's awe. "I think I have a little bit of that left in me," he says. "But I love this community because it has so many paradoxes to it. We are the impetus and the connecting point between the theoretical and the actual, but we're not directly responsible for that change. We pour our hearts and souls into advising people about what is best, and yet we also have a business side, so we get things done in a way that makes money for the studio or network or director that hires us."

When asked what inspired him to lead the CSA, he says, "For me, a lot of what drives me as a casting director is about connection. Am I connected? Do I know the world? Do I know who the good actors are? Do I feel connected to that actor or that director or that project? And I guess [serving the CSA] would be an outgrowth of that, because it means I'm connected to my community of casting directors, and I can do something for people I have loved for a long time."

Mental notes: The art of casting may be in how CDs compile and call upon their information. For every actor who passes before them--in a reading, in a film, TV show, or play--they must attempt to get an accurate, even nuanced read on the actor's capabilities and store it away for future reference.

Hicks had a rare windfall to his database while casting, with Yeskel, the female lead in Waking the Dead, a role that went to Jennifer Connelly. He says, "Because it was a beautiful script, almost all the leading ladies of Hollywood auditioned for that part, because [director Keith Gordon] needed to see it read. I was reading these amazing scenes opposite really great actresses, and Billy Crudup's part struck a chord with me.... I still feel connected to some of those people from those auditions, because we showed ourselves in a way that you don't get to much as an actor."

Amanda Peet was among those who auditioned for the role. Based on her reading, Hicks fought for her to be cast in Igby Goes Down at a time when she hadn't yet had the chance to prove herself dramatically. "What's great about my job is that when you feel passionately about someone, you are in a position to help make that happen," he says. "You can't make it happen, but you can do everything you can to facilitate good art." A CD's stores of information may be even more important when it comes to smaller roles, which are less bound to the marketing and budget concerns of a project, and for which CDs may have occasion to call upon their obscure gems.

We asked Hicks how it happens that an actor reading for a small role makes an impression that lasts beyond the current project. "I think you can kind of tell a lot of things quickly," he says. "You can tell if they listen and how specifically they listen. You can tell if they come from a place of intelligence and if they can work on more than one level at a time. You can get a quick sense of what they lead with. Some people lead with their vulnerability; others lead with their sex appeal, or their idiosyncrasies, or their ambition...and you can see that often in small roles, in three lines. It's just the way somebody is as a presence. It's easy to tell when it's somebody obvious, like a Peter Sarsgaard, but it's harder to tell when people are not quite that [unusual] or when the part is so generic as to not invite anything but the straight-up-the-middle way of doing it."

Beginner's luck: Hicks isn't easily drawn into talking about the business side of being an actor, as his fundamental belief seems to be that, although one should be informed and conscientious about one's opportunities, those concerns should never distract from the real business of acting, which is doing meaningful work.

If Hicks were an actor starting out in Los Angeles right now--with solid training, theatre experience, and no connections--what are the channels through which he'd be concentrating his efforts to break in? "I would get involved in a theatre company and [start] doing plays that meant something to me," he says. "I go to the theatre. And theatre in L.A. has a bad rap because most people do it for the wrong reasons. They do it to get an agent. But if you're doing it because you have an emotional availability and a connection to the material, that's the source of power for you as the actor." He also suggests interning at casting offices "to understand more elements of the business and get a sense of the daily life of it all, so you know what to worry about, when to focus your energies and when not to. And I would certainly be in an acting class, so that you feel like you're exercising your emotional muscles," he says. As for CD workshops, Hicks doesn't attend them.

For a higher echelon of newcomer--the non-name actor competing in the market for series-regular and recurring roles on TV--Hicks is asked how he has seen actors new to that process succeed. "The best way newcomers can inspire confidence under that scrutiny is to create space in which they do their good work," he says. "It's very easy to confuse the hype and anxiety of the studios and networks with the source of power.... All of that wouldn't exist if people weren't willing to pay money to watch an actor be funny or be free or be a conduit for emotional change. The people who make impressions are those who keep their cool and find a way to do work that is meaningful to them.... So, you need to do your homework and find ways in which you are connected to this character that are unique and specific to you and as interesting as you can make them."

Hicks adds, "You know how often they talk about beginner's luck? I think that happens because, before they've been told, 'No,' people don't know what to do except to do their work. That's the challenge: Even if you've been told 'no' a million times, look at this as an opportunity to do work that means something to you. That is something that you can control as an actor." BSW

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