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You Can't Stop the Offbeat

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Casting director Susan Shopmaker has strong responses to the actors she auditions. "I'm drawn to unique people who live in the world," she says. "I'm less drawn, for example, to girls who have the same weight, hair, and dress as every other girl who wants to play the lawyer. I'm drawn to actors who are not marketable. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a great example. He's smart to have gone his own way. Also, if I'm casting the good guys and the bad guys, it shouldn't be clear who's who. I don't want to know immediately. I'm certainly not going to cast them on the basis of their looks or the roles they've played in the past."

Perhaps not unexpectedly, Shopmaker is identified with the indie film scene, most notably 2003's Party Monster, 2001's Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and 1999's Trick. She also cast Shortbus, a sexually explicit 2006 film exploring the lives of several emotionally troubled New Yorkers. For that film, Shopmaker says, she received 300 to 400 tapes from actors—and many nonactors—interested in participating in the project, which was largely improvised.

"Some of the audition tapes we received were sexually explicit; others were personal in other ways, with actors talking about themselves," Shopmaker recalls. "I looked for unique personalities, people who were not afraid. But at the same time, I was not interested in narcissistic actors—exhibitionists who wanted to get into the film for the wrong reasons." She admits Shortbus was not an easy movie to cast, because, among other things, it forced her to examine her own aesthetics and values. Still, her faith in writer-director John Cameron Mitchell sustained her: He had already written, directed, and starred in Hedwig, the film version of his Off-Broadway musical. Shopmaker frequently works with the same directors and actors, she says, because they share a vision.

In her 17 years in the business, she has also cast mainstream Hollywood flicks, including Enchanted, an upcoming Disney film starring Susan Sarandon, and Nancy Meyers' 2003 film Something's Gotta Give, which starred Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton.

Asked how the demands of casting indie films are different from those of mainstream projects, Shopmaker says, "Sadly, the lines are blurring. Years ago you could cast a low-budget film with unknown actors. Today, even if it is a low-budget picture—as little as $500,000—you have to get name actors for the principal roles. The real casting takes place in the supporting roles. Even in a film like Enchanted, a lot of [lesser-known] New York actors were cast as well."

Shopmaker says she often interviews young actors before hearing them read—that it's equally important to get a sense of who they are as individuals: "The chances are I'm going to be far more interested in the kid who says, 'I'd like to be a taxidermist or brain surgeon,' as opposed to the kid who says, 'In 20 years I want to be a famous actor.' I like casting actors who are interested in experiencing all kinds of things."

Shopmaker, who studied painting and later theatre at Hamilton College in upstate New York, arrived in New York City and "fell into casting" (though she declines to elaborate on what that means). Gravitating toward offbeat films was a matter of choice, not circumstance, she says: "I still turn down a fair number of projects, and it's not smart. My career has suffered because of it. But if I'm going to cast a movie, it has to be a movie that I'd want to see. My choices have nothing to do with whether I think the film will do well or won't do well. I've never made strategic plans, except when I cast commercials, which have allowed me to pick and choose the film work I like." She adds, "Actors should want to do more commercials. It's fast money, and because commercials come and go so quickly, actors don't have to worry about being typecast."

To actors worried about being typed out of mainstream films should they become too identified with independents, Shopmaker notes that the indie scene isn't a closed-door ghetto: "Once you become known in independent films, Hollywood does come a-courtin'." But that's not necessarily a good thing, she adds: "Lots of actors jump. They forget why they wanted to act to begin with."

In the future, Shopmaker predicts, the industry will be even more overrun with actors than it is now, and there will be "a whole level of talent that's just missed by casting directors and agents." In addition, "Commercials as we know them now will become obsolete," she says. "Commercials will be done through tie-ins and product placement. Many others will be Internet-driven. There won't be much money in it, so everyone will have to work that much harder to make money."

Film content will also evolve, she says: "Films will become increasingly more global. There will be less dialogue in the scripts. That will make international marketing easier. At the same time, we'll be seeing many more minority films. I've already done casting for four Asian-American films, telling Asian-American stories, and directed by Asian Americans. This trend will create new employment opportunities for Asian-American actors, who have been marginalized, and it will create a market for these films. I think these films will cross over."

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