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The Working Actor

Casting Suggestion, Directing Direction

Casting Suggestion, Directing Direction

I recently got cast as one of the two leads in a feature-length student film. It's a paid project, and the rest of the cast are exciting, experienced actors, all except for the other lead. He wrote and is planning to co-direct this film, and he has no acting experience. He and the other director decided that he should play the role because, "having written the script, he knew the part the best," and the other candidates, while "extremely talented," were not the physical type they were looking for. The story is fantastically thrilling and unique, all the other people involved are top-notch established actors and technicians, and a lot of money has been invested in this project.

There are still a few weeks before shooting is scheduled to begin, and I know an actor who wasn't in town the day of the audition but is this writer-director's physical match. He's a phenomenal actor who would really bring the character to life. Is there any way I can gracefully, directly or indirectly, suggest to the directors that they audition my friend?

I never would've dreamed I'd be asking a question like this, because I strongly believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt, and I accepted the role solely because the story is an amazing one I'd never in my right mind pass up. I'd force myself to stay with the project no matter what. The only reason I'm even daring to send this question is because this already overwhelmed student writer-director, who has never taken on a project this size, brings no energy to the character (who is almost never offscreen), and I am afraid, on the production's behalf, that his beautiful script and their tremendous investment will be for naught.

—Bound by Professional Courtesy


This is a complicated question with no easy answer. What you can say regarding the casting of the other lead role depends on your relationship with the filmmakers. If they have reached out to you for advice and input on other decisions, the door may be open for such a suggestion. If, however, they have treated you solely as an actor and your only contact with them has been with respect to your audition, you might need to stay in your current role—that of actor, in service to the director and the script.

Either way, it might be unwise to jump into a discussion of whether the director is really up for playing this role. If you want to speak up, couch it another way. Say something like, "I was telling my actor friend about this wonderful project, and he expressed how disappointed he was that he was out of town on the day of the auditions. He'd really like to meet with you. I can assure you that he's very talented and reliable and great to work with. Can I have him submit his headshot and résumé to you? I know you're already cast, but I thought you might consider him if something comes up." You might even attach his materials to your email, submitting them yourself. Hopefully, they will meet with him, and if he really is a great match for the other lead, they may come to that conclusion on their own.

I'd stay away from suggesting to them directly that your friend take the role. It's possible this director is wonderful and you'd kick yourself later when you realized he was the next Woody Allen. Or he might be terrible—and you may still kick yourself because you offended him, he's staying in the role, and now he's passive-aggressive with you every time you're on set. There's no way to know how your suggestion might come across.

That said, I spoke to a few student filmmakers to see how they'd react to such a suggestion, and they all thought you should do your best to serve the film, not the director.

Student director Melissa Perez says, "When I decide to direct a project, I am always looking for the best option in every decision I make. I know it seems scary, but if someone came to me with this option, I would thank and appreciate them for showing that they really cared how well the film was made. You might approach the director and say, 'I know you've set a decision on the lead, but I know an actor who would be more than worth auditioning, and I have a gut feeling that he would be perfect for the film and that you would love him.' I've made plenty of decisions that, although difficult, have made my student productions much better films. Film is collaborative, and that is a lesson that I've learned."

"As a director-writer, I believe you always have conceptions of what kind of actors you want for particular roles," writes recent film graduate Steven Ray Morris in an email. "But in my personal experience, trying out as many people as possible leads to more options. Often actors bring new angles to the characters. If you really care about the film, making that brave step to voice your concern is only a good thing. Sure, egos might be bruised—Renaissance types who direct/write/act can be a tad inflated—but better to explore your options than settle with a mediocre product."


I'm not an actor. I came across your column when I was posting a casting notice for a film I'm directing. Well, I'm done casting now and thought you might be able to give me some advice. I am pretty new to directing and not sure how to rev up the chemistry between my two main actors. It doesn't really seem like they're attracted to each other.

—Director in Need


With chemistry, it can pay to be a little bit tricky. Sometimes playfulness can spark a missing connection. Here are a few ideas:

Put your actors through some silly things together—they can bond over what a kook you are. Have them do the scene holding hands, tickling one another, or sitting on the ground looking at each other. Make it a contest: If either looks away, they have to start over. Or have them do the scene but make it about who can make the other one laugh first. Try it as an opera. Have them run around the building and start the scene when they're totally winded. The point with these kinds of things is not to actually shoot the scene that way, but to help the actors relax, drop their self-awareness, and connect.

For more advice, pick up Judith Weston's book "Directing Actors." It's full of practical suggestions for speaking to actors in, well, actor-speak. And next time, remember that old adage: "Ninety percent of directing is good casting." Call back your potential couples together whenever possible, so you can eye their chemistry before you cast them.

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