CSA President Russell Boast on How Casting in Hollywood Has Changed in 2020

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Photo Source: Raquel Aparicio

As a casting director, the Casting Society of America’s president, and a father, Russell Boast is used to having his hands full—and the year 2020 has only added to the load. Before he was leading CSA, he was well into implementing his diversity and inclusion initiatives with the organization through town halls and open calls; then, as the country reckoned once again with pervasive racial inequities this summer in the heat of the coronavirus pandemic, Hollywood’s casting directors turned inward to assess what in the industry needed changing. Via email to Backstage, Boast reflects on the efforts that have been made since, how productions safely adapted to remote casting processes, and what CDs (who are often the first talent advocates for a project) can continue doing to increase diversity onscreen.

“Uncertainty is a breeding ground for frustration and fear, especially for creatives. Still, I encourage anyone who may be experiencing this uncertainty as a roadblock to channel those frustrations back into art.”

How have the last eight months been for you as a casting director and as president of CSA?
It’s been a difficult time for all of us. Back in March, I wasn’t fazed. We’re entertainers; we create light when there is dark. It’s what we do! I immediately started imagining everything online—creating a virtual office, Zoom breakout rooms, online chemistry reads, the whole gamut. With CSA, we have a strong and committed board, and I am surrounded by a lot of smart, talented, and professional peers who have, during the lockdown, continued to go above and beyond for the organization. As the days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, I realized that my focus had to be on my family. Explaining the pandemic to my two young boys, making them feel safe, and introducing virtual schooling became paramount to me. As much as I missed work and many of my CSA duties, my kids had to come first.

What were some of the frustrations for those peers you mentioned? What larger conversations have CDs been working through?
For many, [it’s] the loss of work and the uncertainty of their futures. These months have been a great time to catch up on the vast number of shows available, take general meetings, and read scripts—for those who aren’t on lockdown with their kids. However, many CDs aren’t working, or are doing prep on projects with vague start dates as the industry navigates getting productions back to work safely. Uncertainty is a breeding ground for frustration and fear, especially for creatives. Still, I encourage anyone who may be experiencing this uncertainty as a roadblock to channel those frustrations back into art.

What new elements and approaches to casting do you think will stick beyond this moment?
The ability to do just about everything online will be around for good. When the self-tape emerged a decade ago, my stomach churned. While I saw the advantage of access beyond actors who could physically come into my office, I was attracted to casting because I love people, actors, and the relationships that start in the room. If I’d wanted to sit behind a computer all day, I would have pursued a degree in accounting. However, something from the past, which those of us who have been around for a while have missed, is reemerging: meetings with actors. With time on their hands, many casting directors have been doing general meetings again. For those who have been casting virtually, a meeting with our director has become increasingly important. They replace those human moments before and after the audition when we get to know each other. We’ve learned a lot about technology [and] a lot about what we can do and, I assume, will continue to do online moving forward.

As someone who has been championing diversity and inclusion both in performers and CDs throughout your various roles in CSA, what have this year’s events added to those initiatives, and what were the effects of the groundwork you had already established?
The work our Equity in Entertainment Committee is doing together with our newly formed CSA BIPOC Alliance and the ongoing work of our Training and Education Program to introduce casting to a new generation of diverse casting professionals feels like a culmination of my life’s work. I arrived in the USA from Africa 16 years ago with one clear intention: to further use the entertainment industry’s power I’d leveraged to empower disenfranchised African communities in Africa, [in] America.

READ: How to Prep for Auditions During COVID

I had the profound experience back home of working on a film called “In My Country” with Sam Jackson and Juliette Binoche, directed by the legendary John Boorman. My job was to find the real victims and their accusers who lived through apartheid in South Africa and convince them to reenact the truth and reconciliation hearings, which eventually created a sense of peace in our country.

This seemingly sudden call to action in the USA isn’t new to me. I was born into activism, allyship, and advocacy as a child. This essential work is both industry-changing and, ultimately, life-changing. I am eternally grateful to everyone who is making an effort to create a long-overdue space for many, many unheard voices and many more to come. My time leading the CSA is almost done, and knowing that when I move on, this important work will not only continue but will exceed all my expectations, well beyond the groundwork I may have established, makes me very, very happy.

“Instead of feeling resigned, this call to action by the year’s events should be seen by all of us as an essential time to do better, heighten our awareness, and remain acutely accountable at all times.”

What are some big changes casting directors will see come out of the events of 2020?
I hope that our community will come out of 2020 with a greater understanding of what it truly means to persevere; to be aware and accountable. Casting directors pride ourselves on being at the forefront of the inclusion conversation. But this spotlight, for want of a better word, has challenged everyone in the entertainment industry to ask a difficult question: Have we been doing enough? I would say no, but instead of feeling resigned, this call to action by the year’s events should be seen by all of us as an essential time to do better, heighten our awareness, and remain acutely accountable at all times.

What has made you excited about looking ahead? Have you noticed any new trends?
Without a doubt, the overdue uptick in awareness of how vital the casting community is with creating more equity in entertainment. A lot of important discussions have become immediate calls to action at last! Additionally, contradictory to my personal preference to be in the room with actors, the ability to cast an entire project from anywhere. I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to cast one of the only projects shooting in Massachusetts mid-pandemic, and I did every single speaking role from my home office in Los Angeles. It was a very new experience for me. Still, I got to work with agents, managers, and actors in NYC and start many new relationships I probably wouldn’t have been afforded under different circumstances. I’m also seeing some great content coming out of the pandemic; I have three beautiful scripts in the early stages of development born out of this moment in time. 

What advice do you have for people getting their start in casting or hoping to enter the craft now that we are in the midst of changes?
This is your time; art is truly a reflection of society. If you believe in art, come into this industry with a desire to reflect society. Dig deeper, do more work, be an advocate or a believer or a change-maker, and bring those tools with you. There are new and unique stories to be told; be on the pulse of those, and get behind the ones that resonate for you. Make space for a world where your future work in casting will genuinely reflect your own beliefs and the world around you. I got into casting because I had a deep appreciation for the arts and a desire to change people’s lives. Find your call to casting. It can be an empowering career choice for those who love the arts and want to explore authenticity in an ongoing effort to educate and inform.

What should actors know about the state of things from your perspective in casting, and what advice do you have for actors trying to navigate getting cast right now?
There is a lot of noise out in the world, a lot of maybes, and a lot of uncertainty right now. Try to stay focused. Be kind, be honest, and be authentic. Put yourself and your craft first. The truth is, there isn’t going to be an abundance of work yet. Use this time to hone your craft, work on your writing skills, and self-reflect. And always be ready to do your best work!

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 12 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Elyse Roth
Elyse is a senior editor at Backstage, where she oversees all casting news and features content, including her weekly casting director Q&A series, In the Room. She came to New York from Ohio by way of Northwestern University, where she studied journalism, and now lives in Brooklyn. She might see and write about awards-worthy films, but Elyse still thinks “Legally Blonde” is a perfect movie and on any given night is probably taking in some kind of entertainment, whether it’s comedy, theater, ballet, or figuring out what show to binge next.
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