How to Become a Casting Director

Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

Casting is an art of its own. At the most fundamental level, casting directors are in charge of building a team. At the most sensitive level, casting directors hold the “keys to the city,” determining who gets put forward for a gig and who doesn’t. From running auditions to negotiating contracts, CDs are the people who bring the actors to the story and are often charged with presenting out-of-the-box options that could change a story’s essence.

If becoming a casting director is your dream, Backstage has you covered. It’s a tough, competitive field still rooted in an apprenticeship model, with a lot of sacrifice, grunt work, elbow grease, and caffeine required to make it. We’ve rounded up some essential insights into the wild and influential world of casting.

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What does a casting director do?

Sometimes people think of casting directors as agents—they’re not. Agents represent actors and do business on the actor’s behalf. An agent is charged with getting actors gigs, and are paid a percentage of an actor’s compensation. A casting director, on the other hand, is charged with getting projects actors. CDs—who work as freelancers—are commissioned by a studio, network, or producers to do their work.

“Our job is to collaborate with producers, directors, and network and studios executives to cast the best talent for each role. We work to fulfill the creative vision of a team of artists. As casting directors, we get to help bring the vision of projects to life with our casting choices,” says Lisa London, CD on Disney’s “Hannah Montana” and “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody” and 2008’s “The House Bunny.”

What is the most common path to becoming a casting director?

There is no degree program or graduate school for becoming a casting director. Most CDs get their start through internships, apprenticeships, assistantships, fellowships, or mentorships. The best way to learn the ins and outs of casting is to do it—and to learn from those who have been doing it for a long time.

Internships and apprenticeships will teach you good habits for scouting, record-keeping, communication, audition protocols, and team-building. Many nonprofit regional theaters offer entry-level internships in their casting departments, which is a good way to get started. If a theater doesn’t offer an internship in casting, there is usually a position in a production or artistic department that directly engages with casting projects.

There are also, of course, high-profile casting offices in the big “actor cities” like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago that often offer internships where greenhorns can learn from master casters.

Why should I be a casting assistant first?

In the same way that a master craftsperson doesn’t become a master overnight, casting directors don’t become skilled until they’ve had a chance to learn through experience. When you enter the scene as an assistant, you have the opportunity to observe skilled CDs in action—what they look for, how they read résumés, how they work an audition room, and how they communicate with actors and their agents. Skilled observation and communication habits are paramount for a successful CD.

Also, assistantships allow a CD-in-training to start building up a network of actors and directors. It’s vital that CDs understand and appreciate the entertainment landscape—the more studios, producers, directors, actors, and other casting directors you know, the better you will be at your job. As Dan Pruksarnukul, former casting director at D.C.’s Arena Stage, says, “It’s about trying to develop genuine relationships.” The entertainment industry can feel tiny at times, and as an assistant, you will begin meeting the people who will sustain your work and support your success throughout your career.

How do I start with no résumé?

No résumé? No problem. Everyone has to start somewhere. And remember, there are no training programs for casting directors like there are for actors or directors. The key is getting in the door—and then climbing the ladder beyond the door.

Start by checking theaters and casting agencies for apprenticeships or assistantships in their casting department. At the entry level, a casting assistant’s duties will likely include administrative tasks like fielding phone calls, organizing headshots, posting audition materials, operating cameras, and publishing casting notices.

If a casting assistantship proves too difficult to secure cold, apply for positions in related departments, be they artistic or production. Usually, casting directors have some previous experience in the field, either as an actor, director, or arts manager. It helps CDs gain an appreciation for how scary and intimidating an audition can truly be for the actor and even the director. If you haven’t taken an acting class, do so. Learn what it’s like to be in an actor’s shoes. This awareness will allow you to handle casting operations with sensitivity and empathy.

Though the Casting Society of America doesn’t offer memberships to casting assistants, the professional advocacy organization does run a listserv for assistantship opportunities and a newly minted (and exclusive) semester-long training program at Syracuse University.

What kinds of people should I be networking with?

The short answer is everybody. That’s also the long answer. Casting directors have an enormous responsibility—not only are they charged with assembling an ensemble of actors to tell a story, they are also constructing a troupe of employees who need to work well together. And it doesn’t stop there! The actors whom CDs cast need to work well with the director and the crew, too—you’re building a work environment! As Pruksarnukul puts it, “You want to build a team, not just stars.” So, it helps to network and be present for lots of events—whether they’re launch parties, staged readings, nonunion plays, screenings, or showcases.

Here are some specific people you should be engaging with on a regular basis:

Producers are the folks who will solicit your services. If you establish yourself as a confident and reliable collaborator with a wealth of connections and resources, producers will be inclined to hire you to help make their investment a success.

Directors are the people you need to serve as a casting director. You need to know a director’s style—their habits, inclinations, temperament, and aesthetic. When you understand a director not only on an artistic level but personally, you’ll be better able to do your job.

And, of course, you want to get to know actors. But how?

Where do I look for actors I might want to cast?

An essential task for a successful CD is scouting the appropriate actors for a gig. Make a point to see work—particularly small plays or showcases. Look out for union readings, new play workshops, and even fringe nonunion work (many actors earn their union membership from a CD giving them a chance). Watching an actor onstage for two hours is more meaningful than watching an actor in a short audition; you get a better sense of how they handle the material, how they apply direction, and how good they can get. Build up a database of actors and their representation. The more actors you know, the more value you have as a CD.

How do I know if an actor is any good? How do I know when to take a chance?

Start by asking yourself these questions: What do you know about the actor? Are they prepared? Are they professional? How is their technique? What experience do they have? Are they engaging and working well with their scene partner? From there, start making assessments based on your gut feelings while also checking yourself for internal or unconscious bias. Do they seem like a nice person? Is this someone I can imagine getting along with the director? Does this actor have room to grow?

One of the most valuable insights a CD can have is an understanding of an actor’s latitude; this is why it’s crucial for CDs to be engaged community members. When a CD knows an actor and has seen them in a project—or multiple projects—they can tell the difference between a good and bad day. When a CD knows an actor’s work, they can tell a casting team, “I’ve seen this actor do better work” or “That’s as good as this actor’s going to get.” But when casting, Pruksarnukul also looks for three qualities that can’t be taught in any studio or conservatory: charisma, presence, and honesty. If an actor possesses these, they might be worth taking a chance on.

Which is better: self-tapes or in-person auditions?

Self-tapes are inevitable in the entertainment industry. Actors will have to do them, and casting directors will have to look at them. There are a few things to note, though. The first is that self-tapes can be expensive for actors. Because actors and agents know that a tape represents an actor’s value to a production, they will work hard (and pay money) to make sure it’s of high quality. Be mindful that actors are investing in an opportunity with no guaranteed return.

The second thing to acknowledge is that self-tapes don’t allow for one of the essential components of thorough scouting: conversation. When an actor auditions in person, you get a chance to engage in dialogue with them at a personal level, which allows you to assess their work in a completely different way. Remember, casting is about relationships. When an actor has a chance to audition in the room, a relationship can be formed.

What are good ways to keep track of actors?

It’s always important to cultivate healthy relationships with actors who make an impression. Likely, you will have actors audition for you who are exciting but not quite right for the role you’re casting. Don’t throw their résumé and headshot into the recycling bin; file it, flag it, and keep it close. Create a list of core actors of various types on whom you can rely. Stay in touch with them; watch their performances, put them on a mailing list. If they’re working strategically with a good agent, they will also put you on their mailing lists and keep you updated on their career moves. The more hefty your list, the better you’ll fare when a project comes across your desk.

What sorts of projects should I look to start working on?

Once you cut your teeth as a casting assistant, you can be promoted to associate casting director. An associate is given smaller-scale projects to work on; they still operate under the supervision of a lead CD, just with a little more autonomy. An associate CD can work with budgets, pre-audition actors, communicate with producers and directors, observe and sit in on production meetings, and scout for some roles—especially those that need to be cast with child actors. When you’re getting started, “do a good job, make sure your employer is aware that you are doing a good job, and make sure your employer knows you wish to go further in this field,” says CSA member Stuart Howard (“The Virgin Suicides”). CDs want to know what your intentions are so they can keep an eye open for opportunities for advancement within the agency.

What can I expect from my first project? 20th project? 100th project?

“The only constant is coffee,” says CD Billy DaMota (“God’s Not Dead”). One of the joys of working in the entertainment industry is that it’s project-based—every production has its own specific symphony of needs. Always remember that no two projects are alike. Keeping this in mind requires CDs to be engaged and open to each project’s singular needs. There will always be new actors, directors, and producers and there will always be new stories, so CDs must train to develop the skills, tools, and instincts to be able to handle the ever-changing nature of the field and its demands. It is up to you to have efficient protocols for auditioning, communication, and casting. It’s this professionalism that gives the industry integrity.

Who are some casting directors whose careers I can emulate?

Jim Carnahan

Carnahan is the director of artistic development and casting for Roundabout Theater Company in New York City. He has cast popular Broadway productions like “Harry Potter and The Cursed Child,” “Fun Home,” “Peter and the Starcatcher,” and the hit TV show “Glee.”

Carmen Cuba

Cuba is the CD of the Netflix hit “Stranger Things” and has quickly become one of Hollywood’s most desired CDs. She frequently works with director Steven Soderbergh, and she cast the 2017 underdog film “The Florida Project.”

Rich Delia

Delia is a CD with an acting background—after getting his BFA and performing Off-Broadway, he entered the casting arena and has since been associated with some major projects, including the “It” remake, “Dallas Buyers Club,” and “The Disaster Artist.”

Sarah Halley Finn

Finn is one of the most high-profile CDs working today because she has one of the highest-profile platforms—the Marvel movies. Her casting choices for “Iron Man,” “Thor,” “Captain America,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Spider-Man,” “Ant-Man and The Wasp,” and “Black Panther” have created celebrities—and shaped culture.

Nina Gold

Gold is a British CD at the top of her game. Her casting choices for “Game of Thrones,” “The Crown,” and several recent “Star Wars” films have made this star CD a star-maker.  

Allison Jones

Jones is one of the most in-demand CDs for iconic film and TV comedy. Jones has cast TV series “Arrested Development,” “The Office,” “The Good Place,” “Freaks and Geeks” and films including “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up.”

Linda Lamontagne

Whether it’s “American Dad,” “Family Guy,” or “BoJack Horseman,” Lamontagne is the go-to CD for American animated comedy, and her work has been celebrated with several Artios Award nominations and wins. Lamontagne makes a point to work on smaller projects, too, to keep an eye out for new voiceover talent.

Ellen Lewis

Lewis is Martin Scorsese’s partner in casting, having worked on “Goodfellas,” “Gangs of New York,” and “The Departed.” She also cast iconic blockbusters like “The Devil Wears Prada,” “The Birdcage,” and “Forrest Gump.”

Linda Lowy

Lowy is an Emmy-winning CD who often works with producer and writer Shonda Rhimes on smash series like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “How to Get Away With Murder.”

Tara Rubin

Rubin is an iconic CD in NYC who is known for treating actors, agents, and producers with professionalism and care—many describe her as a standard-setter. Most of the shows on Broadway or on tour are cast by Rubin and her team.

Victoria Thomas

Thomas is known for her collaborations with Quentin Tarantino, including “Django Unchained.” But she has also worked with iconic film directors like Tim Burton, Stephen Frears, and Steven Spielberg. Recently, she cast the third season of “True Detective.”

Cindy Tolan

Tolan is a CD who works in theater and television and whose casting for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” earned her an Artios Award in 2016. She also assembled the cast for “Avenue Q” on Broadway and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” on Netflix.

Check out Backstage’s TV audition listings!