How to Cast a Film (and Why Casting Matters)

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“Forrest Gump” wouldn’t be the same without Tom Hanks. “The Woman King” might lose its luster had Viola Davis not been cast as the lead. Casting holds a paramount role in the making of movie magic, and understanding the complexities of casting a film is crucial to crafting a captivating narrative. Here’s everything you need to know about how to cast a movie.


What is casting?


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Casting is a preproduction process in which filmmakers, casting directors, and casting teams place casting calls, field auditions, do callbacks and screen tests, and, finally, hire the perfect person for a given role. The CD’s job is to find actors who can help the director and screenwriter achieve their vision. 

Casting matters because performance influences perception. Finding and hiring the right cast of a film helps bring productions to life, while miscasting can mar even the best screenplay. Audiences must suspend their disbelief to accept the narrative taking place onscreen, and good casting is a huge part of that.

How to cast a movie

Filming casting


The casting process can look a bit different for studio films, which often have entire casting departments seeking out actors and holding auditions, and low-budget productions, in which the screenwriter-filmmaker may cast anyone to appear in their screenplay. Fully staffed casting departments often cast actors using the following steps, but if you’re casting your own film, you’ll likely minimize the audition/callback process. To ensure it’s still a rewarding experience for all, it’s important to be transparent about what you have to offer (professional reel footage, anyone?) and to be clear about your expectations for actors. 

1. Review the script thoroughly

Before you start looking for actors to fill roles for a film, read through the screenplay several times to ensure you fully understand the characters and their backstories, motivations, and relationships. Even if it’s your own screenplay, it’s best to review it to ensure your actor choices match your vision—or come close enough, at least. Consider demographic factors such as age range, gender, and race/ethnicity, as well as a character’s overall appearance. Are they sexy? Slovenly? Starving? These types of appearance concerns will likely impact your casting choices. 

2. Reach out to agencies and post casting calls

Depending on the size and scope of the production, to start the casting process, you might reach out to acting agencies, post calls on casting databases, or use your connections in the industry. Include full character breakdowns so that you can connect with the appropriate talent.

3. Hold auditions

Today, most casting begins with the self-taped audition, which is a pre-recorded video actors submit to you and your creative team. Whether you ask for self-tapes or hold in-person auditions, you should provide actors with sides—dialogue-heavy script segments—so that you can see how each actor fits and feels in the role. 

4. Send callbacks

Once you’re done with the first round of auditions, it’s time to choose your top contenders and send them callbacks. This next round allows you to better discern how actors perform individually and with other actors, and to further narrow down the talent pool from there.

5. Conduct screen tests

The last leg of the casting process is the screen test. During a screen test, actors perform scenes from the film on-camera and in costume. You and the casting team will then review the different filmed scenes, assess and analyze how actors appear onscreen, and either go for another round of callbacks or officially select the cast.

6. Choose the actors

Finally, with the director and producers, you’ll decide on the full cast or actors. Time to start filming!

Casting tips for directors

Casting tips

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  • Remember that the actors represent you. “Here’s the thing about auditions: Those actors represent who you are and what your vision is,” said CD Robin D. Cook (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “Grey Gardens,” “Room”). “Those actors represent me. So I want everyone to succeed. Because the better that actor is, you know, I’m a hero! It goes both ways.”
  • Think about who stands out. “Let’s say I’m casting the role of a male or female spokesperson or host,” said CD Ken Lazer (“Wild Things,” “Holy Man”). “I guarantee you that 99% of the actors that come in to audition will do the same exact thing. However, there is that 1%—those one or two actors who will do something a little different from the other 99%—and those slight actions make their auditions stand out.”
  • The more prepared they are, the better. “Being prepared is the most important thing,” said CD Allison Estrin (“Billions”) of what she looks for in auditions, “and that does mean being off book.” Actors who are prepared, professional, punctual, and communicative are better to collaborate with, making everyone else’s job easier in the long run. 
  • Look for actors who identify with roles. “We sought actors who were not only talented and open-minded, but who had a strong identification with the roles for which they were auditioning,” explained CD Debra Eisenstadt of casting the indie film “Before the Sun Explodes.” Remember that an actor’s perfect casting in one film doesn’t always translate to good casting in another—for example, while Mark Wahlberg may have slayed as Dignam in “The Departed,” his performance as Elliot in “The Happening” left many viewers wishing for plant-induced neurotoxicity themselves. 
  • Experiment. “We frequented underground comedy clubs, storyteller events, and all kinds of theater” to find actors, Eisenstadt added. “We combed the internet, we had three agencies and a management company submitting client ideas to us—we even used Tinder at one point to find extra extras.”
  • Remain open-minded. “Working with actors in an individualized way, understanding their methods, figuring out what they react and respond to, allowed me to tailor my direction to their technique,” Eisenstadt said. “A relaxed rehearsal environment that is open to experimentation and improvisation can lead to major breakthroughs with both the characters and the script. This process, no matter how silly or extreme, is still very structured and focused.”

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