You want Kate Rhodes James to know your name. She’s the casting director behind award-winning series like Netflix’s Emmy-nominated “Bodyguard,” BBC One’s international hit “Sherlock,” and countless other UK projects—and she’s constantly searching for and creating opportunities for different kinds of actors across the pond. While she’s worked with some of the biggest talents behind and in front of the camera, she still gets excited by a fresh-faced newcomer; like any CD, James is on your side. She spoke to Backstage about how you can help it stay that way.
How do you prepare when casting a project?
I’ve got 30-odd years’ worth of knowledge. I go to the theater at least once or twice a week, and I’m watching television and catching up on films. Now, everything is way more global. Actors are now cast because they’re right for the role, and where they’re from is irrelevant. We are watching, collating, and building up our database all the time, and that’s always where I start. I’m always talking to agents. If it’s someone I’m not going to find in the UK, we’ll do a search. It’s like looking at a blank canvas and going, OK, here are all my colors. Now, where am I going to put them? How am I going to build this story? How am I going to make this something that everyone will want to watch?
Where do you look for talent aside from submissions from agents?
I go to screenings. Agents will say, “I just found this actor. He was in this. Would you look at them?” That’s hugely helpful. I read articles about films, theater, or plays that I haven’t been able to see. If they’re talking about an actor in an articulate way, I’ll arrange to meet them. I’ll see short films, as well. I stack them up, and then one day, I’ll watch them all [and] pick a lot from that. We’re constantly looking for the person we don’t know about. I always say to actors, “We are your warriors.” Actors have no idea how much we fight on their behalf. I think that’s why so many casting directors get a bit grumpy the longer we do it, because we get overlooked so often.
What advice do you have for actors?
When you’re being called in for an audition, you’re halfway there. We really want you to get the role, because then it makes us look great and we get the job done. I also think work begets work. There’s so much work out there that to insist on offers is not helpful. What you end up is not being employed. I did “Catherine the Great” for HBO with Helen Mirren, and I asked a relatively well-known UK actor to meet for a role, and he turned it down on the basis that there wasn’t enough there for him. I said, “You have three great scenes with Helen Mirren! When are you going to get that again?” I think actors need to say, “Can I make something of what I’ve got? Yes, I can. It’s a few days’ work.” There are so many actors who are hugely successful because they behaved like that early on. Obviously, when a role is too small, it’s too small. But actors should look more objectively and globally in the way that I do. You read it objectively and you realize it’s a good piece, and what you can contribute can be worthwhile. We’re all replaceable—including myself—so it’s a question of working or not working.
What can someone do in an audition to be memorable, even if they don’t get the part?
When people don’t get the job, nine times out of 10 it’s never because they’ve done anything wrong. It’s usually just not quite what the director has in mind, or they’ve met somebody else who they think would suit [the role] better. I love actors who know who they are. They have an inner voice and they’re not trying to please me. They bring what they want to bring in the room. Those are the sort of people I can bring in time and time again, and then they start to get the gigs and it all snowballs from there. People like David Tennant; I used to bring David in all the time years and years ago, and I’ll never forget him saying, “Thank you so much for bringing me in. I’m so sorry I don’t get these gigs,” and I said, “Don’t worry, you will, David.” And then I cast him in one thing, and that led to another thing and that led to another thing, and things just grew from there. And he always turned up to everything. Olivia Colman turned up to everything. Even after she did “Broadchurch,” she turned up and she auditioned for me.
You’ll get back what you put in, but if you don’t put it in, you will get nothing. I always say to actors, “Make a decision about the character. It doesn’t matter if it’s wrong.” Make a decision, because when you bring that into the room, the director will step forward and say, “OK, great. I love that. Let’s do it again,” and then they very politely direct them in a completely different way. But make a decision. Whatever that story is that you can’t get from the script, make a decision. Don’t go into a room expecting the director to answer your question, because they haven’t got time. To get our attention, make a decision. You don’t have to tell us, but it always shows. The minute you start to believe you’re at a certain level, you’re kind of screwed, because all you’re doing is missing out on meeting new people. It’s not just about the role, it’s about everyone you meet on the set, and I’ve seen people flourish from that.
You mentioned that when you finished drama school, it was hard to make your career go in a certain way as an actor, and now, there’s a lot more control. What did you mean by that?
They can go on the internet and see what we’re all doing. If they don’t know who’s on casting, they’ll get their agent on it, or they can have a show reel that they can email me and say, like for “Baghdad Central,” “I hear you’re casting something set in Baghdad. I’m second-generation Iraqi. Here’s my show reel.” When I was acting in the late ’80s, I didn’t know what anyone was doing, and the only way to know was to pick up the phone and speak to somebody, but you couldn’t cold-call people. That’d drive casting directors insane. I know a lot of young actors now [who] might do their own short film, and then they put it in a link and send it to you. There are so many opportunities at their fingertips that we just didn’t have.
What shouldn’t an actor do in your audition room?
They shouldn’t complain about their children keeping them up all night or how they got stuck on a trip. What you’re doing is draining the energy in the room, and you’re also draining your time to do the scene. My favorite actors are the ones who go, “Can we just do it?” Because it’s only ever about the scene, the role. It’s lovely to have a nice chat and all of that, but we need to see what you’re going to do with it. I always advise, no matter how tired you are, just zip it. You don’t want to know about how tired we are. I think it’s unprofessional to be like that. Also, if you don’t like something or if you haven’t read it, don’t turn up. It is a complete waste of time. I always say to actors ask your agent who’s going to be the room, and then they’ll let you know and you [can] Google them. It gives you power. Knowledge is power, and when you walk into the room, you say, “OK, I know who these people are, I know what they’ve done, I know how long they’ve been in the business.” Google the hell out of everybody. It makes you feel stronger.
What are differences you’ve experienced working on U.S. versus UK projects?
I find, on the whole, U.S. actors are incredibly well-prepared, and I think the Brits have only started to catch up in the last five years. I think, because competition is so tough in the States, they know they’ve really, really got to go for it. I’m always impressed by how well-prepared [they are] and how quickly they turn things around. I’ve worked with American directors and that’s tough, because American directors are used to an American actor walking in and not even saying hello to them. When I say I like actors who just get on with it, I’m not saying I don’t ask, “How are you? How are things? Do you have any questions you want to ask us?” I understand, on some shows, that’s how it has to be. But we do like to have a bit of a chat here. We have a bit more time. And I think, certainly for a bigger role, when an actor’s spent time on it, you want to give them a good 20 minutes, you want to talk to them and allow them that opportunity to ask questions if there are any. But then they just need to get on with it because, ultimately, everyone has 20 minutes. You have five minutes to chat and then just get on with it. And I know sometimes they’re just avoiding doing it because they’re nervous and I understand that, but you’ve just got to get on with it.
This story originally appeared in the Aug. 15 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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