The Secrets of Casting

Why, if you think you've done a good audition, might you not be chosen? It's so hard to stomach that, when you've put yourself on the line. A director always tries to have control of his (or her) production. But there's a but. Which is, unless he (or she)—and from now on, let me call everyone "he," because that's what I am—has full creative and contractual control, sometimes there's a sort of horse-trading going on.

Let's say there are two parts left to be cast, and I really want an actress for Part No. 1, but the producer doesn't "get" her talent and wants someone else. I'll say, "Yes, your choice, she'd be good too. Let me think about that." But I still want the person I want. Then he'll say, "What about this actor for the other part?," maybe a less important one. "Let me sleep on that," I'll say. Then the next day, I'll come in and suggest an actor for Part No. 2 that I'm pretty sure the producer won't like, but I'll fight for him a little, until I'll say, "The actor you want. Are you sure that he's right?"

But, he might feel at a disadvantage. No one's ever really sure. I've only been sure sure once, which was when I saw Amanda Plummer for "Agnes of God." And, interestingly, after Amanda had been cast, I had to sit through several months of the part of the Mother Superior being offered to the wrong people and doing whatever I could to derail those offers, because I knew Geraldine Page should play the part; but at the time, her stock was low, and it was not until Lee Remick was hired for the psychiatrist (good for box office) that I could sweep away all the others and get Geraldine the part. And then it didn't work out with Lee. Liz Ashley came in and was terrific, and Geraldine and Amanda were nominated for Tonys, and Amanda won.

The most important thing a director does is choose: designer, composer, lighting. And the actors. And directors have differing ways of choosing actors. Some do it by readings and auditions. They're okay in a way—in the theater more than movies—because you get a chance to see what the actor's voice is like and how at ease, or not, the actor seems to be on stage. But what I really like is just talking to the actor, maybe trying to get over his nervousness, and then learning something about the human being: where he comes from, why he wants to be in this grueling racket, and what he sees in the part. I always think the working relationship with an actor starts at the first handshake. A reading doesn't tell me that much, because an actor might be good but make the wrong stab at the character at the beginning. And anyway, you don't know if it works or not till you've done it. Rehearse, make mistakes, go in the wrong direction (and that can be important because of what you'll learn), then get back on course again. And I've found, over the years, with my "talking" method that I've made the right choice many more times than the wrong one.

Now, go back to me and the producer. I'll say, "Why don't you want this actress for Part No. 1?" And he'll say, "Blah-blah-blah." I've already given him the actor he wanted for Part No. 2, so when I say, "I really want this actress because blah-blah-blah," he's obliged to say, "Yes, I see what you're saying." "Sleep on it," I'll say. And, usually, the next day, after a little more stubbornness from me, I'll have got the person I want for what was the more important part. I may have really preferred another actor for Part No. 2 but may have had to sacrifice him for what was more important to me. That's "horse-trading." An actor may be talented and imaginative but sometimes lose a part for reasons not to do with any of his gifts.

Good luck to you all.

Michael Lindsay-Hogg's memoir, "Luck and Circumstance," is in bookstores now. In it, among other things, as well as talking about his time working with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the director discusses the casting process for the television series "Brideshead Revisited."