You want Kate Rhodes James to know your name. She’s the CD behind the casts of international hits like “Sherlock,” “Bodyguard,” which is gaining Emmy buzz this year, and countless BBC projects, and she’s always looking for new talent. She’s worked in the UK and abroad, and now she’s making a point to diversify the types of projects she’s working on to ensure she’s constantly searching new communities for talent and creating opportunities for different kinds of actors. Over her time in the industry, she’s worked with some of the biggest directors and producers, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to see someone new and isn’t always keeping an eye out for those who can surprise her. It also doesn’t mean she won’t take the time in an audition to work with people or answer questions. Like any CD, Rhodes James is on your side, and she spoke to Backstage about what makes her remember you and what you absolutely shouldn’t do in her audition room.
When casting a project, how do you prepare for an audition process and source actors?
Well, on the whole, when I’m being called up for things and I’ve been cast for something, it’s obviously because, usually, it’s within the U.K. or American territory, as in the storyline will be around that. I’ve got 30-odd years worth of knowledge. I go to the theatre at least once or twice a week and I’m watching television and I’m catching up on films. If it’s British television, then it’s very much groups of actors that they probably will have heard of, within reason. But now that everything is way more global, which I’m enjoying enormously—when the actors are all in there because they’re right for the role and where they’re from is sort of irrelevant. I’m not waiting for a script saying, “Tall, Danish actor” or “a small, Finnish woman.” For me, it’s like every other casting director, we just are always, always watching and collating and building up our database all the time, and that’s always where I start with. I’m always talking to the agents. If it’s someone I’m not going to find in the U.K. well do a search. It’s like looking at a blank canvas and going, “Okay, here are all my colours. 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? That’s how I see my job.
How does your training and education as an actor influence how you work?
If you train to be an actor and you’ve been out there and you’ve sat outside and you’ve waited to go in, it will never leave you. I will never forget what it’s like. I like to think it helps me enormously in my drive and understanding of actors and know that they want to be challenged and they don’t want to be doing the same thing all the time, and also to make the audition room as positive an experience as I can feasibly make it. The big thing that I learned when I stopped acting and was working in casting was that I suddenly realized that the audition room isn’t a test. I thought I had to prove everything, that I could do this, I could do that, I could show off all my range. But what I say to actors now is, “You don’t come in unless I know exactly who you are and whether you’re up to it and I have talked about you to the director and why I think you should be met for the role.” And if say, “Yeah, okay, absolutely,” you’re 50 percent there. So, I keep saying to actors, “You’re walking into a very positive room. Everyone’s looking at you to go, ‘Yeah, okay, great, tell us all about you and then we’ll see what you’re about.’ And then it’s about are you going to fit in with the image of the show, are you going to work with the other actors?” It’s practical things after that. I can tell sometimes when a director possibly isn’t getting a note across to an actor and then I know what to do with the reading to get it out of them.
Where do you look for talent outside of submissions from agents?
I go to screenings. Agents will say, “I just found this actor. He was just in this. Would you look at them?” And I would say that’s hugely, hugely helpful. Also, I read up—all the time I’m reading articles about films or theatre or a play that I haven’t been able to say, and if they’re talking about an actor in an articulate way, then I’ll arrange to meet them. I’ll see short films, as well. I just stack them up, and then one day, I’ll just watch them all, and I’ll pick a lot from that.
I think that that is probably reassuring to people are doing these smaller projects, that they do get seen.
Within reason, they do get seen. We’re constantly looking for the person that we don’t know about. We don’t want to look at the people we already know about. And I always say to actors, “We are your warriors.” Actors have no idea how much we fight on their behalf. We really do. I think that’s why so many casting directors get a bit grumpy the longer we do it because we get overlooked so often. You think, wow, how hard did I have to work to get that actor in that role and is now a huge success on the basis of this bit of casting and you’re not recognized further down the line? That’s tough. We really work hard for actors, and I think actors don’t always realize that.
You mentioned when you finished drama school, it was hard to be in control of making your career go in a certain way as an actor, and now, there’s a lot more control— what did you mean by that?
Well, by the fact that they can on the internet and see what we’re all doing. If they don’t know who’s on casting, they’ll get their agent onto 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 do that was to pick up the phone and speak to somebody, but you couldn’t cold call people. That’d drive casting directors insane. And in the sense that I know a lot of young actors now, they might do their own short film, and then they put it onto a link and they send it to you. There are so many opportunities at their fingertips that we just didn’t have.
What advice do you have for actors?
When they’re being called in for an audition, you’re halfway there. We really want them to get the job because then it makes us look great and we get the job done. I think work begets work. There’s so much work out there that to insist on offers, unless you’re Brad Pitt, I think is not helpful. I think what you end up is not being employed. I did “Catherine the Great” for HBO with Helen Mirren and I asked an actor who’s relatively well-known in the U.K. to meet for a role that has three amazing scenes with Helen Mirren, and he turned it down on the basis being there wasn’t enough there for him. And I said, “You have three great scenes with Helen Mirren! When are you going to get that again?” And I think actors need to say, “Okay, I haven’t gotten the lead and haven’t even gotten the supporting lead, but can I make something of that? Yes, I can. It’s a few days work. There were so many actors that I rate enormously that are hugely successful in their latter years because they behave like that.
Obviously, when a role is too small, it’s too small. But equally, if you know it’s a great producer, it’s a great writer, it would be a lovely thing to be a part of, I think actors should look at actors more objectively and more globally in a way that I do now, in that I’m a cog in the wheel and do I love the look of this vehicle? When you read it objectively and you realize it’s a good piece and what you can contribute in that, it’ll be worthwhile. Because we’re all replaceable, including myself, so it’s the question of working or not working.
What can someone do in an audition to be memorable to you, 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 just usually not quite what the director has in mind or they’ve met somebody else that they think would suit better. I love actors that 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. It’s 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 then 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 come in the room, you bring that into the room, and then the director will step forward and go, “Okay, 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. So, to get our attention, make a decision. Decide that they were unloved as a child or that they were spoiled as hell as a child— whatever it is. You don’t have to tell us. Just make that decision. It always shows. The minute you start to believe you’re whatever, you’re kind of screwed, because all you’re doing is missing out on meeting new people. Because it’s not just about the role, it’s about everyone you meet on the set, and I’ve seen people flourish from that.
What shouldn’t an actor shouldn’t do in your audition room?
They shouldn’t complain about their children keeping them up all night or complain about 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 it’s all the process in the pudding. 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. I’ve had actors coming in and going, “Oh, I’m sorry, I haven’t had time to read it.” Well, then this is a complete waste of time.
I always say to actors, Google every single person that’s going to be in that room. Ask your agent who’s going to be the room, and then they’ll let you know, and then you Google them. It just gives you power. Knowledge is power and when you walk into the room, you say, “Okay, 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, and then 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 only the Brits have started to catch up in the last five years. I think because competition is so tough in the States that they know they’ve really, really got to go for it. I’m always impressed by how well-prepared 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 do 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.
How do you typically choose what you cast? What about a project makes you want to be involved?
It’s evolved over the years. When I started, I just said yes to everything because I’m a big believer in work begets work and it’s all about the people that you meet and the personalities who you get on with, and then that carries onto another project. It’s only been the last five or six years that I’ve been able to really focus on what I like to do. I know that I want to do it when it’s something that I would want to watch. I think a big mistake is casting something that I have no desire in watching because that’s sort of pointless. I still see casting directors as hugely creative. We look at scripts in a way that actors look at scripts, which is what can I do to make this come alive? What can I do to improve it, or what about me and my knowledge is going to lend to this piece and these people to make this into something that everybody wants to watch? You can get caught in a world of doing the same thing and I did a lot of period drama for the BBC in the beginning of my career, which I absolutely loved and still do, but it was just interesting how people pigeonholed me and they thought, oh, I only did that and I only worked for the BBC, and I said, “No, I’m only ever script-led.”
Now, I’m much more looking for a challenge. I want to go into an area that I’ve never been into before. Last year, I did a piece set in Baghdad and that was just so much fun to do because I basically sat down for almost two years and just absorbed Middle Eastern drama to get a core knowledge of Arab-speaking and English-speaking actors. I was suddenly out of the comfort zone; I wasn’t phoning agents or emailing. I had to find them. Sometimes it’s easier to be in your comfort zone. You know what you’re going to do with it, you know how it works, but then, we’re not in it to make our lives normal. I’m in this because I want to be challenged. I don’t want to know what’s around the corner. That’s what I enjoy. I say no to projects now that I don’t think I can add anything to that hasn’t already been done.
It’s interesting to hear that you suffer the same fate of same actors by working on a certain project or genre, and then you get pigeonholed even as a casting director.
People thought that I only worked for one particular network. No, I’ll go wherever the script is. People will say, “Well, she’s not good with teenagers,” or, “She’s only good—” you find that people talk about you like this. It’s ridiculous. I’ve just done something recently that’s full of young adults, and suddenly, I’m now getting loads of young adult scripts and going, “Oh, okay. That’s not how I perceive myself.” People in the business that aren’t creatives want security, and when they see that someone has delivered one thing, they want them to do it again and again.
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