1 Top UK Casting Director on How to Approach an Audition

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Photo Source: Loupe Films. Pictured – Harris Dickinson and Ashley Madekwe in County Lines

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There’s plenty to take away from our discussion on “creating authenticity” casting director (CD) Aisha Bywaters. The Screen Star of Tomorrow and CD of County Lines talks about being part of the storytelling process, reminding actors to ask questions, and has a tip for which CDs you should be contacting. 

On how a CD is part of the storytelling process
“I’m a part of the process of a film or TV show. I’m here to help but it’s not my film or TV show. Of course, I hope it ends up being a cast who are all my first choices – but that’s not always how it works. Ultimately, casting is about the story and who facilitates it. If I really think the audience isn’t going to engage with the person a director picks, I’ll try and persuade them. There are occasions where that’s happened and someone comes back to you and goes: ‘You always knew, sorry it took me so long to get there.’ But that’s fine, everyone’s got their process. And there are very, very few times where I’ve been disappointed with the cast – or when performances didn’t work, though that’s a different thing. We cast people in a moment; it’s an instinct, a belief. We didn’t ask them to read every scene. For me, County Lines is a piece of work that I’m utterly proud of the casting on because I look at those actors and feel like everyone makes sense in those roles.”

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On making the most of an audition
“I think actors forget that they have a voice – they forget that it’s a collaborative process. It’s OK to go into a casting and ask: ‘Is there a specific way you see this role?’ And if people say ‘no,’ you’ve been given the freedom to just play. Most of the time, people want to see what you’re going to do with the material. For me, it’s all about finding authenticity. The only way I think you can do that is to base it on something real, your own experience. Watching the best actors, you feel like you know them, it comes from a true place. But the audition scene is usually something simple, like a conversation or emoting a feeling. If that’s kept in a place of honesty, usually the performance is really good. And even if it’s not the ‘right’ performance for that piece, we’ll come away knowing you’re a good actor with good instincts. It’s simpler than actors think. I think they get bogged down in showing us the whole role. It’s just: what is this person doing in this moment?”

On the casting directors you should be contacting
“Keep on thinking about casting directors you want to work with. Really look at the casting director’s work. But also, beyond the people you admire, look for CDs who cast people like you. That doesn’t mean actors that look like you but people who have a similar vibe or style. Once you find them, approach those people and ask to come in for small roles. If they see you do a small role and you’re great, they’ll get you in again and again, for bigger and different roles. It’s about starting a relationship with people.”

On letting actors be open
“The only thing that really doesn’t work for me is telling an actor what to do. Like, the scene is that; he feels this; and he should do this. That might be someone’s style but it’s not really much of a process. You see actors slightly recoil and I don’t know if anyone becomes an actor just to do what you say. I think there’s a person there, who has a voice, who has something to bring to a character. So, allow them to express it. Be open. Ask: ‘How do you see this person?’ Or: ‘What would you do?’ Then you can find something really interesting from your actor. Maybe I’m being romantic but the best directors I’ve worked with have allowed the actors to bring something. Sometimes you’re watching an audition, and you’re like: ‘Oh, my goodness, I would never have thought of that.’ You read a script so many times, but never see that version. And the actor leaves and you’re all like: ‘That is better than anything any of us ever thought.’ So, allow them to do that – allow them to do their jobs.”

On how filmmakers work with a CD
“For some directors, actors aren’t ‘their thing.’ That might sound funny but perhaps they’re more visual or script-led, or they’ve only ever worked with friends. I’ve also worked with directors from other countries who don’t know this market. But for me, it’s about having an open dialogue. It’s saying how you want the project to go ahead, because there are many different versions of what it can be. It might be: ‘Bring me what you think is right,’ or they could be looking for something very specific. I can be what I call a recruitment agent, when a director says: ‘I want this from that person,’ and I’ll try to make that happen. Or it could be us meeting loads of people, keeping it really open and seeing where we end up. Often, directors know what they want, even if they might not be able to articulate it. Going through that process, they can find out what they like, what they don’t like. But there has to come a point where you trust yourself. You’ve got to trust your instincts.”

More industry advice for UK actors? Click here.

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