Rachel Freck cut her casting teeth in comedy. She assembled the cast of the original, British version of “The Office,” and she’s worked with some of the most well known British comedy talents throughout her career. With Kenneth Lonergan and Hettie MacDonald’s 2017 adaptation of “Howards End,” (Starz, BBC) she flexed her prestige drama skills. Freck grappled with time period, class, issues that are still relevant today, racial diversity, and assembling an ensemble of families to play off of one another for the story. She found actors to interpret the century-old classic in a way that makes it relevant and easy to relate today. A challenging and somewhat rigorous casting process was required to find actors who could make the world on screen a reality.
Why was “Howards End” a project that you were interested in taking on?
If it hadn’t felt so important for today, and in a way that the message was so modern, I would’ve had the legacy from the actors of the film hovering all the time on our shoulders, and to a degree, there was that. We purposely didn’t go and watch the film. A phrase that came up a lot was don’t play the period. The corsets and the characters will do that for you. Play what she’s trying to say, and what she’s trying to say is stuff that makes sense today. She’s very forward thinking. Women of that time were early feminists; they’re culturally and politically ahead of their time. I think that’s another reason why they can feel so fresh to a modern audience.
What was the casting process like for “Howards End”?
Hayley is at this stage where she gets offered the part and doesn’t need to audition, but the leading cast members were very young, they’re under 25, so that was quite rigorous because I was seeing so many people who this is their first big television job. I was trying to find actors who made the material immediate and natural. It is quite technical and it’s not like so many modern dramas. You have to really understand what you’re saying and have the right thoughts at the right time, you can’t just say the lines. So many of the actors, particularly some that came in for Helen, for instance, had to have that kind of freshness, that passionate kind of free-spiritedness that she had. We really struggled with that part because the women from drama school who understood it felt too constrained and almost too clever for the part. The women who had that kind of passion to them didn’t seem bright enough to make sense of the text. It took the very technical nature of that text to make it come alive and feel natural. It’s exciting to put together an ensemble that we haven’t seen before in period drama.
Hettie is a really strong actress and director, so she’s very exacting with the actors. The dialogue felt wordy, and people were either not making sense of it, or it felt stagey and not screen-friendly. She gave them a lot of notes and really worked them hard in auditions. The technicality of that language and making it new was our biggest dilemma with everybody. Kenny wrote characters overlapping their speech. That would be quite exhausting to audition because it would be me having to read four or five different characters overlapping with each other while the poor auditionee is waiting for their moment to come in. It could feel old fashioned and wordy in the wrong hands, but the writing feels fresh, real, and immediate. Quite often, people can’t stay truthful and natural within this kind of language. The technique is talking over each other and being able to sort of half listen to the next character but say your lines, and it is quite tricky. It was an interesting challenge because that hadn’t happened before.
Hayley Atwell mentioned the character descriptions for this project were more detailed that she usually sees.
I tend to always do quite detailed character descriptions in the hopes that it helps the actor coming in and to pass on helpful pointers before they come in. We also want to guide the agent to make sure they’re not missing anybody. I’ve talked to many people who weren’t new to the industry, and they’d have a very strong remembrance of the film. We were clearly saying that wasn’t what we were aiming for. Each character had a chunky paragraph of what we’re looking for. There’s a lot of quality of character to play with.
How did you build the families?
If they’re portraying the text truthfully, it comes through effortlessly. That sort of free-spirited, open-hearted, liberal thinking just comes out of those three actors that we cast as the Schlegels, it’s innately there within them. I think Philippa [Coulthard] being Australian helped because that gave her a kind of relaxed quality that perhaps some of our English drama school grads didn’t have. I think that’s about knowing the text, knowing what you wanted each family to represent, so then you’re looking for those contrasts in the choices you make: who’s going to be a Schlegel, and who’s going to be a Wilcox?
What research went into the casting process?
We stayed away from looking at the original film. What Hettie did was make the political points a bigger driver than the plot, so it becomes a bigger story about the disconnect between the social classes in society. Yes, that’s fueled by the individual love stories, but there’s a bigger picture going on. That definitely came to me straight from the start and then you’re looking for people to present that. I don’t know that we did much more research about the period or about the diversity really; we just wanted to reflect what was truthful at the time rather than what we have a tendency to think is truthful because we’ve seen it in other films. That was a real challenge to me.
What felt unique about this job compared to other casting jobs you’ve done?
The technical requirements of delivering that text and making it real. In drama, quite often, there are different ways in which things can be played and they’re all valid. Because of this literary, wordy text, and a lot of overlapping written in, it’s quite technical to do that and make it fresh. I think the most unique challenge to this piece is to make that dialogue feel real to a modern audience.
Where do you like to look for, and where do you find talent besides agents?
I’ll write to the drama schools and see who’s coming out strong even before they’ve got agents. I do have a database in my head of people I’ve seen. Like with Philippa, we’d met on a previous project the year before, and in the end she wasn’t quite right for it, but she’d impressed me. What I always say to actors is no audition is ever wasted, and no play I ever go and see is ever wasted. Even if the play is dreary, there’ll be somebody in that cast I didn’t know, or who’s doing something different to what I thought they were able to do. I log those performances. There are also people doing things that are not so good, so I’m copying both the good and the bad. We want to cover as many people as possible. It’s always nice to find new faces because we feel like we’re making this our cast and not borrowing somebody else’s cast. A passion of mine, finding new talent and giving voice to new talent. The audience hopefully comes to that world and believes it and finds it more convincing because we haven’t just shoehorned in everybody from someone else’s show.
What are some elements that make an actor that comes in memorable, even if they don’t get the part?
I think it’s the naturalism and truthfulness of what they’re doing. Some parts of their performance fix you and affect you because you believe them. A lot of it is also their preparation, research, and hard work. It also depends on what I’m casting. If I’m casting comedy and someone comes in and they’re very funny but they’re not right for the specific role, I’ll remember that they’re funny and that they understand technically how to play comedy. For a drama, it’s a sort of humanity that jumps out at me, where I stop thinking this is being acted, but I believe that you’re moving me. That’s exciting because you know there’s a star in the making. I remember talent, I remember what works, and as much as that, I remember what doesn’t work. If someone does three or four bad auditions or they’re not prepared, I think twice about bringing them in again because I don’t want to embarrass them or I don’t want to waste the director’s time.
The other thing I need to know is can this person make adjustments easily? Can they understand and have a dialogue with the director easily and not think it has to be a certain way because it’s how they rehearsed it? There’s a freedom in what they’re doing and what they can calibrate in that performance. What happens is when you put the alchemy of all those different people you cast together, things are going to shift. It will be different from how you did it in the reading. I want people to be flexible.
What advice do you have for actors?
Be prepared and know your text. Preparation is the bedrock of everything because you cannot generalize something and make it moving. It has to come from a place of detailed understanding. I encourage them, particularly for screen work, to develop the art of taping themselves and watching it back and learning to be their own critic. I think in drama school, they don’t get a lot of screen training. The biggest part of the entry point into those jobs is either a self-tape or it is an audition with a casting director, the director, and a camera and there’ll be a number of people behind the scenes that will watch that audition from that camera. If it’s a show that’s already out there or it’s work by a writer that you know has a particular style, watch it so you can gain clues from observing the work of that person. You’ll pick up so much from seeing other actors doing it. Read the script, look carefully at the scenes, and make intelligent decisions about why you’re choosing the character to respond in a certain way, even if that isn’t necessarily what the director would have chosen. If you’ve thought it through and you know what your reasons are and it’s convincing, that’s what we want to see. When people come in and are general, it’s not interesting and it doesn’t come alive.
The other thing I would say to actors in auditions is for them to ask questions. If there’s a writer in the room or the director and you come and say “I’m unsure about how to play this because I think there are a number of ways and I’m not quite sure where you want the characters to go,” that’s not necessarily a bad thing because it shows that you’re flexible and you actually want to work across the team. Don’t come with a rigid idea. Try to get under the skin for what they want by asking a good question. I would say, too, if you do a take and you think you messed it up, you can say oh I’d really love to have another go at that, I’m sorry, I know I can do better. Take ownership of it because we all can have a bad moment or can be nervous. The first take can be like catching your breath. Don’t be afraid to say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t do what I wanted to do there.”
What shouldn’t actors do in your audition room?
Don’t turn up if you haven’t read the script. Also, I like to think that everybody can see through these things, but think about what you’re coming in for in terms of the way you present yourself. If it’s a period drama don’t turn up in a t-shirt with a modern slogan across it. It’s won’t help people go on that journey. Often, it’s not about the people in the room it’s about all the execs who only watch 30 seconds before they’ve made the decision.
What makes someone memorable to you on a self-tape?
It’s helpful if they can read with somebody who helps them. I’ve had some funny ones that come from a set where they’ve gotten a European cameraman reading in pidgin English back to them and it isn’t really helping them. I know it’s tricky is when an actor hasn’t got a human being to read, but it’s not helpful when they’ve recorded the lines or there’s a program on the internet that is saying their lines and it’s a bit robotic. If it’s a dialogue, always try and get another actor or somebody who can read with an element of understanding to give you something to work off of. As CDs, we can see through the technical problems. I wouldn’t like to get people too hung up about looking professionally shot because if you’re playing the part well we can see that. We can get you to do it again with notes if something needs to be fixed. Then, we’ll present it to the director and it will give you a better chance. There are sometimes useful tricks to the trade, but ultimately it isn’t the style around it that you’re looking for, it’s the quality of the interpretation.
What don’t actors know about what you do?
I think it must be very difficult for an actor when they wonder why they aren’t being seen for roles. Why aren’t we bringing you in? I think what actors don’t appreciate is that we directors live or die on how quickly we find people. You get up to a certain point as an actor and I know they will be right or wrong for certain parts because I’ve seen enough of their work to make that call. Also, how much administration we do. Most of the time I’m organizing which version of the script is getting to who and oh they’ve changed the casting day. The creative is happening around that. The other thing I suppose is the actor never gets to see the bigger picture. They always think that they haven’t done a good job just because they haven’t got the part but there are so many reasons why things don’t go someone’s way. That can be demoralizing. It’s a never wasted audition. You never know if the CD or director enjoyed that performance and is impressed with the person even if they don’t end up getting that part. There may well be another part around the corner just as good if not better. It’s always worth being prepared and doing your best because you never know where that gets logged.
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