Fairly or not, casting directors (CDs) are seen as the great gatekeepers, standing between you and the shining city on the hill. For every level of talent, from rookie to household name, CDs are the drawbridge leading to the role you want.
But how to snag their attention? From the countless conversations we’ve had with casting directors, a theme that emerges is their knack for remembering a face or a character and their ability to pull them in for the right audition a long time after. For that to happen – or to nail an audition on your very first meeting – you have to get yourself on their radar in the first place.
To find out how, we’ve sifted through the advice and insights the UK’s top casting directors have given us over the past year to come up with the methods they themselves recommend. So, assuming your basic materials like headshots, CV/resume, and reel are in good shape, here is our selection of the most effective ways of getting yourself noticed by those all-important gatekeepers.
Emailing a CD
If you’ve heard of a role and want to get on a CD’s radar, emailing them can be the most direct approach, but it needs to be handled with care. Lauren Evans, casting director for Netflix mega-hit Sex Education, advised: “You don’t need to write a covering letter with an email. Just be brief, clear, concise. Something like: ‘This is my name, this is where I’m from, and this is what I’d like to show you, please do keep me in mind...’ I think when your email starts to become a life story, then it’s all a bit much.”
And timing can be everything: “If by chance your face fits a brief we have at the moment, then bingo! I keep all my tapes from every actor I’ve ever met because if a name comes up, I look up to see what my note is on them and watch the tape to see if I want to bring them back in.”
Bridgerton and Fleabag’s casting director Kelly Valentine Hendry also advised clarity and brevity: “Write a very clear message on the subject line of what you’re applying for and just be as simple as possible. You don’t need to think about it too much.”
Leanne Flinn, an award-winning casting director for major TV commercials, notes: “Cold emailing is difficult because if we’re not casting at exactly that time for something you would fit, you might get missed. But it’s worth it if you have something you’d love us to see, like a commercial or a project. Or if you’re a graduate and are about to come out of school. We do have good memories!”
James Pearson, CD of hit musical Six, warns actors to take great care over their approach: “If you’re not putting the time in to write a proper email or even find out the agent’s name; if you’re not labelling your self-tape correctly when we’ve asked for that, why should we put the time in for you?” And Brendan McNamara, a top commercials CD with credits from HSBC to TK Maxx, cautions actors not to overdo it: “It’s fine to let us know you’re in a production, or check in with us once or twice a year. But don’t be emailing us every day.”
Get good at self-taping
The use of self-tapes has hugely accelerated since the pandemic struck, but they were already in use and their many benefits mean they are likely to be a permanent feature of the casting landscape. It’s not surprising, therefore, that many casting directors advise good self-tape practice as a key way for actors to get on their radar and make a good impression.
Casting director Manuel Puro has been a longstanding proponent of self-taping as an egalitarian way around the costs and geographical barriers of in-person auditions. He tells us: “I don’t want to judge an actor and their ability based on a reel, one that may not show them in their best light or as right for the role. If I’m going to spend two or three minutes watching an actor, I would rather watch them doing a self-tape for exactly the role that I’m casting.”
Kate Evans has cast top commercials from Virgin to Sainsbury’s. She urges deftness: “Learn how to do one quickly. I don’t want a tape coming in six days after I’ve requested it, especially as most [commercials] castings are quick turnarounds. Get tapes to the casting directors ASAP. Get your tripod, your ring light from Amazon for about 15 quid, because this will be the way forward, definitely. I can’t see us going back to doing the things like we used to.”
“People who don’t have agents should be very keen on self-taping. If you can get your self-tape to a casting director then you’re off!””
And Valentine Hendry warns against sloppiness: “I’m getting thousands of tapes, so sometimes, when it’s really badly done, I just think: ‘You know what? It’s not worth it.’ And as the casting director of Fleabag, it’s well worth listening to her tips: “I don’t like white backgrounds. They don’t make you look as good. You want a blue or a grey, and you want to light yourself. You want to make sure that your sound is really good… Quite often, directors will watch with headphones on and they’ll have really good headphones that pick up all the extra noise. It doesn’t take much for things to annoy people.”
Flinn recommends: “Never read directly down the lens, always just to the side of it. If you’ve got someone else you need to focus on, speak to the other side of the lens so that you’re not in profile, otherwise we lose all the lovely work you’re doing. Don’t be really far away – we need to see your face. It’s always difficult to have a successful self-tape if you don’t have someone reading the lines, even if you have to record yourself and play it back. But when you don’t have anyone reading the lines back at all, I find that quite jarring. And if it’s really difficult for you to make a connection to a recording of the lines, put your friend on speakerphone – that’s great.”
Be careful how you use social media
Building a digital brand is an important step for an actor, and while social media may feel like an intuitive way of getting on casting directors’ radar, actors should think carefully before doing so. CD James Pearson warns: “I would say never, ever communicate with us through social media unless we have specifically said to. Especially private social media. We did have one actor who was submitted by their agent and we’d said: ‘Sorry, they’re not right for this particular project.’ Then the actor wrote to us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Then emailed and called us. You just start looking crazy. Don’t do it.”
Andrea Clark, CD on major commercials including McDonald's and John Lewis, agrees, advising against “liking every single tweet. Or putting yourself forward for parts on social media.”
That said, social media can be a valuable way of building relationships with CDs if used for gathering information on potential opportunities. Flinn advises using social media for keeping an eye out for Q&As with casting directors: “Really learn about how we work and what we’re about, especially the opportunities for one-to-ones. If you’re an actor and want to know more about the industry, create a Twitter account and follow people in the industry. And use Instagram as well. Follow the CDA and the CDG on social media, check out who their members are and follow them too. Not only do we post castings but it’s great to see what we’re up to.”
Don’t apply for everything
Flinn also advised against indiscriminate applications. “If you see something on Backstage, or Twitter, or anywhere, have a good read and think: ‘Am I that person?’ You shouldn’t put yourself in a box but you should know what you can and can’t go up for. For instance, if you’re in your 20s, you shouldn’t be going up for a mother of four. Work out if you’re right for the role. If it says: ‘We want a photo of you and your dog,’ and you don’t have a dog, then don’t apply!”
Returning to the theme about CDs’ uncanny ability to recall people, Flinn continues: “Casting directors have good memories, so if you’re blanket-applying for everything and then something comes round that you might be suitable for, we’re going to take it less seriously if they’ve seen you apply for everything.”
Is there potential in being an extra?
Flinn says: “It’s a funny one, being an extra. Music videos are often low budget and always casting, so they’re a brilliant way into the industry. For a larger budget project, if you’re just part of a crowd that’s not going to boost your career but you will at least get some great experience and an insight into how a film or TV set works. But if you’re picked as a featured extra, a walk-on or even a character with one line, then it is an amazing experience and really worthwhile doing for your career.”
Casting director Brendan McNamara of Beach Casting adds this: “If somebody comes in for a walk-on role, does the job and then a week later I’m casting a feature I think they suit, I’m going to bring them in. I’m an advocate for you. But if you don’t want to advertise your extra work, that’s fine. It’s entirely up to you. But don’t shy away from it. It’s good money, you can learn a lot and you could get upgraded. There’s all that footage of Brad Pitt as an extra in the background of all these movies. The same with Jack Nicholson. You can pick up opportunities that way. If you're doing a good job, your work will stand you in good stead and people will want to work with you.”
Make your CV and reels go straight to the point
James Pearson from Pearson Casting tells us: “I was a performer for 19 years and I used to believe that CVs and showreels should show everything, but actually, CDs just want to get straight to the business – the most important and relevant stuff. Think about how your CV is laid out and remember – we work in volume, especially in theatre. We recently cast Rent and had 4,500 submissions. We read thousands of CVs and listened to thousands of reels. So, think about the speed and efficiency of your CV because it needs to work in the blink of an eye. I was chatting to someone who said: ‘I didn’t want to show off by putting highly skilled next to things on my CV.’ Well, if you don’t then you’re not saying you’re highly skilled – why would we know otherwise? So we’ll move on to the person who does have highly skilled on their CV. You’ve got to sell yourself. It’s the thing we look at to decide if we want you in the room.”
Do your prep
Evans advises: “Prep the scenes really well, but don’t become so rigid in your approach that you can’t change it up if asked for an alternative version. If you haven’t got time to prep but you can sight-read well, then that’s fine. But it’s hard when you know someone’s got the ability to give you a really good take, but because they can’t look up from their script, you can’t see enough of them.
“Prep the scenes really well, but don’t become so rigid in your approach that you can’t change it up if asked for an alternative version.”
Sometimes we can’t give an actor bags of time, so I don’t expect them to have researched the project, all the crew and creatives, and to have learned the script and fine-tuned their approach to it. Especially with less than 24 hours’ notice! But I find it annoying when I know someone is really good and they have time but don’t prepare. And you think: ‘Ah, what a wasted opportunity.’ ”
Think about your clothing
You want to get on casting directors’ radar, but not for the wrong reasons, which is why your choice of what to wear in an audition or self-tape is a point raised by several top CDs. Flinn tells us: What you’re wearing can be important. Often, I’ll say on the brief if there’s something specific we’d like you to wear for the character. But if you’re asked to audition for a nurse character, we don’t expect you to come in dressed in a nurses uniform. If you have something which could just hint at the character, that’s useful. For instance, if you’re an office worker then a suit is fine.”
And Evans echoes this point: “Don’t dress in full costume. Sometimes a nod to it can be good, especially if it’s an era. But if you do come in full costume, not only is it distracting, but your interpretation might be off – it might be different to what the team are thinking. Props also tend to be distracting – but sometimes they can really work out great. When Rakhee Thakrar auditioned for Miss Sands in Sex Education, she brought in a sandwich and it worked perfectly, because she was eating and there would be moments where she couldn’t speak. It was hilarious. But I think it’s about instinct. And you can always ask.”
Don’t mess up your call back
If you’re lucky enough to be asked for a callback, Valentine Hendry has this to say: “On a callback, they liked what they saw, or I liked what I saw. So, the director will want to see if he can direct you. They’ve already liked what you’ve done. Great. Stick to that. I’d even suggest come in wearing exactly the same. Now, the following is such an important bit of advice which is going to sound so obvious, but it is single-handedly one of the reasons that people don’t get the job: it’s that you can do a blinding audition with the directors – then I ask you to do it again and give you a couple of little notes. If you do not do those notes, after the person leaves they say: ‘I love their first tape, but they don’t take direction.’ Just make sure you change it as asked – just listen and make sure that you do that. Get good at it.
“Don’t psych yourself out,” says Evans. “Relax yourself as much as you can and know we are there working with you. I think actors often come in thinking that CDs are there to test them or judge them, or maybe even to catch them out! Take stock of what you’re doing, get yourself to a calm, relaxed place where you can do your best work, prepare well, work with us and ask us questions. We’re not terrible people. Mostly.”
And Flinn advised not arriving flustered – even if you’re late (which you won’t be, ever, right?) “If you’re late, or whatever, remember – that happened outside the room. The important thing is to be calm and enjoy it. Auditions are quick, so you need to not feel self-conscious about coming in and giving it your all straight away. It’s a hard thing to do, especially when you’re starting out. But when you’ve done a few you’ll get used to it.”
Do the business – and you will be remembered
For those that have successfully parlayed themselves into an audition, McNamara’s words distil the essence of what it’s all about and how to make an impression that will get you remembered for the right reasons: “It’s coming into the room and doing the business that makes me want to get you in for the next project,” he says.
“It’s all about doing strong, professional auditions, even if you don’t get the part. If I see you and think you’re awesome, it doesn’t matter that the director doesn’t cast you. I’m going to think of you for the next project or something after that.”
More industry advice for UK actors? Click here.