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Thanks to an international film festival acting seminar, I had the good fortune of meeting casting director Donna McKenna a couple of days ago in Houston. She’s in town because a film she cast here starring Eric Roberts, Sean Young, and Armand Assante, Leaves of the Tree, screened at Worldfest. Her visit inspired and encouraged actors like me and opened our eyes to some new ways to look at the casting process.
Donna added an extra stop to her Houston visit by joining me at the improv workshop I hosted the following day for the SAG-AFTRA Houston Conservatory. She’s a very generous professional and sets the record straight for actors who approach casting with a sense of misunderstanding. She took the time both days to explain her approach to casting an indie film.
Imagine the most complex puzzle you have ever put together. You started with a corner, right? Then you proceeded from there. How much time did it take you to find each oddly-shaped piece that fit into an open spot? Seconds, minutes, longer? Now think about casting a film with dozens of actors.
Donna explained casting Leaves of the Tree with her “puzzle approach” started with Eric Roberts as the corner piece. Then everyone else followed. Despite seeing great auditions, she said many actors just didn’t fit the puzzle she was creating.
Now apply that puzzle concept to the auditions you believe you nailed recently yet were not followed with a booking. Find out who was cast, if you can, and see if there is an obvious reason you didn’t book it. I sometimes notice the actor who booked instead of me is younger, older, a different height, a different color, or some other variable I can’t change about myself. Often it’s not simply about our talent. There are other things in play that we might not be aware of or understand at first.
During the course of my two visits with Donna, I started taking note of several other points she made about her particular views of casting and want to share them with you here. The first list is reminders of points you should have heard by now. The second list consists of points that may come as a surprise to you.
5 Reminders about Casting from Donna McKenna
- Always make bold choices. The CD wants to see what you can bring to the material.
- Know where your character has been immediately before the scene begins.
- Prepare to continue the scene with improv if asked and don’t stop until the CD calls “cut!”
- In the midst of your audition, you might get redirection from the CD. You won’t know what they’re thinking. Just work with it without giving in to the impulse to question it.
- If you’re connected to a casting director on social media, keep the interaction professional and avoid comments/replies that imply you want to be seen for a role.
5 Eye-Openers about Casting from Donna McKenna
- Self-taped auditions are a terrific way for casting to see you in your own environment where you may be more relaxed and natural.
- Sometimes a CD will bring you in even if you don’t fit the description of the character because they’re thinking differently than the writer.
- Costuming and props are typically unnecessary for the audition, although a cell phone is simple enough to use. The audition is about you, not all the extra bits.
- You can book big roles without an agent by submitting through sites such as Actor’s Access or having a website for casting folks to see you and your work.
- Be willing to work local hire if you want a role out of town. Budgets for travel on indie films are small (or non-existent) so submitting to a project not close to home means you should be willing to get yourself there and have a place to stay when you book the role.
At the closing of her time in each workshop, Donna graciously provided her email so actors could send her headshots, resumes, or links to their work and sites. I hope the actors who do so take the time to thank her for the valuable insight and information she provided. If you get a chance to get in front of a casting director in the near future or anytime, go for it. Then come back here to leave a comment so you can share what you learned.