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The Life of a Casting Director: Interview with Kate Rhodes-James

A casting director’s input is often vital in gaining finance for an independent project, championing an actor’s career and creatively shaping the work.  Kate Rhodes-James is a freelance casting director who is passionate about her creative role in the development of a wide range of projects.

Photo by SPDP

KRJ:       I need to love a script and respond to it immediately.  I know when I’m onto something good when I need to grab a pen and paper to start jotting down ideas.  I need to feel inspired and excited.  If I’m reading a script and nobody is springing to mind, that’s the warning sign that this is not for me.  If I don’t believe in it, I can’t sell it to the agent/actor.

Whenever I meet a director, I always ask ‘what is your vision?  What is your ambition for the piece?’  This way I can ensure that I will deliver the kind of actor that is right for their piece.  I make it clear that the creative process is very important to me and I will say if I think we are going in the wrong direction.  The best directors are collaborative.  I have just worked with a director who allowed me to drive the audition if I knew an actor was misreading his direction.   He was really happy for me to contribute.  That for me is the perfect union between a casting director and a director.  Directors need to understand that we know the actors better than they do and they must fully utilise that.

Once I’ve been offered the job, I have a coffee with the Director – usually one to one – and discuss the roles thoroughly.  Good writing will always allow interpretation, so you can have stimulating and fun discussions.  Once we have ascertained how the roles will be described I draw up a breakdown and issue to the all the relevant agents.

Sometimes a lot of directors don’t know really what they want, and they need to be guided.  Once trust has been established between the casting director and the director – and sometimes it doesn’t happen – you can then go “off piste” and that’s when the fun happens and great ideas come about.  When you suddenly suggest someone who is not as the role is written, but contributes to the plot and the relationship with another character, it becomes really exciting.

My advice to young directors would be, right at the beginning, maybe before you’ve even gone into prep, spend a good few hours having lunch with your casting director, getting to know them a bit and allowing them to get to know you. Personally, I like to find out who they find inspiring .   A director who I worked with was inspired by Milos Foreman.  That told me a lot about him, his influences.

Casting directors are creatives and a lot of people in the industry don’t understand that.  The skill of our job is not necessarily the knowledge but what we do with out knowledge.  That is the skill.  It’s hard to quantify what we do.  I am very instinctive, as a lot are.  I just know when someone is right.  It shouldn’t matter that they weren’t very good in something earlier, if they deliver in the room, and make sense of the world that we are in, then that is your lead.

Q:           What are your key relationships?

KRJ:       It is controversial but people need to know that one of our key relationships is with agents.   The relationship with the casting director and agent is imperative.  It has to be based on trust and we have to be honest.  I can’t achieve what I want to achieve for their client unless they work with me.

There was a wonderful agent who has since given up the business.  She phoned me after reading a breakdown of BLEAK HOUSE.  She urged me to meet this young actress who had done very little but she was convinced she was my Ada.  As I had a great working relationship with this agent, I went for it, and thankfully that young actress was Carey Mulligan.  She was the first actress through the door and the first to read for ADA and no-one came near after that.  There are some directors who wouldn’t have taken the risk, but Justin Chadwick is not risk averse and neither am I. The producer, was a bit nervous of giving a role to someone so inexperienced but Justin said, “don’t worry, we’ll do it.”  And he did.

Q:           And did you then have to see lots more, considering she was the first one up?

KRJ:       Well no – our producer was of the old school, he didn’t want time wasted seeing hundreds of people.  He employed a casting director to cut through all that. We certainly saw a few because even for me, it seemed to good to be true, right at the beginning of the process that we had found her!  And also, that’s another indication of how Justin and I got on, he trusted me implicitly to do my job.   When I said “Look, I’m going to bring in this girl – sight unseen” he said, “Fine, go for it!”

So my advise to a young director would be, make a friend out of your casting director.  We all nurture our relationships with directors and once that bond has been made it’s a great reassurance to you.  We also make you look very, very good!

Excerpt from The Casting Handbook: For Film and Theatre Makers by Suzy Catliff and Jennifer Granville © 2013 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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