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Advice from Isolation: Kirsty McGregor talks casting

The founder of McGregor Casting, whose credits include Lion, Top Of The Lake and Mr Inbetween gives insights into the casting process.

Ben Mendelsohn in Babyteeth, Kirsty McGregorBen Mendelsohn in Babyteeth, Kirsty McGregor

As we #StayHome to help combat COVID-19, members of the Australian screen sector share their career learnings in the Advice from Isolation series. Subscribe to Screen Australia’s newsletter for additions to the series.

FROM ACTING TO CASTING

I havent always been a casting director. My first professional gig in the entertainment industry was age seven, when I played Helen Keller for the Hunter Valley Theatre company (proper nepotism – my dad is a director). I continued acting for the next 20 years and it never occurred to me, or even occurred to occur to me, that I would have any other career.

The turning point was after moving to London. Typically, and like many actors, I had worked in hospitality for years between acting gigs. Indeed, I had become so excellent at it that by the end of my trial shift at a fancy restaurant on the Thames I was offered assistant manager. That was the moment I realised I didnt want to be an actor anymore. Dont get me wrong, I really loved acting and I loved watching people act. I loved actors. I loved directors. Its just that I had spent as much of my adult life working in restaurants as I had on stage or set. A quick analysis of my career led me to realise this would probably continue unless I had some wild lucky break. Which, quite frankly, was unlikely. My look was unremarkable. My talent was probably… unremarkable. I remember doing a play at STC with Cate Blanchett in 1993 – her very first job out of NIDA. At our first rehearsal together I thought Oh God holy shit shes amazing, I have to lift my game”. Suffice to say I never lifted it to Cates standard. But it took another five years and my restaurant shift in London to fully realise that I was in the wrong job.

From London, I hightailed it back to Sydney to my beloved agent Robyn Gardiner, who was both perturbed but didn’t fight me on my sudden decision to ‘quit acting’. In fact, it was she who would suggest my next step might be in casting. After all, Id grown up in the industry and I knew everyone. I thought, sure – why not – how hard can it be?”! Oh, how naïve I was. 

In yet more excellent ‘agenting’, Robyn made a couple of calls and the next thing I knew I had a job with the wonderful Faith Martin. It would be just eight days between my restaurant shift and my first day with Faith. When I make a decision I make it pretty fast. I will be honest though, at first it felt like my life was over and the grief for my acting life was pretty intense for quite some time.

But then… I discovered I adored casting. Why wouldn’t I? I got to work with directors and actors all the time.

After Faith, I went on to work with Greg Apps, the Casting Director of Australian classic films such as Proof and Romper Stomper. Greg has a terrific mind and excellent taste. And he cuts through the bullshit. It was he who taught me that in casting we are always looking for the right actor, not the best actor.

CUT TO: May 2020. McGregor Casting has been running for nearly 20 years. We work across film, television, commercials and short films. I have recently finished three years’ service as the President of the Casting Guild and I have been asked by Screen Australia to write an article as part of their Advice from Isolationseries. I think Ive already used up half the article. Sorry about that. To the task at hand…

“SO KIRSTY, WHAT EXACTLY DOES A CASTING DIRECTOR DO?

This question was posed to me when I was invited to talk to the AACTA board to discuss the introduction of a Casting category for their 2018 awards. I was representing and advocating on behalf of every casting director in the country and I was really nervous. Our contribution to the entertainment industry had been overlooked for decades. Im not just talking about awards here, Im talking about acknowledgement. The name of a casting director may be on a poster, but the actual process is never really discussed publically, meaning few understand what we actually do. But how could anyone possibly understand the process if they haven’t been on the inside of it, and nobody talks about it?

Weve all heard the saying directing is 90% casting’ and my job is to help the director get that casting right.        

By the time a film is in the can and then being promoted, the narrative is usually that the director, always had [insert name here] in mind for the part”, or at least, the moment I saw their audition I knew they were the one”.  Its rarely the full story though. What is likely to have happened is hours upon hours of discussion, looking at whether qualities intrinsic to a character are being revealed by the actors in contention for the role. These conversations are vital but very delicate. From the outside they might be considered brutal but that’s not our purpose. It’s how we arrive at the right actor for a project.

The main drawback of this secrecy around the work of casting directors is that emerging directors and producers will not trust that we have years of knowledge that could help them. When emerging directors are always hearing “I always knew exactly who should play the part” from established directors, it implies that they have to have all the answers. They don’t – any more than they need to know where to position a camera without the expert guidance of their DOP. Experienced and collaborative directors and producers know if they have briefed me well, I will be able to direct them to where they want to be, avoiding the speed bumps.

STARS OR ‘MARQUEE’ CAST

Projects will come to me at different stages. Some will be fully financed. Obviously, this is preferable as we can just get started. Sometimes a production will ask me to attach marquee actors to help them finance the project. As a general rule – most leading production companies or experienced producers will deal with casting high profile actors themselves if it’s prior to finance, because it forms part of that financing process. They may ask for advice on who might be available or interested at any given time, but they will handle the approaches directly. This is more preferable to me, as at this stage most productions are beholden to marketing and aren’t really able to consider the right actor – they’re simply looking for the most famous actor.

Occasionally, emerging producers will ask for help and I’ll agree to it, but they are often less than realistic about who is attainable given their budget and experience. Some dont actually want my advice, they just want to get their film made. Unfortunately however, I dont have a magic wand that will make someone famous do their project. What I have is the ability to give them informed advice. Over the years I have developed very good relationships with actors’ agents and together we have a pretty good idea about who is going to be interested in which projects.  But I have to choose carefully what to send through, otherwise I won’t be taken seriously. Sending a dozen scripts is one thing. Getting a profile actor to read one of them is another. I won’t just send a script if I know the actor isn’t going to do it.

AIMING HIGH

This may sound as though Im saying, “dont aim high”. Im not! Im simply saying that listening to an experienced casting director could save you a lot of time and help cut through to the good stuff.

A good casting director will be looking for the perfect combination of script, director role and timing. Sometimes my advice is to aim higher!

An example, I recently worked on a beautiful film called Babyteeth, written by Rita Kalnejais and directed by Shannon Murphy. Its being released this year. I love this film so much. The creative team had suggested approaching a particular actor for one of the leads but when I read it I felt Ben Mendelsohn would be perfect. Of course theyd already thought of him but he is enjoying such a successful career overseas and the budget was so small that nobody thought hed consider it. Ben hadnt worked in Australia since Animal Kingdom (I drove him around the crime spots of Melbourne to talk him into playing Pope – but thats another story!), yet from conversations with his agent, I knew he was finally looking to do something back home... but it had to be the right thing. And I felt this wasn’t a role for just any famous actor, it was perfect for Ben. It needed someone quirky and funny and vulnerable and fierce and broken all rolled into one. We needed the right actors to bring Rita’s story to life and for this role, Ben was the guy. My instinct also told me that Ben would really respond to Shannon as a director. This may have been her first feature but shes clever and feisty and imaginative. This was also Alex White’s first feature as producer and she and Shannon were being mentored by Jan Chapman. What a team.  You don’t get classier than Jan.

So I called Ben’s agent and said, I think we’ve got the project”.  And because of the team involved, and because I hadnt been sending every script that crossed my desk she and he knew to look at it seriously. She read it and agreed, Ben did the same and then came on board.

Director Shannon Murphy and Ben Mendelsohn on the set of BabyteethDirector Shannon Murphy and actor Ben Mendelsohn on the set of Babyteeth

GOING BACK TO THE SCRIPT (AND TRUSTING YOUR GUT)

Once Im on a financed project I will have a creative one-on-one meeting with the director (or show runner if its TV). I like to talk about script and character a lot. Its the best way for me to get to know what the director wants. I need to understand their creative vision because my job is to find actors that will best bring that vision of the script to life. Sometimes I will know when I first read the script the right actor for a part. I’ll just see it clearly. But there are times when I wont, and so my job is to figure it out with the director.

Another example, and why not refer back to Animal Kingdom, was the lead role of J. Wed finally narrowed the decision down to two boys. Both were terrific actors and very different from one another. One was exactly who writer/director David Michod had envisaged: a small and frightened innocent; wide-eyed in a dangerous world. He also had a lot of experience. The other boy was a big lad: on camera he made J introverted, observant, solid and nothing like the boy David had written in his character description. He’d also never acted professionally. It should have been an easy decision. It should have been the kid (he thought) he’d written on the page who also had more experience. But for whatever reason it wasnt sitting right with David. So theres the clue right there. I told him to go back to his full script and read it twice: once with one boy in mind and once with the other. Read it the whole way through. No cheating. And then ring me. David called me the next day and said,Its the big lad”. When I asked why, he explained that when hed arrived at the scene where Mendelsohns character asks J to steal a car, it made more sense to ask the big kid – the kid who looks like a man, even though hes anything but. Asking the small, scared, innocent boy to steal a car seemed improbable. And this is how James Frecheville was cast in his first job. It was the right decision. We put together a family of big strapping lads and he fitted right in. David was completely open to seeing the character differently and ultimately his own script revealed who the actor needed to be.

Animal KingdomAnimal Kingdom

THE ADVICE PART

The greatest thing I’ve learned in this industry is that there is no one way of doing anything. Advice I may give may be completely different to that of another casting director. These are the creative arts so stay creative, be thoughtful, and as I have said, trust your gut. 

If I have to give ‘advice’ to directors for the casting process  - overall it would be to trust your casting director. If you can speak creatively with them and you feel like you’re on the same page – then trust they know what they’re talking about and will bring you the right people to consider. And second, a reminder to keep going back to the script. Don’t cast your film or TV show based just on two audition scenes. Sure, you’ll end up casting your audition scenes or your character brief but not your film. So revisit the script. Particularly if you are finding it hard to make a decision. Read your script the whole way through with each actor in mind. It should make the choice clear.

And actors – hopefully everything I have said about looking for the right actor will illustrate that you can only play the character the way you would play the character. You mustn’t give yourself a hard time if you miss out on a role after giving it your best shot. There is always a time in the casting process that I go home and have a cry and it’s usually during the callbacks. It’s troubling and sometimes heartbreaking for me to know that all these actors are giving it everything and I can only cast ONE of them. But, if you keep being brilliant in auditions we will always remember you and one day your turn will come.

Or, perhaps like me, you will become a casting director.