So, you want to be a Casting Director?

Have you ever read a book and pictured in your head the actors who could play the characters in the film or TV version? Or maybe you’ve read a book after it was adapted for the screen and you can’t imagine anyone else playing the characters than the actors who were cast. This is, in short, what a casting director does – they search for and select the actors who will portray specific roles in a script.

To find out more, we asked local casting directors Ilona Smyth of Smyth Casting and Mike Migliara of Mike Migliara Casting to provide their thoughts on being a casting director and to share their experiences.

Can you tell us, in your own words, what a casting director does?

Casting Director Ilona Smyth

Ilona: The biggest misconception about a casting director, especially in a regional market like Ottawa, is that a part of my job is representing actors. As a casting director, I have numerous agencies submit to me when I post casting breakdowns for roles. From those submissions, I choose which actors to bring in to audition. Once the director chooses an actor for the role, I negotiate on behalf of production and finalize the actor’s deal memo. Smyth Casting also casts background actors and needs to make sure that each background of a scene correctly represents what time frame and society the scene represents with male/female, ethnicity, and Union ratios, all while bringing the look the director is hoping to see to life.

Mike: We are, in a nutshell, in charge of human resources for the performing arts, on behalf of producers and directors in media. We search for and find every single breathing person who will perform the roles in a screenplay or project; in fact, sometimes we go further, and find every single living creature, even pets. But there are different levels of casting: Leads, Principal Casting, and Extras Casting. I am a casting director that casts Leads and Principal actors (stars and actors for speaking roles). I used to cast Extras as well (background/non-speaking roles) for Montreal Casting and was an Extras Casting Director there for about 10 years. But today, I’m co-owner and executive director of and the staff there casts the Extras wonderfully. Being a great casting director is more than just auditions and finding actors. It’s a morally artistic obligation to go further and find the right spirit, the utmost PERFECT human being to fill this role, this imaginative world we all dream to be in. I feel that sometimes I am not just a casting director, but a spiritual welder – welding the appropriate spirit to the appropriate white pages. And so, in saying this – and many actors can debate this, with valid winning points – it takes great effort, and exhausting work, to find the PERFECT cast. A single person can only fit that one role. For these reasons, it can be so painfully difficult to even think for a second of someone else playing Marty McFly in Back to the Future other than Michael J. Fox, or someone other than Heath Ledger as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. There is a philosophical side to it, one that I’m afraid gets overlooked far too often by others in the film industry. You know, take the zero-risk approach, get the safe bet. One that unfortunately sometimes promotes exclusivity.

Did you always want to be a casting director? How did you get started?

Ilona: I didn’t always want to be a casting director, since as a child I didn’t realize that this was a job option. I was always drawn to this industry; I love the art of film, watching biographies of actors, avidly reading about the industry and eventually choosing Film Studies at Carleton University for my post-secondary. I always explain my job to people as this: it’s like reading a fictional book and imagining who those characters are in your head, but now, being able to bring them to life.

Casting Director Mike Migliara (left)

Mike: Truth be told, I always wanted to be an actor and foremost a film director. My passion – and it still is today – is to use this artistic realm of filmmaking to find and expose every single truthful facet of our human life and experiences. Furthermore, to defend and stand up for all these truths in the face of injustice, tyranny, and sadness. How I got started is actually a long story, and something that many of my friends and family know about, something that remains close to my heart, and will always happily stay vividly fresh in my mind’s eye. It was a fantastic time of my life, and I am eternally grateful for how lucky and blessed I was. But I took the position because it was a second opportunity that I didn’t want to miss as I did with the first one. I decided to remain in my theatre and film studies program, stayed in school on my first offer. But the second time around, and it was actually fatefully for the same position but a different company, I took the job as a casting assistant and dropped out of school. When I dropped out, I left behind two lead roles that I was cast in at Concordia University, in two Pinter One Act plays. And I don’t regret that decision. But many days, I still say to myself: I want to be a director and act in films more. Being a casting director is fantastic, and suits me perfectly. And I now make a living doing it. But I always miss playing roles. I direct thousands of actors in auditions, but hope to start directing them on set more as well. Professionally as an actor, I have played mostly anchormen, doctors, and well, “the other guy in the film”. And I really miss that. Who knows, maybe I’ll be the star one day.

What skills or training does a casting director need to be successful in his or her field?

Ilona: There is no exact school to become a casting director but I was lucky enough to have some amazing mentors from Meg Liberman (CBS), Deb Aquila (Lionsgate) and Faith Hibbs-Clark (Arizona Casting). I’m a Casting Society of America accredited casting director, so this offers me many opportunities to learn from colleagues who have been in the industry for decades, as well as workshops on the changing technology of casting. I make sure I audit as many classes as I can, ones which take place around the world, so that as a casting director I’m able to communicate to an actor on the same level they train. I’m constantly learning and reading things from the production side or in class work with actors so that I’m prepared for the next project. I love what I do, so putting the work in on my “down time” doesn’t seem like work. It’s like I tell the actors I coach personally: it’s when preparation meets opportunity!

Mike: Very organized. Time efficient. Artistically acute. No room for error. At the same time, listening and remaining openly creative to allow ideas to flesh out and grow as the work is progressing. You need to pay attention to detail. And you need to have skills in directing a staff and actors in the projects. When I look for a casting assistant, I look for those skills, and someone who is educated in the same methodologies, philosophies, and practices as actors and also, directors. We are, after all, responsible for getting the centre of the spotlight, the one always being watched and listened to, the actor. The humans. The humanness. Sometimes, and I’m not the first casting director to feel this way by any means, I feel that we are sometimes undervalued. Same with actors. I feel sometimes our job is referred to as no big deal. Same with actors. “Anyone can do it” / “You don’t need training”. Watch the documentary “Casting by”. Wonderful.

Is there anything you wish you knew before becoming a casting director? 

Ilona: I could say there are a million things I wish I knew before starting anything within my life, unfortunately that’s not an option. Each movie, TV show, commercial, etc. I do, I learn something new with each one; no experience is exactly the same. This question may be better asked as ‘What have I learnt from casting?’. The only thing I would have had at 20 years old was the strength to trust my instinct. I have no issues with this now.

Is there an actor that you were really excited to cast or one that you would love to cast in a future project?

Ilona on set with actor Peter Stormare

Ilona: I have attached many big named actors (through pre-packaging projects with CAA, WME, and UTA) as cast, however the excitement in booking a name lead, for me, is just the thrill of the back and forth negotiation and communicating the sales value to the producers and sales company. Where I get really excited is being able to cast actors who have brought me joy watching them in the past, and giving back to them (in my own way) amazing roles that I know they are more than capable of and barely get the chance at anymore. An example of this is when I cast Oz Perkin’s “Blackcoat’s Daughter”. I was looking for a stepford mom type who was to play along with James Remar, distraught over their daughter. She wasn’t in the first 5 on the call sheet but the scene was so integral to the movie and would take a real talented actress to pull off. There is only one person who popped in my head and that was Lauren Holly (Dumb and Dumber). I loved her work growing up and her face would always bring a sense of comfort/nostalgia to me – this is what I like to call layered casting. Watching Lauren Holly get slaughtered in this movie makes the viewer feel on a deeper level. Some of us know her name when we see her, but most just recognize her face when we see her and it reminds us of a happier time, so watching her get slaughtered is almost like watching one of your favourite aunts, and can affect the viewer on a deeper level. They may only remember her name on their drive home from watching the movie. Her performance was fantastic in how she was able to evoke the character’s intense fear and pain and it ended up being a highlight of the film and was written up about in many film reviews.

Although if I could cast John Goodman…

Mike teaching actors

Mike: I’ve cast Michel Perron, Tim Rozon, Michael Mando, Rachelle Levefre, Laura Jordan, Romano Ozari, Alex Ivanovici, Roc Lafortune, Graham Cuthbertson, Peter Miller, Claudia Ferri, Harry Standjofski, Shawn Baichoo, Jesse Rath, Frank Fontaine, Trevor Hayes… I mean there are so many I got excited about I want to keep going on… I would love to get to cast Jay Baruchel. Came close once, but the part went to Michael Cera.

While you sometimes work outside Ottawa, Ottawa remains your home. Can you tell us what you love about this city that makes you want to stay here?

Ilona: This is my home. This is where I grew up and where I am raising my son. I have loved seeing this industry grow here over the last 12 years. I do, however study and work outside of Ottawa monthly but being here and creating opportunities for actors within this city has been a mission of mine since opening 10+ years ago. I turn to producers and ask them to let me find them local cast, which helps save travel, lodging, and other expenses. More importantly, doing this helps build opportunity and infrastructure in Ottawa. Doing this expanded Smyth Casting, which started out in my parent’s basement in my early 20’s, to our office now has led to being able to offer self-tape services and acting for film and TV classes for all ages. The bonus of the classes taking place in our office is that actors now audition in the same space they learn, which makes for a more comfortable audition experience. Now, I’m going into my 84th production, and all of my hard work has awarded me the luxury of being able to cast worldwide, in New Mexico, Serbia, UK, Dominican Republic, NYC, LA and Montreal, Toronto and Sudbury. Although if I could cast in Bora Bora…

Mike: I love Canada. And what better city to be in than the Nation’s Capital? And I have cast everywhere, from Jacksonville, Florida and New York, New York to Los Angeles, California and Vancouver, BC, all the way to Dartmouth, Nova Scotia and St. Andrews, New Brunswick. Canadian actors rock. Actors all over rock, but I’m Canadian. So that’s it. In the same patriotic vanity of Gord Downie… I’m proudly Canadian. And so Ottawa, being the Nation’s Capital, should proudly represent Canadian Actors. The actors born and raised here are truly amongst my favorite actors: Peter Dillon, Sean Tucker, Michelle Leblanc, John Koensgen, Norman Berketa, Luigi Sarancino, Robert Bockstael, Stephanie Bauder, Helena Alexis Seymore, James Raynard, Anna Kopacek… The list goes on…