MediaContex speaks to Darren Freeman, a voice talent, writer and showrunner with over a decade of experience in the industry. With the help of Tiffany Lim, a fellow casting director and journalist, Darren shares his experience with being a casting director, gives us an in-depth look into what is involved with the casting process, and reveals what it takes for VAs to land roles.
Stage 1: Communicate with the Client
Before the casting process can officially begin, casting directors must understand their client’s vision for the project. Casting directors must select actors who match the clients’ expectations of their characters, and can effectively convey its storyline to its audience.
It's important for the casting director to understand the client's vision of the final product. There's no point in starting the audition process if the client hasn't clearly established what they are looking for – the project's tone, the types of performances needed, character complexity and so on. This knowledge is essential to ensure final selections are made with the client's wishes in mind.
Details Needed from Clients
The client needs to provide what is called the “bible” – a booklet with a story synopsis, detailed character descriptions and audition material for each. Normally concept art is included but not always.
I will never cast a project unless there is a completed script. In order for me to cast effectively and not waste time, I need to know what exactly the client wants... or starting the audition process is pointless. Would you start driving to your destination without a map? Same applies for the casting budget – I need to know how much gas I can afford to put in the tank before the car leaves the driveway.
Stage 2: Send Out the Casting Call
Next, it's time for the casting call to go up and let the submissions pour in. The best way of letting voice actors know that auditions are open is to contact them directly over email, or to publish a casting call announcement over social media.
Casting directors must also consider the client’s requirements for the casting call. Some clients may prefer to keep their casting calls private so that they can filter their submissions at in early stage. Alternatively, others might prefer to hold public auditions to receive as many submissions as possible, which would allow them to source for new talent.
I prefer not to listen to any auditions until after the deadline – that way everyone is listened to at the same time and given equal consideration. The danger of listening to auditions too early is falling in love with a certain submission and comparing all later submissions against it. It's unfair to the actors because the casting director, often inadvertently, sets a standard favouring that particular performance.
Stage 3: Narrow Down your Selections into a Shortlist
Then, it's time for the most difficult part: narrowing down the submissions to form your short-list. Sadly, this means rejecting a lot of performances. Remember, we never reject actors...we reject performances.
The two most common reasons are poor audio quality and a reading that doesn't quite fit with the client's expectations. For a product being sold commercially, audio quality is taken very seriously. You can have the best performance ever but if the audition sounds like it was recorded through a waterlogged pillow, it's getting tossed. Other reasons for rejections are normally client-specific (such as only considering auditions recorded on XLR mics).
The objective of the short-list is to identify the best 5-10 actors for each posted role. Those chosen submissions are listened to over and over again like broken records, analyzed in every possible manner because from those 5-10... we can sadly only choose one. It's difficult because all the shortlisted actors are pretty much equal. Any of them can play that character and in a perfect world, we'd love that. But the client is only able to pay for one.
Stage 4: Final Selection
As for the eventual final selection... if the casting director has total autonomy over selections, that's a simple and straightforward process. But if the client is more involved, other factors might come into play.
While I personally don't agree with it there are clients who value social media metrics because, to them, casting an actor with 10,000 Twitter followers is basically free advertising to 10,000 fans. If they're spending a lot of money on the project, they are entitled to make that determination. I personally, however, will refuse to work on a project where social media is a factor in final casting decisions.
I only hold callbacks when I'm down to the final two or three candidates, usually via Zoom or Discord call – which I explain further in the “Narrowing Down the Shortlist” section.
The most challenging aspect will always be rejection... and it's even more difficult when out of 100 all you have left are two very equal and competent candidates. This is why that live reading on Zoom or Discord is essential – just like a job interview, the candidate you connect with most is the one that normally gets the role. Every little bit counts... and the more agreeable person will always break the tie. Intuition is a powerful thing - go with your gut, it never fails.
Balancing Different Perspectives with the Outcome
It's not easy because both camps have different perspectives – the client wants a performance they like but an actor might disagree with the client's choice.
A casting director is hired to execute the vision of the client and to work with actors in achieving that goal... and often, we need to draw that line in the sand.
Acting is a collaborative medium and the best results are when all parties put aside their egos and work together. The final vision, however, always belongs to the folks signing the cheques. It's nothing personal, it's business – and actors who choose to take it personally risk their reputations.
As for the client, they need to be absolutely crystal-clear with their expectations – or they also risk their reputations. Surprising an actor with objectionable script content without warning is a bad look and word gets around in acting circles.
If a role requires an actor to be comfortable with things like explicit sexual language or inflammatory statements (such as racism or homophobia), it must be communicated to them.
If the casting director doesn't have full access to the script during the audition process due to privacy concerns, it's absolutely imperative the client communicates these things to the casting director so they can tell the actors. The fewer awkward surprises for everyone, the better. Word travels fast on troubled productions.
Challenges with the Casting Process
Narrowing Down the Audition Shortlist
Without question, [the hardest part of the casting process is] narrowing down that enormous pile of auditions to a manageable shortlist of suitable candidates. But if only it ended there!
With only one actor vacancy per character, making that final decision is heart-wrenching. It's no different than adopting a furry friend from an animal rescue – there are so many you want to take home but the limit is only one.
The best method to overcome this casting dilemma – and always works for me – is to do a live reading of the audition piece and have a conversation with the actor. Whether it's about the project or just life in general, it allows the casting director an opportunity to assess the personality of the individual behind the voice – and you don't get that just by listening to audio files.
This is often my most effective tie-breaker. If you're going to be working with an actor, don't you want them to be cordial and able to take direction without argument? A brief chat on Zoom or Discord has been my best tool in making that final decision. You know an interview is going well when the conversation flows so naturally you forget there's actually a live reading to do!
It's critical to never box yourself in with a preconceived idea of what any character should “sound” like. Allow yourself to be surprised – in a sea of a hundred auditions, you'll always remember that one person who made an unforgettable acting decision. Never be afraid to lend more of an ear to someone who stands out. Closing yourself off from that possibility means you risk missing out on an amazing performance.
What i like best about being a casting director
Finding new talent – nothing else comes close. It's a huge thrill listening to a new person and stopping to pick up your jaw from the floor. Straight to the short-list! Even if that actor isn't chosen for the role, I always keep a “black book” so I know which names to look out for in future casting calls. It's the same principle as a scout in professional sports: keeping an eye on future talent. Casting directors don't forget. Makes our jobs much easier.
Advice to VAs
Just be yourself. Oftentimes it's your own natural voice that fits best. Don't force the performance. Relax, take a deep breath and internalize the character. Allow yourself to make choices for the character rather than the character's personality doing it for you.
Also, less is more. Just because you see an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence doesn't mean you need to yell it. There are many ways to communicate an emphatic line and often a more subdued take is the more effective one. Play with punctuation and pauses – acting is about making bold choices. Unless you're auditioning for Aaron Sorkin or the Coen brothers, feel free to play around with the line's construction – we don't mind! The audition is your opportunity to try stuff out and get noticed... don't be afraid to shine!
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