27 February 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
Casting Directors share insights at Casting Conversations hosted by IFTA
22 Nov 2023 : Luke Shanahan
L-R: Louise Kiely, Karen Scully, Richard Cook, Amy Rowan, Frank Moiselle, and Maureen Hughes.
The Irish Film & Television Academy hosted the first Casting Conversations forum with leading Irish casting directors in the The Lighthouse cinema on November 21st.

Last night, November 21st, IFTA hosted the first Casting Conversations forum, featuring leading casting directors from Ireland north, who shared their knowledge and expertise within the casting world. The panellists discussed their experiences and shared insights into how one begins a career in casting, the benefit of having an acting background as a casting director, their varied approaches to their work, the pros and cons of self-taping, working with directors, and increasing inclusivity in casting.

“You're all very welcome to this Irish Film and Television Academy event,” said IFTA CEO Áine Moriarty. “We're really delighted because this is a milestone evening for us. This is the first of many discussions we're going to hold around casting and acting. Tonight marks the introduction within the Academy of the new Casting Directors chapter.”

“Firstly, thanks to Louise Kiely for all her input and advice. Louise has kindly taken up the chairmanship of that chapter for the next couple of years, so her experience and knowledge is going to be invaluable.”

The first panel of the night was moderated by Richard Cooke, a talent agent and co-founder of the Lisa Richards Agency. His clients include Aidan Turner, Frankie Boyle, Pauline McLynn and Robert Sheehan. He is also the artistic director of Subtitle, a European Film Festival based in Kilkenny that connects casting directors from the US, UK, Europe and Ireland with a small selection of European actors.

This panel consisted of casting directors Louise Kiely (Normal People, The Banshees of Inisherin), Maureen Hughes (Once, Love/Hate), Amy Rowan (Flora And Son, Garage), Frank Moiselle (The Tudors, Veronica Guerin), and Karen Scully (Conversations with Friends, The Green Knight).

The discussion began with the panellists talking about how their respective careers as casting directors began, to which many of the panellists cited a background in screen acting or other roles within the film industry, before discovering their love for casting.

Cook then asked the casting directors how they approach a script from a casting perspective, and if they have a picture in mind for who they’ll be looking for as they read the script for the first time.

“When I read a script for the first time, I consciously try to not think of any actors,” explains Amy Rowan. “I just want to get into the world of the story and who those characters are. Actors will come to my head and I will write them down, but I don't sit there at the end of every page and think ‘Who could this be?’ I just try to ingest the world of the story.”

Adding to this, Louise Kiely says she listens to scripts on repeat using a PDF reader.

“I listened to the Banshees script about five or six times, and laughed out loud in my garden,” said Kiely. “What happens is that the story sort of sinks in, obviously I read it, but it will be three or four times before I feel like I'm really in the world.”

She continued: “It's a huge use of imagination. Coming from an acting background has helped immensely because we jump inside the characters, don't we? We find our way around and live in that world. It's like when you read a book, and it all just comes to life. So then slowly but surely, you start thinking about Irish actors and who might suit which role.”

Maureen Hughes jokes she has the opposite process in that she knows who she wants immediately upon reading the script, saying “Then I spend the next 10 weeks getting depressed because I lose all my first choices”.

Speaking on their process, the panellists discussed being fluid in regards to characteristics such as age and gender when casting a film or TV series. Moiselle describes this process as “an open book” in his experience.

“I will have a very strong idea, but that does not put me off a great suggestion that might come from an agent or someone else,” Moiselle explains. “An age on a page isn't sacrosanct. Say you have a 27 year old blonde, this, that or the other. You can't get hung up on that. I think we are all fluid in our opinions. All casting directors have strong opinions, but we're not stuck to them like glue.”

Karen Scully echoes this fluidity in regards to this fluidity when casting, specifically in regards to gender and her experience of casting the television series Red Rock.

“Likewise, we love doing that with gender,” said Karen Scully. “I remember when we were working on Red Rock, myself, Fionnula [O’Shea], and Louise, we had a casting corner on set. We were so familiar with the show, with every script we'd get each episode, and we’d go ‘Hang on a minute, why is Captain Whoever male?’. So what we would do is go ‘Well, we think it can be female as well’, and we would send on our suggestions.”

Later in the first panel’s discussion, the casting directors spoke about their opinions on the advent of the self-tape, both in regards to how it differs from the in-person audition experience, as well as the advice they would give to actors before sending in a self-tape for a particular role.

Hughes began by saying that she prefers auditioning actors in-person, stating: “I love the room. I fight for the room all the time.” She spoke about working with director Tim Mielants on the upcoming Cillian Murphy-led film Small Things Like This, and the relief of having the option to audition in-person again following the pandemic.

“After two years of COVID, it was just so great to get back into a room, because something happens that you can't get on the self tape, and you never will, which is when an actor walks into a room and meets the other creative powers in the room,” she said. “There's a kinetic something that happens, and sometimes really great actors don't do great auditions.”

Moiselle offers a different perspective.

“Self tapes are here to stay,” added Moiselle. “Don't avoid them. They democratise the ability of an actor to get seen. If someone lives in Mayo, they can audition for me in Dublin, but they don't have to come to the door.”

At the end of the first panel, the panellists engaged in a Q&A with the audience. Many in the crowd were actors and acting students, and discussion about self-taping continued. When asked if he changes what he’s looking for during an in-person audition versus a self-tape, Moiselle expanded upon his thoughts about self-taping.

“It's a great question,” he replied. “I’m always just looking for a great actor to be honest. The acting skills trump everything.”

Practical advice in regards to self-taping that the panellists were unanimous on, included labelling videos correctly, being selective in how many takes a scene you send on, and not sending emails on a Sunday.

“When you send us a self tape that's called 6543.MOV, I don't know who you are,” joked Kiely. “So do yourself a favour, just read the instructions, and please label the video correctly.”

After a quick turnaround, IFTA CEO Áine Moriarty welcomed the second panel, moderated by Sinead Brassil, producer and presenter of The 11-1 Show with Sinéad Brassil on LMFM Radio.

Brassil was joined by Ali Coffey (Michael Inside, Cocaine Bear) Barry Coyle (The Dry, Barber), Carla Stronge (Game of Thrones, Derry Girls), Emma Gunnery (Baltimore, My Sailor My Love), and Thyrza Ging (Obituary, Kin).

Much of the discussion revolved around the creative partnership of a director and casting director, as well as changes the panellists had seen within the industry in regards to increased inclusivity in casting.

Carla Stronge contributed the insight that depending on the type of project, sometimes casting directors are attached to a production before the director is.

“There are as many different types of directors as there are actors,” said Stronge. “Some of them come from an acting background, really respect the actor’s craft, and really want to get involved in it. Others are more happy in an edit suite or doing visual effects, and that's not their bag. So you have to tune in to who you're working with, and what they need to get through that journey of exploration to find who's right.”

Brassil asked the panellists if they ever ‘butt’ heads with directors they work with over creative decisions when it casting. Emma Gunnery responded, casting a light on how this type of collaboration operates:

“We will always have our own ideas. They will have their ideas. You would hope if they've hired you for the job, they respect your creative opinion, and they’ll listen to why you feel that way. I don't think I've had it where it's been extreme. It would be more of a discussion, and hopefully we meet in the middle. It's a collaborative agreement, shall we say.”

Discussing recent changes within the industry, the discussion turned to television and particularly the role that streamers have played. 

“I think you can't deny that streaming has changed the landscape,” said Barry Coyle. “Whether that is an actor's ability to be cast in something that all of a sudden blows up on Netflix or Prime. But also, it's changed the industry for agents as well. They're having to navigate quite complex contractual stuff.”

On a more positive note, Coyle also mentions that streamers have opened up more opportunities for diverse casting. Adding to this, Ali Coffey spoke about how she has come to see more diverse and inclusive casting as a responsibility of the casting director.

“I feel like I didn't know when I was younger that I could do that,” explains Coffey. “It took me getting a bit of experience and some years under my belt, and maybe things changing around me as well, to realise not only did I maybe have the power to at least bring it up, but also the responsibility to do it.”

During the audience Q&A that concluded the second panel, the panellists were asked what part of the casting process they enjoy the most. Thyrza Ging’s answer got to the heart of the casting process: discovery.

“There are lots of actors out there,” said Ging. “There's lots of actors that I've seen once, twice, three times, four times, five times, or I've been watching shows they've been in over the years. You might think you know them, but you don't. You give them a new script, a new scene, a new character, a new world to inhabit, and suddenly ‘Zing!’. They surprise you and nail it.”

She continued: “Every single project is so new and fresh. That's what I love about this job. I never get tired of it. I'm just excited by the next project.”

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