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6 Tips For Hiring Star Talent From A Top Hollywood Casting Director

The particular genius of casting directors is showcased in "Casting By," which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Here, wisdom from that film and from top casting director Ellen Chenoweth on what Hollywood casting can teach you about finding, interviewing, and hiring your next star.

A film’s success depends on perfect casting just as much as a company’s success depends on hiring the right talent. No one understands this better in Hollywood than casting directors. They know that a movie with great potential can be hobbled by a miscast character, and a mediocre movie can be elevated by a stroke of genius casting.

Last week, casting directors got their moment in the spotlight with the premiere of Casting By at the Toronto Film Festival. Acquired by HBO, the documentary sings the praises of the industry’s top casting directors, in particular the late Marion Dougherty, whom many consider to be the pioneer of modern-day casting. Director Tom Donahue interviews an impressive lineup of luminaries, including Jeff Bridges, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Jon Voight, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese, and unearths some entertaining tales of casting woes and cringe-worthy first gigs.

We mined the film for some tips on hiring the perfect candidate, with some additional insights from casting director Ellen Chenoweth, who’s featured in the film and has cast films like Diner, Broadcast News, The Horse Whisperer, Michael Clayton, and numerous Coen brothers movies.

Don’t wait for candidates to come to you

Casting directors don’t sit in their office waiting for the perfect headshot and resume to cross their desk. They’re out in the field, scouting for new talent, consulting agents and teachers who can recommend fresh faces. "I go to a lot of plays," says Chenoweth. "I tend to prefer the off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway more than the Broadway shows. That’s where I see people that I might not know. I have a lot of acting teacher friends that I call, particularly if I’m looking for someone new or a little bit younger. I’ll go to their acting classes and watch people." Even when you’re not actively hiring, keep your eyes open for talent you may want to hire down the road.

Don’t always go with the most obvious candidate

Back in the day, studios hired actors to play the same type again and again. If a studio needed someone to play a doctor, they referred to their list of contract actors to see who had already played a doctor. When they needed a pin-up girl, they consulted their list of tried-and-true pin-up girls. This left little room for innovative performances. As the Hollywood star system waned in the 1950s, though, directors and casting directors started making more creative choices—and this sometimes meant hiring an actor who didn’t look the part, such as Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. In Casting By, Hoffman admits in an archival interview that he initially didn’t think he was tall and Anglo-Saxon enough to play Benjamin Braddock. Director Mike Nichols reassured him, "Inside, Benjamin Braddock is short and Jewish."

When Chenoweth cast the role of an idiotic gym buff in Burn After Reading, she bypassed comedians and picked a less obvious choice—Brad Pitt, in one of his most inspired roles in recent years. "It’s the goofiest role I’d seen him play," she recalls.

Don’t dismiss a promising candidate based on a bad interview

Bad auditions need not be the last stop for an actor who otherwise holds lots of promise—and the same goes for any job candidate. Every actor has a bad day, and an impressive resume should speak to their ability more than a one-off interview. Says Chenoweth, "Sometimes I’ll say to a director, ‘I know they can do better. I know that they’re right for this in a way that they didn’t show you. Let me show you this HBO movie that he did, or let me tell you about a play I saw her in where she really was funny.’" Sometimes she calls actors in for a second audition, if she senses they were off their game the first time around. Indeed, when Dougherty first met Gene Hackman, she was not impressed—but she saw his potential. "He’s 6 foot 2, saw him off Broadway," she wrote on a note card. "His reading was nothing, but I believe he could be very good. Especially as a gentle, big, dumb nice guy."

Fight for your first choice

Your first choice may not always go over well with colleagues and bosses, but if you believe in your candidate, fight for him or her before you concede. That’s how Jon Voight got cast in his first and arguably most iconic film, Midnight Cowboy. Dougherty insisted on casting Voight in the role of Joe Buck, despite director John Schlesinger’s preference for Michael Sarrazin. Though she’d only worked with Voight on one television episode, she saw his potential and was determined to find him work. When Sarrazin’s schedule conflicted with Midnight Cowboy, Schlesinger took Dougherty’s advice and hired Voight.

If possible, take your time

"There are some directors who just want to get it done and make decisions," says Chenoweth. "Sometimes you have to try to slow it down and say I have a few more people I really want you to see before you decide." For True Grit, she considered thousands of girls before singling out Hailee Steinfeld. "I like spending a lot of time fine-tuning all the small characters. I think it really pays off."

Look for strengths that the candidate might not even be aware of

The best casting directors have an intuition for an actor’s strengths—ones that the actor may not even be aware of. If you spot these strengths, you can decide how the candidate will best suit your needs. "It’s about being open-minded, where you think maybe someone who’s just played heroic parts could play a more villainous part," says Chenoweth. "Or maybe you’ll see something more sweet in somebody who hasn’t really shown that side." Chenoweth cites Mickey Rourke. "He’s an example of someone who had a really sweet, vulnerable side but he didn’t really want to play that," she remembers from casting him in one of his earliest films, Diner. "He was just attracted to the grittier side of things and wanted to play those roles. Then when he did Diner, he wasn’t really that happy with it. I think because the part showed a lot of vulnerability and I don’t think he really liked showing it."

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  • Billy DaMota

    Awesome advice from a legend in the casting world.  It's casting directors like this who make me proud I chose this profession nearly 30 years ago.  I only hope more up-and-coming casting associates and assistants aspire to the ideals that Chenoweth sets forth.  And while most casting directors featured in Casting By operate by these same standards and more - seeing theatre, visiting acting classes, attending graduating showcases, doing general interviews (remember those?) and supporting free SAG-AFTRA events as a part of their job, the film fails to touch on the casting profession's biggest "dirty little secret" as the Hollywood Reporter called it a few years ago.  There are far too many casting directors who continue to cross the ethical boundaries of their profession on a daily basis and charge actors for access to their casting offices in what are jokingly referred to as "workshops".  The "job developers" are charging the "job seekers" for an interview.  In any other profession, this kind of behavior would not be tolerated, and it certainly shouldn't be tolerated by this profession.

    Casting is one of the few professions represented in the main titles in nearly every Hollywood film that has failed to be recognized by the Academy for its most coveted prize.  Casting directors deserve an Oscar.  But until they take this issue on and stop allowing a small number among their ranks to charge a fee for access to their shows and offices, in my opinion, the Oscars will remain out of reach for all who deserve the recognition.

    Billy DaMota CSA

  • Maja Kowalski

    Thank you so much for this article! I have been trying to convey these exact messages to recruitment agents and hiring managers for quite a long time. There is so much we can all learn from the movie industry that applies to any business or project. Thanks again!


    I love this post, but don't think it applies just to casting. I recruit talent for my production company, editors, camera crew, animators, and try to take the same approach. The most important for me are not going with the most obvious candidate and giving someone who performed badly in an interview a second chance.