Confessions of a Casting Director

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castingBeth Schiff has been casting commercials, TV shows, and films for almost 15 years. We caught up with her recently to get the inside scoop on the casting couch.

Want to get behind the scenes yourself? Read on for tips on how to cast ... and be cast.


Q. Hi Beth! Casting director sounds like a cool job. How did you get your big break?

A. I really fell into casting. I studied TV and film at the University of Florida and always knew I wanted to work in the business somehow. I'm not necessarily a big movie buff, and I don't follow a lot of TV shows religiously, but being behind the scenes fascinated me.

When I graduated I moved to Baltimore, where I'm from. Every city has their film office, and I started volunteering there. When a movie came through town the casting department needed help, and that's how I ended up working on Major League II. It wasn't a blockbuster, but it was a great experience. After that, I signed on with a local casting agency in the Baltimore/DC area and worked on everything from local and regional commercials to print ads, industrial/training films, and more.

Q. How have things changed since those days?

A. There was no Internet then, so we arranged huge open calls by coordinating with TV stations or partnering with bars to get people to come down. We'd take Polaroids and file them away for reference.

Now, with Craigslist, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, you can put the word out to such a wide variety of people you don't really need to get the media involved for a large call. For smaller castings, usually we contact agents and managers directly.

Q. Speaking of agents, is the Entourage portrayal of the industry realistic?

A. It is very competitive -- the agents and managers are always pushing their people, even if they're not right.

Q. Give us a taste of a day in your work life.

A. There's not really a typical day. Casting really has four parts:

1. Outreach/Research: letting people know what I'm looking for.

2. Sorting/Scheduling: figuring out who is right for the job; who I want to call in and interview.

3. Auditions/Interviews: actually conducting auditions in the studio. This might be 10 to 15 minutes per person and often includes a quick interview to gauge personality, find out what they look like on camera, and get a read of the copy. (Beth Tip: Before going in for an interview, do your research. Know what the job is, when they need you, what you should wear, and any copy you should learn!)

4. Follow-Up: tying up loose ends and actually booking the talent for the job.

Q. What would you say are the best and worst things about what you do?

A. The best thing about casting is meeting so many different people and being able to afford them opportunities. It's great to see people progress. One of the women who comes to mind is Diane Neal, who now has a recurring role in Law and Order: SVU. We used to see her for commercials and voiceovers.

The most challenging and sometimes frustrating thing is that we are rarely given enough time to do the research and interview/audition process.

Q. What kind of pay can people who work in casting expect?

A. If you're starting out as a casting assistant (my assistants do everything from helping me put calls out and getting confirmations to helping facilitate the audition and meeting and greeting) you'll probably make from $100 to $150 a day. As a director the rate is more like $300 to $500 per day. Each project and budget is different. Commercials tend to have the highest budgets.

Q. Is there any show that you feel doesn't work due to poor casting?

A. I love certain shows because of the cast, like Glee and Weeds. They have such great characters and I think they were cast well. There are similar shows where it doesn't work, but I don't want to name names. Casting can make or break a show. If you don't have someone who can pull off the role, it doesn't work.

Q. As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? What's your dream job now?

A. Even when I was young, I knew I wanted to work in TV and film. I did an internship in high school at the local news station, sitting at the assignment desk, going out with reporters, and sitting in with the editors. In college I continued to do internships in TV and radio.

My dream job would be to work for a network as the head of casting and talent development, or to really be the go-to casting director for several types of projects -- indie films, commercials, and theater. I've never cast for theater, but I'd love to. I'm looking to get my feet wet with some smaller theatrical productions and readings.

Q. How has the industry been impacted by the recession?

A. Business is slower overall and budgets are lower, which means less time and money for casting. There are also so many people now who can take video on iPhones and upload and produce their own videos. ... I don't think that casting directors will be eliminated, but people are taking on what they think they can do themselves.

Q. What are you casting now?

A. I'm currently in between gigs. I just wrapped casting the new season of the Food Network's Chopped and casting for a host for SyFy.com.

One negative about casting is that job security is low. There used to be a time when ad agencies and production companies had casting directors on staff, but now many of us are freelance. It's more of a free-for-all about who you know.

Q. Are you ever unhappy with the end result of something you've cast?

A. With a lot of commercials, I'm like, Oh, that's how it turned out. Casting directors don't usually get the final say. It's a collaboration with the final client who is paying the production costs. I just make recommendations and hope that they're followed.

Q. What's your all-time favorite project?

A. Right now, I'd have to say Chopped. We met and interviewed hundreds of chefs, got to understand the culinary world, and worked with a great casting team as well as with the Food Network.

Q. What would you say to those who aspire to follow in your footsteps?

A. What's really important is great communication and administrative skills with some creativity and ability to think on your feet. The job is more administrative and a lot more intense than people think. You have to be extremely organized, diplomatic, somewhat tech savvy, and up on the latest in the TV/film/Internet world.

Check the websites: entertainmentcareers.com, mandy.com, craigslist.com. And definitely apply for an internship; I had some great ones. If you want to be an extra, try Craigslist for open calls. Make sure to do your research.

If you are curious about people and want them to do their best, you can excel. Remember: If the talent looks good, you look good!

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