Kim Williams’ nephews, who are in college, recently started watching the ’90s sitcom “Martin” and raved about it to their father — how funny it was, how great the characters were and how great the cast was.
“My brother’s standing there, waiting for them to finish, and then he’s like, ‘You know your aunt cast that, right?’” Williams said.
She laughed. “They pull it up onscreen and go to the credits, and they’re like, ‘Wait, she cast this?’”
“Martin,” which premiered in 1992, was the very first pilot that Williams, now the president of the Casting Society, cast on her own. She knew Martin Lawrence, and when her boss at HBO asked if she’d be interested in casting his show, she was thrilled.
She said the role of Pam was the one her team struggled the most to cast. They saw a lot of people, and no one felt right. Tichina Arnold wasn’t initially available to audition because she was out of town. But one Saturday, Williams was grabbing lunch at the original Johnny Rockets location on Melrose Avenue, and she saw Arnold sitting at the counter.
Williams walked over to her and introduced herself. Turned out Arnold’s schedule had changed and she happened to be back in Los Angeles.
“She came in [to audition], and we all fell in love,” she said. “And boom, we have this amazing cast for this show.
“I have other stories like that over the course of my career,” she continued. “That’s the thing that just fuels me and makes me so excited every time I step onto a new project: all that magic coming together in the right way at the right time.”
Getting to that point isn’t easy, casting professionals say. What it takes to find the perfect ensemble can be hard to describe.
“A lot of people think that it’s as simple as, ‘Oh, hire Tom Cruise for the movie,’” Williams said. “And it’s like, no. Who are the other 49 people who are critical to telling this story and bringing these characters to life?”
The Times asked four Hollywood insiders — Williams and Jessica Daniels, vice presidents of casting at Disney Television Studios; Ed Duffy, vice president of Teamsters Local 399, which bargains on behalf of casting associates and directors; and Josh Ropiequet, associate casting director at Lowry-Johnson/Goldstein Casting — to share some of their Hollywood casting experiences and give advice on how to get into the industry. Here are their insights and tips.
Who becomes a casting director?
Williams says she caught the casting bug on the very first day of her first casting internship.
“I just loved the energy,” she said. “There was so much happening. Phones are ringing off the hook. People are coming in and out. There are stacks of pictures.”
And then Steven Spielberg called. An actor had fallen out of a role in his movie, and they needed to find a replacement. She watched the casting director quickly rattle off a long list of actors from memory, “and I remember thinking, I have no idea what just happened or what he just did, but I want to be able to do that,” she said.
Casting directors are the ones who scour the large talent pool of actors, looking for the best recommendations to present to the project’s main decision-makers. They are not agents. The term “casting agent,” which is often misused by people outside of the industry, confuses the role of a casting director with the role of a talent agent. Talent agents represent actors; casting directors do not.
There are a lot of considerations that go into finding each person, and part of being a casting director is building a database, scheduling and keeping track of budgets.
“Organization is really key,” said Williams, who worked on projects like Netflix’s “Narcos,” Fox’s “Glee” and Tyler Perry’s “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” “It’s really important to be able to both time-manage and keep track of a lot of names and availabilities.”
It helps to be a people person if you’re going to go into casting, Daniels said, because you’re dealing with a host of actors, directors, producers, executives and other casting professionals.
“I’ve always loved putting together dinner parties and introducing friends,” she said. “There’s something about putting together the best cast where everyone falls in love that is like that.”
Aspiring casting directors also should know that it’s not a 9-to-5 job, said Duffy. People who work in casting are always watching TV shows and movies. They are often going to plays and film festivals on weekends, watching showcases late at night and scrolling through social media to learn about new talent.
“I joke with my friends sometimes, where I’ll say, ‘I need to stop working and watch reality shows,’” said Williams. “Because otherwise I’m on my phone, looking up, ‘Who is this person?’ And I may not have a specific role for them, but if there’s something special about them, I’m like, ‘OK, I gotta keep them in my back pocket,’ because I know at some point, I’m going to want to pull them out for something.”
How do you get started?
There are numerous ways to gain entry into the casting field. A number of companies, including Disney, ViacomCBS and Amazon Studios, offer casting internships. There are colleges and universities that have casting programs. The Casting Society of America has an education and training program for students in Los Angeles and New York. Broadway for Racial Justice also has a nine-week training program to offer casting experience for people of color who want to break into the industry.
But most people start by getting a job as a casting assistant.
When Ropiequet moved to Los Angeles about a decade ago, he worked as a casting assistant for six different casting offices before joining Lowry-Johnson/Goldstein Casting, where he’s worked on projects including Showtime’s “Yellowjackets,” Netflix’s “The Killing” and Amazon’s upcoming “Night Sky.”
“Most people do bounce around a little bit until they land somewhere,” he said. “And then that becomes their primary office.”
He said it’s common to be an assistant for anywhere from one to four years before you get a shot at being a casting associate. “It depends on how many projects you’re able to accumulate, and how much work experience you’re able to build up,” he said.
Daniels — whose work includes casting series like NBC’s “30 Rock,” Hulu’s “Deadbeat” and Freeform’s “Single Drunk Female,” which she worked on with Williams — said the majority of the casting jobs are in Los Angeles, though there are various hubs across the country, including New York, Chicago and Atlanta. She now works in the New York Disney casting office, and the benefit of working in casting in New York is that you can scope out talent at Broadway shows.
If you’re just starting out, Daniels advises keeping a journal documenting which movies, shows or other performances you’ve seen. What moved you? Which actors make you laugh, cry or feel angry?
Williams calls it building your casting muscle, learning to hone and refine your taste. There’s also something intuitive about the process, professionals say. When the casting team find the right match, they can feel it.
Ropiequet remembered watching Sophie Thatcher’s self-recorded audition (a “self-tape,” in industry parlance) for the role of teen Natalie in “Yellowjackets.”
“The producers told us the next day that they had rewatched the audition 11 times that night, because she so truly was that character,” he said. “Even just sitting at her desk on a self-tape.”
What are the career paths?
In general, the pathway is to go from casting assistant to casting associate to casting director. The roles of each vary depending on the project.
A casting assistant does entry-level work casting a film or TV show. They are often tasked with more of the paperwork, Ropiequet explained — compiling lists of actors, checking availability and generating deal memos and contracts.
Casting associates get to be more creative and have more input in the casting. And casting directors are the ones managing the entire process and communicating with all the stakeholders to figure out what everyone wants from the role.
The responsibilities of the casting director also will depend on whether they’re working on a small independent film, a bigger-budget movie or a television show. Although television and film can be divergent career tracks in other entertainment fields, Duffy said that many in the casting industry are able to jump back and forth between film, television and streaming projects.
Casting directors in independent films often are brought in early in the process, and sometimes the big-name actors they recruit to the project can essentially get the film greenlit, said Daniels.
She worked on Desiree Akhavan’s 2018 “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” about a teenager sent to a gay conversion-therapy center. The film struggled to get funding and was on the verge of falling apart.
“Then Chloë Grace Moretz had dropped out of a big tentpole movie and announced that she just wanted to do something meaningful, so we jumped on it and got her attached,” said Daniels. “That’s what triggered the financing of the movie, and everything came together.”
When casting for studio films and television shows, there are many more people who need to approve the casting decisions — including casting executives. Executives who work for studios like Disney or The CW often do less of the nitty-gritty work of finding the actors. Instead, they oversee their company’s projects to make sure the casting decisions are aligned with their company brand.
Williams and Daniels are both casting executives but they have gone back and forth between casting for studios and for independent producers over the course of their careers.
“Most of the jobs in casting are freelance; it’s gig work,” said Williams. “Even when you go to the studio side, where there’s the idea of stability, when regimes change, they might want new people. That’s just the way things work. Nothing is forever forever.”
But if you work for an established office that always has projects in the works, it becomes more of a steady gig, Ropiequet said.
How do you make money? (And what kind of money?)
Casting assistants are not covered by the union contract, and they often earn close to minimum wage, depending on the project, said Duffy. They get a rate similar to what production assistants make.
Once you become a casting associate, you’re represented by Teamsters Local 399 Hollywood. You won’t need any credits or hours worked in casting to join the union, he said, but it often doesn’t make sense to join until you get hired as a casting associate.
The minimum rate for TV casting associates is $1,330 a week — $19 per hour based on a 60-hour work week.
Other rates — for casting directors in feature films or TV — are generally higher and negotiable, Duffy said.
“It’s all over the map, depending on the budget and how much work you do,” he said. Those who are more prominent and in-demand typically negotiate for more.
How is this career different than it was 10 or 25 years ago?
When she started, Daniels said, there were VHS tapes, hard copies of headshots and lots of mail crates.
“Now that everything’s online, it’s a lot easier, but I think there’s also an expectation that things can happen immediately,” she said, “which sort of undermines the process.”
The pandemic also shifted auditions from in-person to self-tapes and, for actors who make the first cuts, Zoom callbacks — which was an adjustment but also gave more actors an opportunity to compete for a role.
There are also more international searches nowadays, said Duffy, as productions aim to appeal to global audiences. “Since there are a lot more people to look through, it’s tough on casting,” he said. “They’re inundated.”
Ropiequet agreed that the workload has gone up. “But I think it’s good in the long run, in terms of what we’re able to accomplish and how many more people we’re able to see,” he said.
He expects that moving forward, there will be a hybrid of in-person, self-taped and Zoom auditions.
“There’s something about being able to just do it in the room, have that energy and feel that back-and-forth with an actor,” said Ropiequet. “And also just giving a note off the cuff and saying, ‘All right, let’s do it again.’ … Zoom callbacks are helpful for that, but it’s still not quite the same in terms of the end result and the actual feeling of an audition.”
What advice do pros always hear that is wrong?
Casting directors hear a lot of advice about whom to cast in which role, but that’s often because people assume they have more power over a production than they really do.
“Yes, we are doing what we can to make sure that we’re getting the best actors, in our minds, for the role,” said Ropiequet. “But at the same time, we’ve had to start from square one in a few cases, because one producer or one executive somewhere just can’t see it.”
That’s why it’s important to be flexible if you’re working in casting.
“At the end of the day, you’re presenting your director or your producers with a curated group of choices,” said Daniels. “You are not choosing the actor, and you need to be OK with letting them find their own way.”
What’s some good advice?
Take some acting, improv or directing classes. These skills are helpful during an audition, said Daniels, where often casting directors are reading with the actors or encouraging them to try to read the scene in different ways.
“A lot of times I’ll have the pages in front of me but I’ve done the scene enough that I don’t have to look down,” said Ropiequet, who has a background in theater. “And there was one time where I was really in it and very much acting from the chair opposite an actor, and she was so taken aback by that, that I had the pages in my lap but didn’t even touch them.”
He laughs. “It’s not necessary, but I’ve heard that a lot of actors at least appreciate having more of a scene partner.”
Be confident in your unique tastes. Daniels said that when she hires her casting team, she’s looking for someone who has different tastes and interests than she does. “That gives me a wider swath of top talent to discover,” she said.
You can figure out the assistant-level paperwork. It’s generally better not to exaggerate your qualifications, but Ropiequet advises those who want to become casting assistants to say that they know how to do the paperwork.
“There were times where I would be interviewed at places, and they’d ask, ‘Have you done these before?’ and I think the fact that I answered ‘no’ probably stopped me from getting those jobs,” he said.
Just say yes, because the parts of the deal memos and contracts that the assistants are in charge of are not that hard to do, he said. “I was able to learn how to do those within two hours,” he said. “It’s really straightforward.”