Casting for Free

Something for Nothing?

When the day comes for you to cast your ultra-low budget film (short or feature), you’re faced with a problem. You’ve already decided that you can’t afford to pay your actors (we looked at the ethics of not paying in the article Not Payingcoming soon), yet despite this you naturally want the best possible actors for your project.

Not only do you want the actors to match the age and look of their parts, you also want them to be talented actors — plus you’d even like them to have some “pull” or level of fame, as this would make it easier to attract investors and/or a distributor. But can you get any of this when you can’t pay anyone? Or are you doomed to using inappropriate and untalented actors or, worse still, will you have to use your non-actor friends?


Contacts, Contacts, Contacts

Well, the most obvious way of getting a talented and well-known actor to appear in your film is to know them, or know someone who knows them. Contacts are important in this industry, as they are in many others, so if you live next-door to a famous actor’s mother — start getting on good terms with your neighbour!

Now when I say “famous” I don’t necessarily mean Tom-Cruise-famous, as it’s unlikely that an actor earning that much money will be able to consider your little project. But you never know, as there are still some big-name actors out there who are willing to take a risk on a small project if they like you and your script, but getting your script to them can be tricky.

Fortunately there are other types of “fame”. A popular actor in a successful but minor TV series might be quite keen to make the jump to film, or a fairly well-known model/dancer/singer may have deep desires to act. Your low-risk project might be just what they’re looking for, and their face and name can lend your project that extra bit of credability.

Agents

But let’s face it, most film makers just starting out don’t know that many talented and/or famous actors well enough to just call them up and ask them to appear in their film. So your next stop is the agents, as they represent actors who are serious enough (and talented enough) to require representation. Start with the larger, well known agents in your area, as they typically will represent the best actors. Keep an eye out for the newer agents too though, as they are more likely to be keen to get their actors to auditions.

You might think that the moment you reveal the fact that you have no money to pay your actors the agents will automatically be really negative (after all, they earn their money on commission, and 10% of nothing is not much!). But you might be surprised at how open-minded the agents will be. You see, for all they know you are soon to be the next big thing in film making, and any contact their actors have with you could benefit everyone concerned. If they like you and your script, then they will send their actors to your auditions. You probably won’t get the top-rung actors from their books, but you’ll still get really talented people that will immeasurably add to the quality of your film.

Always Offer Something

So if you can’t offer your actors any money, what else can you offer them? Well, it depends on the exact nature of your project, but here are some of the things that actors (and more importantly their agents) like to hear when you contact them:

  • You’re a talented up-and-coming director. Yes I know this seems an odd thing to say about yourself, but it’s true isn’t it? Otherwise what are you doing all this for? If you just can’t bear to say this, then get your producer to call (assuming you aren’t your own producer!);
  • Your script is terrific, entertaining, and exciting. It is isn’t it?;
  • The part you’re casting is a great part, it’s challenging and rewarding and a real chance for the actor to show their stuff;
  • If there is a particular actor on the agent’s books that you’re looking for, then say so. It’s flattering when a film maker says they are after a particular actor;
  • The film will be entered in numerous film festivals. And it has been pre-sold domestically and internationally. Or you’re talking to distributors now and they’re interested in the project. Or it’s been sold to cable TV. Or commercial TV. Or public TV. In other words, the film is going to be widely seen;
  • If you’re shooting on 35mm, say so – it has a credibility all of it’s own. If it’s 16mm, say so – at least it’s film. If you’re shooting on video, stress the broadcast quality of the gear you’ll be using;
  • Your crew are really talented and efficient, and work to a professional standard. Dispel the notion that it’s just you and a couple of pals slapping together an ameteurish effort. If you have a crew member with something of a reputation (say, the DoP or the production designer), say so. You’re going to make the film (and the actor) look like a million dollars.
  • You are happy to travel to the agent’s business to drop off the script and look through their books. If the agent’s actors meet regularly for acting workshops, offer to go there to meet them, rather than making them attend auditions. In short, make your project require very little work from the agent and actors; and
  • Offer to provide transport for the actor/s if they agree to do the film. Stress how good the catering will be. Schedule the film so that the actor/s are needed for the minimum number of days. In other words, the film is going to be a pleasant experience for them.
  • So as you can see, you may not be offering any money, but you sure aren’t getting something for nothing. And that’s as it should be — talented actors are a vital part of what makes most films work.


    The Truth, The Whole Truth…

    This might seem obvious, but it needs saying — tell the truth!! Don’t make any claims for your film that you can’t reasonably achieve. Don’t claim distributor interest unless there is some. Don’t claim it’s 35mm when it’s 16mm. Don’t say it will be sent all over the world and then never even finish it. You might get away with “padding the truth” (in fact a little of this is even expected), but if you lie you will be found out. You might get away with it once, but never again — remember agents and actors talk to each other…

    All this might seem like a lot of effort when you can just get your friends to act in your no-budget films, but trust me. Once you’ve used professional actors, and experienced the joy of seeing your lines spoken with timing and believability, there is no going back.

    Originally written for About.com’s Filmmaking page.