“I first saw Daniel Craig starring in the play Marat Sade as part of National Youth Theatre. I knew immediately that he was going to be a star” Jane Frisby recalls. As a casting director with a career spanning thirty years, Jane has spotted and launched the acting careers of many a household name that first walked through her audition door as fresh-faced novice talent. Originally a graduate of Mountview Theatre School in technical backstage theatre, Jane became a veteran of screen casting, selecting faces for commercials that have become a staunch part of our popular culture: Go Compare, Sheila’s Wheels, I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter, working with renowned director Lasse Halstrom (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) – and countless more. Jane’s first feature film casting was for Channel 4’s Turbulence where she cast a sixteen-year old Kelly Marcel in the lead who went on to write the screenplay for Saving Mr. Banks and Fifty Shades of Grey. This was followed by Hear My Song (where she discovered and cast James Nesbitt and Tara Fitzgerald), Shopping (Jude Law’s first feature film) and Boston Kickout with John Simm, Andy Lincoln and Marc Warren. Jane also casts for theatre, corporate films, leading film schools, and most recently ventured into producing her first feature film, The Fighter’s Ballad (winner of 12 Indie film awards), for her production company Yellow Dolphin Films. A keen fringe theatre enthusiast and supporter, Jane recently cast the play Portia Coughlan at the Old Red Lion Theatre for Aria Entertainment, Top Dog Underdog for the Dublin Theatre Festival and also hosts audition advice workshops for actors.
1. You originally trained on the technical course at Mountview Theatre School in London (now Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts). Tell us about your journey from stage management into the casting arena.
At Mountview I was surrounded by props, sets and technical equipment. But I missed working with people and found myself gravitating towards the actors as they were far more interesting than sets and tech. I thought about becoming a make-up artist but somehow that didn’t seem to fit. Someone suddenly just suggested casting to me and it resonated. I love to read and have always mentally placed actors in the roles in books. So casting was a natural match for me. After getting some advice of how to go about casting, I first got a job working for an agent – Peter Crouch in 1983. I learnt an awful lot, looking after clients such as Glenda Jackson and Amanda Redman regularly coming to our offices. A year later, casting director Liz Cassidy (who had originally given me careers advice) moved next door to Peter Crouch’s office. She asked me whether I was still interested in entering the casting field and then essentially poached me from Peter! After three years of working for Liz, I then spent some time working for Hubbards Casting. A complete baptism of fire, I had a literally non-stop fantastic experience casting commercial after commercial and learning to multi-task, project manage and make creative decisions confidently and quickly.
In 1986 I had a severe car accident which left me hospitalised for four months. It gave me time to contemplate where I really wanted to be and so in 1987 I decided to set up my own freelance casting service. It was a very tough start: Non-stop letter writing, hitting the phones and trying to get my name out there. This was tricky, as of course producers and directors tend to use those casting directors again and again that they already have a relationship with. Eventually, a genius marketing gag from my dad did the trick when he handed out actual Frisbee discs bearing my name and logo to creative offices in Soho. The next day Mel Smith gave me a call and gave me my first commercial casting job – and I went from there. I also found work through complete chance. One evening I was at the pub with my dad and left my cardigan behind. Actor Peter Chelsom (renowned for his work at the National Theatre) followed me to hand me my forgotten item. Shortly after, I read in the paper that he was moving into directing. Somehow my father found his address, I met Chelsom at his house and he gave me a small commercial to cast as a try-out. He was so pleased with my work that I ended up casting all of his commercials and then moved into feature films for him from there.
2. Describe a standard casting process. How do you initially choose which actors to audition and how do you then test them to see if they are right for the part?
Initially when a script comes in, actors that I am already aware of pop into my head for certain roles. I then look at Spotlight (the UK’s leading casting directory) where I send my audition briefs out to actors direct, as well as agents and invite those to audition who seem most suitable. Castings can take place in a variety of places – a room, a studio – it all depends on what the producer of that particular project prefers. Every casting job is totally different because every producer and director has a different process. Sometimes they are not present at all and I do the casting alone. Some like to see actors on their own, while others invite them to audition in pairs. Some like a brief five minute casting, others have 20 minute in depth conversations with the actors including monologues, scene readings or even improvisation. It is impossible to set a pro forma really. Feature films usually take a lot more time to cast while with commercials it’s in and out as time is money. I then make recommendations to the director and producer of whom to cast but the final decision lies with them. Essentially, I am the facilitator between the creative production team, the agents and the acting community.
Many producers are now fans of street casting (where roles are cast with actual members of the public rather than professional actors). They may literally ask a casting director to stand at a street corner and stop suitable random pensioners and ask them to audition. I personally am not a fan of this method because members of the public who are not a part of the entertainment business often don’t understand the process. They think they can change the time/date of their audition or filming, turn up late, not learn their lines. I believe street casting can work with children however, it has to be done in a certain way as a casting director. For a KFC commercial I wrote to local schools and asked for permission to sit in the playground to spot suitable kids. Why do producers and director prefer casting non-actors? Because they think it comes across as “more real”. My answer to this is simple: If you’ve seen actors act then you have seen bad actors. The whole point of a good actor is that you don’t realise they are acting!
3. How can actors get on your radar without agent representation or if they don’t have the required training or experience?
I am very happy for actors (also without agent representation) to get in touch with me and send through their CV and photo. It does not always matter that you have not had any prior specific screen experience – as long as you are willing to do the work and learn. I also recommend Monologue Slam at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Audition with a monologue and if you get through you can take part in their regular evening competition events, which take place in front of an industry audience and a professional judging panel, which I am regularly a part of. Actors can also invite agents, casting directors, directors, etc. to these events. The prizes are very worthwhile – win a trip to LA or meetings with agents. I used to go to drama school showcases regularly but unfortunately the diversity of actors and standard of performance has really dropped. Everyone tends to look the same and where are the working class actors? I much prefer visiting fringe theatre productions to spot new talent and am always open to invitations from actors to these.
4. Last year you produced your first feature film, The Fighter’s Ballad and its trailer was chosen by director Danny Boyle (director of Slumdog Millionaire) for the East London festival event Shuffle. What are the biggest hurdles for film producers?
As a film producer, I took part in the Seed Enterprise Investment (SEIS) Scheme, which is designed to help small, early-stage companies raise equity finance by offering tax reliefs to individual investors who purchase new shares in those companies. Funding is available of up to 150k, which is why most low budget feature films have a budget in this region. Producers always like to cast a household name as it just makes it easier to find a sales agent to get attached to the project and receive further funding. The most difficult part as a producer is finding a way to use unknown but brilliant actors without losing the whole project and keeping the investors and all external parties on board when the risk of achieving buy-in is increased. In terms of my first producing project The Fighter’s Ballad, I met writer/actor Peter Cadwell who originally wrote it the screenplay as a vehicle for the stage. I was totally hooked as it was the best piece of writing I had read in many years. I just had to produce it and eventually it morphed into a film script rather than a play. Peter has since written another stunning Celtic warrior epic feature. The Stolen Sun, which we are producing, will start shooting next summer with Brendan Coyle (Mr. Bates from Downton Abbey) and Clive Russell in the cast.
5. What are some of the tough realities of being a casting director?
Many people think we are constantly busy – and too busy to reply to actors, see actors in their productions, or audition unknown actors. This is only half true. As a casting director it’s very much an all or nothing life – one week you can’t breathe, the next week it’s deadly quiet. It’s very rare that I am continually too busy to think about anything but my current casting brief. I also believe that it is your responsibility as a casting director to include time in your schedule to see new actors, view showreels, watch TV and stage shows. Another difficulty is dealing with the fact of actors not being available. So you may have confirmed your perfect line of casting – but in the meantime one of the actors has taken another job, their agent demands more money than the budget can offer or the director has changed their mind about the brief of a role. The casting director then has to make sure to find a (more) suitable replacement.
Actors can also hinder the process by not turning up to auditions or arriving late, not reading the script they have been sent to read/learn and generally showing a lack of preparation and professionalism. It can also be tough to juggle between actors and directors expectations. On the one hand they want the script learnt but I once had a case where I was told the actor wouldn’t be cast because she was “too prepared”. The director feared that she was too formed and completed and hence wouldn’t be able to take direction. My advice would be, come as a blank canvas having made an acting choice but be prepared to change it and be redirected if required.
6. What makes a good casting director and where do you see the future of this important role heading?
You need an instinct for people and the craft. It’s that gut feeling. And working with different directors, keeping yourself open, having no set way of completing the casting process. Adjust to producers. In terms of commercials – you have to be able to work really fast. And you are selling a product and a brand so it can be a much more corporate rather than just creative process. It is of course still about the acting – I cast some of the best comedians in commercials. Paul Whitehouse. Sasha Baron Cohen.
I have no idea where the industry is heading. There are so many casting directors now. When I first started there was a union and you had to work as an assistant for three years before you received your ACCT card. Now that we have no unions, anything can happen. Anyone can set up to be a casting director. To be successful you need to remember that you are essentially the central lynchpin for the director and producer and are project managing to keep within budget and negotiating contracts with agents.
7. Can you mention some actors whom you originally discovered and who are now well-known?
Jude Law whom I first saw at National Youth Music Theatre and the Hampstead Theatre. James Nesbitt whom I discovered at the Central School of Speech and Drama showcase. Tara Fitzgerald and John Simm were also showcase spotted – at The Drama Centre. Andrew Lincoln at Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA).
8. What has been your worst casting experience?
Many years ago, a journalist followed me and requested to write an article about my casting process. I was wined, dined and wooed so I agreed to let them be a fly on the wall for a day. At the time, we were casting Chinese actors and when they arrived to audition – they all looked too old. This was because there had been a mix up in playing ages and none of us had realised that Chinese people can often look much younger in person than their age on paper. So there was great confusion and it was rather a messy day with an unhappy producing team. Unfortunately the journalist decided to turn this into a story all about my incompetency as a casting director and portrayed me in a very bad light.
9. What are your future aspirations – career or personal?
I would love to cast more theatre. I am also very keen to get a new feature film off the ground through Yellow Dolphin Films based on the fabulous stage play By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr, which is set in rural middle Ireland and is a bit like an Irish version of Medea.
10. Who is your inspiration and what do you believe makes an inspiring woman?
The writer Daphne du Maurier (the film Don’t Look Now was based on her short story). The Bronte Sisters. I absolutely love books and read all the time. I think in another life I would have been a literary agent! I believe an inspirational woman is somebody who takes risks, isn’t afraid of doing something different and breaks the mould. I try to do a little bit of that every day.
To find out more about Jane Frisby, please visit http://www.janefrisbycasting.com/