As with all industries, building relationships in the entertainment business is really important. One of the most enjoyable working experiences I have been lucky enough to nurture over the last couple years is with a talented director who apprenticed with Federico Fellini.
Most of you have seen his work on a bunch of Hollywood blockbusters as an art illustrator, but he has begun to dabble in directing. We recently completed our third project together, and I hope to continue to be his favorite casting director.
Our most recent collaboration was a short film. I can’t tell you much about it due to the NDAs the cast and crew and I signed. All you really need to know is that it’s a magical piece infused with wonderment, and the lead character is a young boy about eight years old. He is the heart and soul of the film, and finding him was like trying to cast the first Harry Potter, only harder because this boy doesn’t speak in the film.
His entire performance is through his facial expressions and reactions, while we, the audience, experience his fantastical journey through those eyes. Kids that young aren’t known for having much of a developed inner life, and almost none have the discipline to turn in that kind of subtle performance for the camera.
I knew I would recognize this ability when I saw it; I just had to find a child actor who could improvise through an entire audition without having read the script. Did I forget to mention that part? The director and producer felt it best not to give out the script or explain the story to the actors until final callbacks. But when dealing with child actors, casting must explain everything to the parents before the child comes in, as well as to any agents and managers involved.
“There’s no sides or script?” asks the mom or dad.
“No, just some improv.”
“Well, what are they going to be doing exactly?”
It’s a fair question, one I didn’t know the answer to right away. I would be improvising as well. The role in question is of a prodigy, and requires the child to create beautiful things with his hands. The director wanted to see each auditioning actor work with his hands, as well as various reactions to people he encounters throughout his journey.
So how did I coax kids into conveying all that on camera while they didn’t have any idea of the whole story? I appealed to their sense of play. I bought four different colors of Play-Doh, and had them make me things while I gave them simple scenarios to react to, with the camera rolling the whole time. This worked on two levels: It gave them something to do, and an organic place to start from. Luckily, every actor was willing to play along with me. I can only hope they found it as much fun as I did.
I love my job, but what made this one particular project exceptional is the feeling I found a future star. Furthermore, the short will premiere in Florence, Italy, and the boy and his family will be flown there to walk the red carpet.