Casting Director on Production in COVID-19 and Finding New Voices

(Featured image courtesy of Liz Rosa)

A cast can make or break a film. No matter how great the writing is or how stunning the visuals are, if the performances fail the material, a whole entire project could crash and burn. There are endless droves of people out in the world just hoping to make it on the big screen, and finding just the right name for the job is an incredibly heavy responsibility. Much of that responsibility falls on the shoulders of people like Tina Marie McCulloch, Canada-based casting director.

McCulloch first sets herself apart from most casting directors just with her background: acting. Though it may seem obvious that a casting director would have a background in acting, this actually sets Tina Marie apart in a unique way. “I understand the process of auditioning and how much work goes into the preparation. I also remember the nerves walking into the audition room, so I am a lot more forgiving if an actor forgets their lines and needs to start over.”

But how did McCulloch make the jump from acting to casting, especially with the daunting task of creating her own business? For her, it started with the simple changes that she saw needed to be made in the industry. “You would always see the same actors going into auditions, and new talent was rarely seen.” A popular actor headlining a film can draw in a lot more viewers, but it becomes repetitive when the same small group of faces seem to be appearing in every big project.

Right after McCulloch receives the script and goes over the character breakdowns, she often looks through her casting director workshops (as well as her own private TMC Talks) to find new talent to embody the brand-new role. Of course, the rise of social media has made fresh faces even more readily accessible, so she will frequently look through Instagram for some more unknown talent as well. That door also goes both ways, as actors are welcome to contact her about roles they’re interested in. “I personally love using Instagram to promote my projects and let actors know what I’m casting so they can give their agents a heads up, and no one is left out.” While Tina Marie has personally never used TikTok, “I can see [how] TikTok would be beneficial for filmmakers depending on what they are looking for.” Just a few videos showcasing your talent on a social media app can put you on the swift train to fame, and McCulloch thinks that this can only help newer actors with opportunities to promote themselves and find their way onto the minds of directors and producers, even if that path is their Instagram or Twitter feed.

Once she has a few names in mind, she really tries to get a feel for if the actor is embodying “what the director and producer are looking for physically,” consulting demo reels and resumes and agents. No information is too much information, and precise care has to be taken to ensure that the faces representing an entire project will be the best fits for their characters.

In summer 2018, the sci-fi web series NarcoLeap premiered to critical acclaim and public popularity on Telus Optik TV, CBC Gem, and YouTube, eventually collecting millions in ad reach along with Canadian Screen Award and Writers Guild of Canada nominations. While McCulloch was very new at the time, creator Kate Green took a chance on her and “trusted I could cast the entire first season.” While Tina Marie wanted to ensure Green got the star cast she wanted, “I was also juggling all the administrative work that comes with casting,” including “all negotiations and contracts with the agents.” Through all that stress, though, came “such an incredible relationship” that McCulloch feels she has learned a great deal from.

(Courtesy of Liz Rosa)

The upcoming second season will be one of the first female-led indie BC-based projects to start production after the COVID-19 ‘reset’ shut down the film world. This season will introduce Luisa Velasquez, “the charismatic leader of a small group of Gen Z’s scattered around the world.” She has the same astral traveling ability as Kelsey, but she is much more practiced. These young mutants are at odds with Kelsey’s father, who runs a military organization hell-bent on stopping the group from using their powers to assassinate the members of the older generation “who are destroying the Earth for profit and power.” This sophomore outing will launch later in 2020.

Another recent project of McCulloch’s was Itsy Bitsy Spider, a psychological horror that was created for Crazy8’s Film Festival in Vancouver. The creators only had eight days to complete their short film, all the way from production to post, and while that sounds like a blast for everyone on the crew, it might have been even more so for Tina Marie. “The process was so much fun.” She praised the “incredibly talented” director Brody-Jo Scalise and producer Josh Farnworth, saying that “we instantly got along, and we had great chemistry as a team, which is so important when you’re casting.” Two of Tina Marie’s first clients (and favorite actors) Fletcher Donovan and Thomas Nicholson were eventually cast. “It was such a fantastic feeling I got to cast both of them for the same project.”

One of Tina Marie’s defining principles is that “there is no part-time project.” She feels it’s crucial to be available to talk with directors, producers, and agents at any time, twenty-four hours a day. She did note that things can get very intense as deadlines loom, but “there are no excuses for not getting your work done.”

Of course, these pressures have only increased with the ongoing barriers presented by COVID-19. In-room sessions for auditions have quickly become a thing of the past, with people now turning to their computer cameras to film self-tapes. Those self-tapes were cited as McCulloch’s biggest challenge. “I have seen some poor-quality tapes, and I can’t send that to directors and producers.” Casting directors often can’t get what exactly they need over an online call, especially if the performer hasn’t prepared well enough. However, one space where the self-tape has been used for years is the animation world. “Casting for animation is really fun, you get to listen to all these different and unique voices.” While many shows like One Day at a Time and The Blacklist turn to animation to still move their story forward in a socially distanced, set-free world, casting for animated projects could become more and more prevalent.

While taking the time and effort for that preparation is absolutely essential to ‘making it’ in the industry, a lot of young actors just don’t know where to go. This is why Tina Marie started TMC Talks, “where actors can book a private one-one session… It was created to inspire, assist, and empower actors looking for a clear vision on how to move forward in their careers.” McCulloch applies her casting director’s point of view with some expertise from her own performing past to guide young actors on whatever path they’d like to go down. (A tip you can get for free: You should never come in with an ego.)

When asked about her favorite part of the job, Tina Marie simply replied, “The actors!” In an industry that can sometimes be so set in its ways, constantly casting the same big names and recognizable faces over and over again, a casting director stands in a unique position to nurture and uplift young and new voices to a level that they may not have been able to achieve on their own. It’s certainly not an easy job, and there’s a lot riding on people like McCulloch whose livelihoods hinge on other people’s performances, but if Tina Marie has her heart in the right place, we doubt she’ll fail.

Make sure you’re looking out for the second season of NarcoLeap on YouTube and High Ball TV sometime later this year.

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